Muslims, Jews break pita

The Brooklyn Paper
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You don’t see this very often. A group of Muslim men is bowing towards Mecca, kneeling in prayer and chanting “Allahu akbar” in the basement of a synagogue.

Later, the men and their wives break their Ramadan fast in a sukkah, the outdoor tent where observant Jews eat dinner during this holy period.

I was tempted to check the weather report for news of an underworld frost, but then I remembered I was in Park Slope, where not only do lions lie down with lambs, Met fans begrudgingly respect Yankee fans, Tea Lounge caffeine addicts occasionally go to Naidre’s, but, yes, Muslims break pita bread with Jews.

Still, the sight of a group of sons and daughters of Ismail worshipping in a house typically filled with the sons and daughters of Isaac was shocking in this day and age. A decade after Rodney King beseeched, “Can we all just get along?” few seem to be doing that.

Least of all Muslims and Jews.

But last Sunday, the congregation of the Park Slope Jewish Center, which bills itself as “an egalitarian synagogue … defined by our inclusive spirit,” watched a group of their Islamic counterparts partake of their prayer ritual.

First, one of the leaders called the group to prayer. He sounded melodic and calming — which is a lot different than the muezzin one hears through thousands of tinny loudspeakers at 6 am in Istanbul. (Full disclosure: That was one tough morning, I gotta say.)

The Muslims bowed, chanted, mumbled their prayers, stood up and repeated the process, proving the old adage that everyone else’s religious practices seem completely ridiculous — until you realize that your tribe does exactly the same thing (right down to the bending, the mumbling, the chanting).

Rabbi Carie Carter said she organized the visit so that her flock could look across the Middle Eastern abyss and see their brothers, not their enemies.

“This is our ‘Islam 101,’” she said. “When ignorance and fear guide so many in our country, we felt it was important to get to know each other.”

Her counterpart, Muslim spiritual leader Debbie Almontaser, stood at the altar and said, “I have goosebumps standing here where a rabbi stands. This is what the world needs from all of us.”

After the mutual public display of affection, everyone went out to the sukkah to get to know each other over plates of hummous, baba ganoush and a slightly incongruous, yet delicious, fusilli with pesto.

The groups, though friendly, were still feeling each other out.

“There aren’t any political questions,” said congregation president David Nachman. “This is just a baby step.”

Just how far is the Park Slope Jewish Center willing to go in its search for tolerance? Well, not only will the Muslims be back soon, Carter promised, but the very next night, on Oct. 9, the shul invited a group of Catholic educators to talk about the Holocaust.

Catholics and Muslims, one day apart. That is one egalitarian synagogue.

Of course, there’s a sad irony to all this cross-religion brotherhood. Sure, in Park Slope, everyone can get along, but on the other side of world, people kill each other over cartoons in a newspaper or a coveted piece of desert.

Every day, press releases come across my desk touting the latest forum to discuss our millennial religious bloodletting. St. Francis College, for instance, is having an all-day “literary conference” on Saturday called “Faith and Violence: Jihad and Holy War.”

The school has even invited the chairman of Britain’s Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony to speak.

But just like Debbie Almontaser and Rabbi Carie Carter, the head of a council for “religious and racial harmony” is already in the “can’t-we-all-get-along” camp.

We’d really be onto something if we could fix the hundreds of millions of other Earthlings who aren’t.

Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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