A group of 28 imams and rabbis from 10 European countries arrived in New York and Washington this week for whirlwind visits to interfaith centers to break new ground on Muslim-Jewish relations and combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in each other’s communities.
They will receive instructions from teams of American rabbis and imams who will show the Europeans how American-style ecumenism works on the ground. It’s the first visit of its kind to involve foreign Muslim and Jewish leaders coming to the U.S., where interreligious ties have a much longer history and track record of success.
“Our success in America has given us the faith and confidence to reach out to Europe,” said Sayyid Mohammad Syeed, national director of interfaith and community alliances for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), one of three hosts for the visit.
“We need them to witness firsthand what we are doing. I have been working toward this all my life.”
The impetus for the five-day visit came after “exponential” growth of anti-Semitism among Muslims in Britain, France and elsewhere in Europe, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) and chairman of the World Jewish Congress American Section.
“We want to help strengthen those in the Islamic world who are projecting this voice of moderation and to help them take their religion back from the cadre of extremists and fanatics in Islam,” he said.
The Europeans’ first meeting Monday is with Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali, head of the Islamic Cultural Center, New York’s largest mosque, who will talk about his contacts with the FFEU. Then it’s on to the United Nations, where the delegation will hear from Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, the continent’s highest body of Islamic jurisprudence.
What follows is an afternoon of panels at the Islamic Cultural Center, each with a local rabbi teamed with an imam. The day wraps up at the new Yankee Stadium, where participants will watch the Yankees play the Baltimore Orioles.
On Tuesday, the Europeans will visit Ellis Island and ground zero and hear from Robert Jackson, the lone Muslim member of the New York City Council.
On Wednesday morning, the group takes a bus to Washington to tour the Holocaust museum. Rabbi Jack Moline, leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria and vice chairman of the Interfaith Alliance advocacy group, and Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a mosque in Sterling, will speak on preventing future holocausts.
After a tour of the U.S. Capitol, the group will meet with Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, both Muslims, along with two leaders of the unofficial Congressional Jewish Caucus, Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Robert Wexler of Florida.
The delegation then attends a dinner hosted by the ISNA at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, where they will hear from Imam Yahya Hindi of Georgetown University and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, North American chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights.
On Thursday, the group will visit the White House to meet with Joshua Dubois, executive director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. After lunch at the Saudi Embassy, the group flies home.
“The great challenge of the 21st century in inter-religious dialogue is to find the path to narrow the gap between Muslims and Jews worldwide,” said Mr. Schneier of FFEU. “The foundation, which I co-founded 20 years ago, is known for our work in black-Jewish relations. We own this issue nationwide.”
ISNA also mounted an unprecedented outreach to American Christians and Jews at its annual conference earlier this month in Washington, sponsoring a private interfaith reception for 400 leaders from various religions and a separate speech by the Rev. Rick Warren, one of America’s best-known evangelical pastors.
“Muslims feel proud to welcome people of other faiths,” ISNA spokesman Mohamed Elsanousi said at the time.
Two years ago, the FFEU ventured into Muslim-Jewish relations, convening a summit of rabbis and imams in New York in November 2007. They combined forces for a public service announcement on CNN in early 2008 that denounced both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
On a weekend in November 2008, they “twinned” 50 mosques and synagogues in cities across the country to encourage mutual visits and partnerships. A second such weekend is planned this year for Nov. 13-15.
“We received calls from faith leaders in England, Sweden and Australia who want to take part in that,” Mr. Schneier said. He organized this week’s visit, which, he added, is costing the FFEU about $150,000.
The rabbi said there have been breakthroughs, such as the “gratifying” response he got from Muslim leaders in May when four Muslim men were arrested for allegedly planning to bomb two New York synagogues.
“But I appreciate the fact this is a very long process,” he said. “It took the Jewish people 40 years to reach their goal after they left Egypt.”