a bearded man gestures with his index finger
Rabbi Reuven Firestone speaks at “Understanding Muslim Neighbors” in Berkeley. (Photo/Deana Mitchell)

Muslim seminar for Jews doubles as grief gathering

The East Bay launch of an initiative for understanding between faith communities provided an unanticipated occasion for hope following the Oct. 27 attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead and several wounded.

“With every tragedy, we emerge to reaffirm humanity,” said Rod Cardoza, founder and executive director of Abrahamic Alliance International, a 10-year-old San Jose-based agency that seeks to unite Jews, Christians and Muslims for peace-building activities and poverty relief.

On Oct. 28, a day after the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue, a program titled “Understanding Muslim Neighbors,” led by Rabbi Reuven Firestone, took place at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley. It was AAI’s first step in expanding its hands-on “compassion events” to the East Bay.

The event, which was organized for Jews seeking to build bridges of understanding and respect toward Muslims, drew a crowd of about 60, with many expressing gratitude for being able to come together in the wake of the synagogue attack.

“Today I need an event like this to be with you,” said Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. “We need reasons for hope.”

Event organizer Rachel Biale echoed the sentiment, saying, “Everyone here feels we have to be together, to be doing our little bit to counter this murderous event.”

Firestone, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and the author of “An Introduction to Islam for Jews,” gave an overview of the misconceptions underpinning Jewish-Muslim relations. Not only did he employ Biblical and Quranic exegesis and parables to demonstrate the commonalities and differences between the two faiths, but he also drew on Popeye the Sailor and popular culture to show the pervasiveness of stereotyping Islam as a religion of zealots.

The media, he said, with its proclivity for conflict narratives, “is not a good place to learn about others.” He also said, “No religion has a monopoly on violence.”

For those unfamiliar with the nuances of a culture or religion, he said, the inability to distinguish between “moderate” and “extreme” makes it difficult to avoid comparing “the best of my tradition with the worst of theirs.”

In Firestone’s view, the most important misconception about Muslims is that they are all alike. “When you think that, you objectify and you dehumanize,” he said. “There are differences of religion, culture and opinion in the Muslim world, just as there are divisions among Jews.”

No religion has a monopoly on violence.

Firestone, a Santa Rosa native, said that the best way to navigate conflicting information about Muslim beliefs is to “make no assumptions.” He pointed to several Muslim traditions — gender segregation, modesty and ritual purification — that are widely misunderstood, and noted their similarities with traditional Jewish practices.

“So many of us tend to think the worst of others,” he noted.

“I go to a lot of these types of events,” one person noted, “but mostly I see liberal Jews like myself. Where are the Muslims?”

AAI’s Cardoza, noting that Muslims have been eager to participate in the alliance’s South Bay events, explained that the program seeks to maintain a balance of power through equal representation from each community.

Firestone elaborated: “When a Jewish group, for example, invites a Muslim or other group to its synagogue, it’s a nice gesture. But it can function as an inadvertent power statement that can make the others uncomfortable.”

In addition to its seminars on Islam (for Jews and Christians), AAI also offers presentations on Judaism (for Muslims and Christians) and on Christianity (for Jews and Muslims). The Oct. 28 event was co-sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica, Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, Urban Adamah, the JCC East Bay, and Berkeley congregations Beth El and Netivot Shalom.

At the close of the 2½-hour event, many attendees expressed enthusiasm (and some reservations) about future sessions.

One participant described herself as a secular Jew attracted to the idea of community action but uncomfortable with religion.

“We do social activism,” Firestone said. “No religious expectations.”

Attendee Steven Falk, who said he belongs to an interfaith group at Kehilla Community Synagogue, applauded the invitation to “explore our traditions and question one another.”

“Working together, sharing a meal — it opens doors to camaraderie,” he said.

Lezak Shallat
Lezak Shallat

Lezak Shallat grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with words.