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“Weekend of Twinning” Brings Synagogues and Mosques Together to Foster Understanding

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2009

In November, more than 50 mosques and synagogues across the country participated in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Weekend of Twinning.  
With a stated premise that “we are all children of Abraham,” the weekend brought together synagogues and mosques to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in their communities.  
Rabbi Gregory Harris of Congregation Beth-El in Bethesda, Maryland said that when siblings don’t communicate, the outcome can be disastrous. Take Cain and Abel, a brotherly rivalry that led to cold-blooded murder. “What we realized is that we don’t know enough about each other,” said Harris. “We’re relatives in the Abrahamic sense, but we’re total strangers in every other sense of it.”  
Rabbi Harris told Washington Jewish Week (November 20, 2008) that, “There really are not enough forums for us to get together to talk about our commonalities and differences. We need to move past the headlines we read in the papers that are more often made by fanatics than by people interested in getting to know each other.” Beth-El paired with the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg to hold “Judaism 101 and Islam 101” classes on the fundamentals of each religion.  
Rabbi Marc Schneier, the founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who helped establish the weekend, said the goal is to “create a paradigm of Jewish-Muslim support that we can export to other parts of the world … We must take advantage of these opportunities, especially within the Muslim world, where we are now beginning to see the emergence of a more moderate centrist voice that has a particular interest in reaching out to the Jewish religion.” Rabbi Schneier met in New York in November with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a core supporter of the initiative.  
The weekend fulfills a pledge faith leaders took in 2007 at the World Conference of Dialogue in Madrid. Co-sponsors are the World Jewish Congress, the Muslim Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America.  
Daniel Spiro, author of the novel Moses the Heretic (Aegis Press), told Washington Jewish Week (October 16, 2008) that the phrase Judeo-Christian should be replaced with “Abrahamic.” He notes that, although the world faces a real problem — Islamic terrorism, the religion also contains elements that are “uniquely beautiful,” and that “We Jews need to seek them out. Most of us viscerally appreciate Christian ethics as a useful add-on to the foundation of Jewish ethics. But when we think about Islam, most of us don’t appreciate what is profoundly beautiful. We basically see Islam as a violent outgrowth of monotheism. I want that changed.”  
In Spiro’s view, “To borrow from another religion, if we want peace in Israel we need to generate good karma. If we embrace what is beautiful in Islam and Muslims begin to embrace what is beautiful in Judaism, we can begin to produce a situation that might lead to peace.”  
In July, Houda Ezra Nonoo, presented her credentials to President George W. Bush as Ambassador to the U.S. from Bahrain, making her the first Jew to represent an Arab country in Washington, D.C.  
In her first interview, with Washington Jewish Week (December 4, 2008), she said “Bahrain is an open and tolerant society and it doesn’t matter what religion you are. I’m Jewish, but I’m also Bahraini. My grandfather served on the Municipality Council as early as 1934, so we’ve always been integrated into society.”  
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as many as 1,500 Jews lived and prospered in tranquility in Bahrain. According to Washington Jewish Week, “Things changed in 1948 with establishment of the state of Israel. Riots erupted, the sole synagogue was closed and most of Bahrain’s Jews emigrated, leaving for Great Britain. … Currently, about 35 Jews live among Bahrain’s 700,000 inhabitants. This is a constant source of pride for Bahraini officials … In November, King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, during a meeting in New York, beseeched about 50 Bahraini Jewish expatriates to consider returning home — a move relatively unheard of in the rest of the Arab world.”  
Ambassador Nonoo says, “This was something I never expected in my life, to be ambassador in the United States. I think I’ve made a big impact on a lot of people, being female and representing Bahrain in the most important country in the world.” She reports that her reception by fellow Arab diplomats in Washington has been incredibly warm: “The Syrian ambassador recently hosted a dinner to honor me. The Iraqi ambassador had one … and Oman is having one. They’ve really made me feel at home.”  
On Yom Kippur, Nonoo attended Orthodox services. She may not, however, have any relationship with the Embassy of Israel, because Bahrain and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. She states: “Understand that Israel and Judaism are two different things … I’ve never felt any discrimination or anti-Semitism. My father was a very well-known figure. When he died in 1993 in a car accident, the amount of people who came to offer condolences — including the emir, the prime minister and the emir’s other brother — was amazing. They all showed us respect.”  
Rabbi Bruce Ludwig, senior rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest Jewish congregations in North America, recalled to The Washington Examiner (Dec. 21, 2008) that “Shortly after 9/11, I invited Bishop John Chane (Episcopal bishop of Greater Washington and the National Cathedral) and Professor Akbar Ahmed (Ibn Kaldun scholar of Islamic studies at American University) to share with them the idea of starting an Abrahamic faith dialogue. My simple premise was based on what my mother told me as a child: Stay away from strangers. If these two men and their faiths were to remain strangers to me, I would only grow to fear them, not know them. Soon after, we held one of the first Abrahamic faith forums in America. We also forged a friendship that has been transformative. These men are my friends, my mentors, my sounding boards.”  
Though Rabbi Ludwig notes that, “… we do not agree on every social or political question, we have deep respect for, and a deep honesty with, each other. Having others challenge my ideas and demand clarity of creed is a powerful and uplifting experience. They have helped me to become a stronger Jew and a better rabbi. To my children, the answer to what it means to be a Christian or Muslim is not abstract; it is the love they know from John and Akbar, who join us at our table and who teach us by example.”

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