Last evening, a group of people congregated on the 7th floor community room of an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They had assembled to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day. So why am I writing about it? Gatherings were being held all over New York, all over the world for that matter. I am writing about it because this group was exceptional. A Muslim family had hosted it, and Muslims and Jews had come together to honor the victims of the holocaust.
A few months ago I had received an email from Rabbi Avram Mlotek. Our paths had crossed earlier at an interfaith event in a church. He asked if I could convene a group of young Muslims to join a group of young Jews for a Sabbath dinner in his home. The travel ban had just been announced and Muslims were feeling victimized. We came together, the youth bonded over a home-cooked meal, and we experienced what it was like to have one’s fears acknowledged, and know that there were people who were ready to stand by us. I watched the young, huddled on the sofas, chatting about anything and everything, boundaries of ethnicity and religion erased. Once is not enough. We need to keep this going, keep meeting, build friendships….
“I would like to host the next event,” Emaan said to me as we walked back to the train station. She was two steps ahead of me.
As the subway rumbled uptown, we got immersed in our event planning: the venue, the guest list, the food options, the invites…. By the time my husband and I got off at the 72nd street station, we had crystalized our plan.
So here we were last night, the same group and more—oh we had over 25 people—and they just kept coming as Emaan and her husband Zaki kept bring out more chairs, worrying if she had enough food (she did, and more). The last time we had met, it was Jews acknowledging our pain over the travel ban; this time it was Muslims acknowledging the pain of the Jewish people, and remembering the darkest period in Jewish history. Isn’t that what humanity is all about! Isn’t that what the Golden Rule teaches us –love thy neighbor as you love yourself.
We gathered in a circle and Rabbi Avram, grandchild of a holocaust survivor, shared a song, ‘Moments of Faith’ composed by Mordkhe Gebirtig during the holocaust. Even in the darkest moments, people wrote poetry, giving life, fulfilling spiritual yearning. “A time will come when the voice of the holocaust survivor will become a thing of the past, but this song which reflects their mood, will endure. Even in the hardest times, they sang,” he said. We took turns, reading from the song (in English), and the Rabbi closed singing the song in Yiddish, his first language. He shared a photo—Jewish men and women, crowded, trying to move to a safe place—and likened it to the images of Syrian refugees.
“The world failed the Jewish community,” Laila was speaking on behalf of the Muslims in the room. “It is our responsibility to make sure that this never happens again.” What struck a chord and got conversation going is when she quoted the Quran, “If you kill one person, it is as though you have killed all of humanity…and if you save a life, it is as though you have saved all of humanity.”
A young man raised his hand. “That is similar to what is in our scripture,” and then went ahead to quote it.
When Laila talked about compassion and unity as a dominant attribute in the mind of Islam, that got a buzz going. Rahman and Raheem, Arabic for compassionate and merciful; and Rahameen and HaRaRahman having the same essence in the Jewish scripture. Heads were nodding in affirmation and awe over the similarities, not just in beliefs, but also in language. The hidden messages in Semitic scriptures.
We parted with a ‘we will schedule another event.’ But what I see happening is that aside from events—which will happen of course—is that one-on-one relationships are developing. I can picture the group of three who were sitting cross-legged on the rug, chatting animatedly, continuing the conversation next week in Starbucks, or wherever. They are not going to wait for another event to reconnect. And so on. That is the magic of these gatherings. You come together for a solemn event, and you leave having more friends than you came in with.
In my opening paragraph, I mentioned that this group was exceptional. The exception. My dream is that one day soon, this will no longer be the exception. That one day, it will be the norm.
PS: I was just reminded to share with you a story I related at the event, the story of a conversation in heaven between Prophet Muhammad and Prophet Moses, peace be upon them. Here it is:
If It Weren't For Moses