Judaism and Islam in America


Grantees in this story

A Game Plan for Growing Interfaith Connections 

How can faith communities survive in a twenty-first-century western world? Modernity offers many benefits to people of all religions and cultures, yet the openness of American life with its seemingly limitless options has dramatically changed religious experience. In short, it is harder than ever for a community of faith to take its future for granted.

Twenty-first-century challenges affect American Jews and Muslims alike. When it comes to following scripture and maintaining traditions and religious identity in a largely secular society, the two groups have a lot in common. But despite the over 1,000-year history of close relationship and religious dialogue, opportunities to conduct open conversations and share their learning are rare, especially given the atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstanding caused by world events. What to do?

From 2010 to 2014, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City and two project partners, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and Hartford Seminary, found a way to advance Jewish-Muslim engagement and dialogue nationwide. Their joint project, Judaism and Islam in America, began with a series of three workshops that fostered interfaith discussions and exchanges between scholars and religious leaders, and ended with other Jewish-Muslim projects that meaningfully expanded on the conversation: two groundbreaking publications and four Jewish-Muslim pilot engagement projects.

Burton L. Visotzky, a professor at JTS, recalls the germination of the idea: “There was a new chancellor at the seminary, Arnold Eisen, who encouraged me to push forward in interreligious dialogue work,” Visotsky says. “I had been making inroads in the Muslim community, but wanted to go further.” Visotsky got in touch with a friend, Mohamed Elsanousi, director of ISNA, whose mission is to foster the development of the Muslim community, interfaith relations, civic engagement, and better understanding of Islam. They held a meeting where Visotzky raised the idea of an interfaith program, and ISNA’s director general responded, “What took you so long?” As Visotzky puts it, “He fired the starter pistol.”

“This was a time when a program was needed, particularly between Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States,” Elsanousi says. “It was very clear our communities needed to choose from two options: either strengthen our relationship and increase trust here at home by trying to have Muslims learn Judaism from their neighbors and the reverse; or watch what’s happening in the Middle East and bring that tension here. We chose the first option, and the “Judaism and Islam in America” project was born.”

The former president of ISNA, Ingrid Mattson, was also in favor of the program. She was then the director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. An academic unit within the country’s oldest nondenominational Christian seminary, it supports the premise that through intensive study and academically guided dialogue, interreligious respect and cooperation can develop. Mattson brought the Hartford institution in as a second Muslim partner with JTS.

Recognizing that there were too few opportunities for Jewish and Muslim scholars and religious leaders to gather and exchange their learning and insight in a secure, open environment, the program leaders set a goal for the series of academic conferences to “spill over into places where Judaism and Islam have similar arcs, as well as into advocacy and congregational alliance,” Visotzky says. “We wanted not just to talk, but also to do good in communities and interfaith relations.” A survey was sent out to Conservative congregations to assess interest in interfaith activity (Reform congregations had already participated in a similar program), and to seed the message of helping Islam in America to normalize as Judaism had done in order to become a more regular part of the American fabric.

Finding Common Ground

In 2010 the religious leaders launched their first workshop for Jewish and Muslim scholars from universities around the country at JTS in New York City, focusing on what the two groups have in common as members of minority religions in America. The objective was to share experiences, make connections, and readjust their view of the “other.” Carnegie Corporation of New York and several Jewish and Muslim cultural foundations provided funding for the event, hosted jointly by JTS, Hartford Seminary, and ISNA.

         Visotzky says there are some significant obstacles to communication in everyday life between Jews and Muslims. “First and foremost, the Muslim community is primarily a series of immigrant communities: Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Middle Eastern, Arab, Persian, and more,” he explains. “Each community lives in its own silo, with its own mosque, and not much interaction with other Muslims. ISNA is helping, and wants to bring together this diverse population to speak in one voice—American Islam. We are trying to help get Islamic leadership trained here, PhDs, chaplains, etc., and to have an Islamic seminary here to ordain imams. Now they are all are born and trained abroad, which means they’re getting a perspective of local issues where they are trained rather than here where they live.”

At the workshop, two dozen scholars discussed the issues both groups had experienced in adapting to the traditions of twenty-first-century mainstream America. This first exchange established that there is ample common ground between the Muslim- and Jewish-American communities. Based on the success of this workshop, the participants decided to continue with a second meeting, this time at the Hartford Seminary, focusing on their work in scriptural interpretation and law. The intent was to fortify connections from the first gathering, plan for continued collaboration, and reach out to an expanded group of participants.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of JTS’s Division of Religious Leadership, took part in the both gatherings, first in New York and then in Connecticut. “It was thrilling to meet a new set of colleagues who shared similar academic and communal concerns while inhabiting very different cultures,” he says. “At the first session in New York, I recall discussing the respective arcs of historical experience for Jews and Muslims in America. We also spoke about sacred scriptures and began the process of comparison which always challenges us to reconsider our own assets and present them with a new perspective. This experience reminded me that our identity is always contextual—we curate an exhibition of ourselves from our many self-images, some of which have long been buried in storage.”

At the Hartford meeting, where Nevins found the focus closer to his own research interests, he was pleased to make a presentation on Jewish law (halakhah), which was followed by a Muslim scholar speaking about Islamic law (fiqh). Other participants spoke about Midrash and tafsir, the respective traditions of literary interpretation. “I also enjoyed praying beside one another, and the festive dinner that brought community members to the conversation,” he says. “Because this encounter involved not only Jews and Muslims but also Christian scholars, it was a constant experience of comparison.”

Like many of the participants, Nevins became aware that Jews and Muslims are quite similar to one another in the legal focus of their religious cultures and in the intensive study of language. But it was also clear that these relatively liberal Muslims did not come from a reformed tradition, and had some characteristics that he found more similar to Orthodox Jews. “It seemed that we Conservative Jews had much more in common with our Christian colleagues, including the Catholics.”

Also present at the second meeting was Heidi Hadsell, president of Hartford Seminary. She joined the Judaism and Islam project through Mattson, who had left the seminary after the first round of workshops. “I became her substitute,” Hadsell explains, “and had the privilege of being a fly on the wall, listening to the conversation, and getting to know all the people. I learned a lot from hearing the two traditions encounter each other.” Why Hartford? Hadsell describes it as an unusual place with a unique mission that’s relevant for religious leadership all over the world. “You can’t be a good religious leader unless you know people of other religions,” she says. “Hartford Seminary’s interfaith work goes back more than a hundred years. Already in the late nineteenth century there was interest
in Islam.”

Hadsell explains that the seminary’s purpose at that time was mainly to train Protestant missionaries for work in the Middle East. Eventually the seminary developed a large library and a faculty centered on Islam, and, in the 1950s, decided to stop conversion and take all the faculty and the library and open a center for the study of Islam. “Today we have this center that attracts students from Christian and Muslim communities all around the world, “ she says, “and a thriving Islamic chaplaincy program started 18 years ago at the request of the armed services.”

The genius of the Judaism and Islam project was “that it did what interfaith academics do, which is talk in small groups and at a relatively high level of abstraction as they were finding things in common between the faiths in terms of scripture and its uses,” Hadsell says. The two groups were most alike in taking scripture seriously, and to a very high degree, but with very different methodologies, she adds. “There can be deep differences, but participants felt free to be individual. And there was always good will. The first time you meet there’s the joy of encounter and crossing boundaries; the second time it’s a consolidation of that, and meeting old friends.”

Zainab Alwani, a professor of Islamic Studies from Howard University, also joined the second group for what she describes as a very academic discussion among the scholars about scripture and Sharia law, and about “how to practice our beliefs and laws all within the American society. We also talked about the role of Jewish and Islamic scholars within the American academy: ‘How do you teach about your theology?’ I still remember many of the discussions and dialogues,” she says. “I think the main critical point was to be honest. Share what you honestly feel, how you think. From the beginning this was well established by scholars from both faiths— honesty about what you know and what you practice.”

Because the focus was on a community of faith and beliefs, there was nothing about politics, according to Alwani. “The secret of the success of the meeting was that its focus was the well-being of people, communities, and societies,” she says. “When there’s politics, most of the time it’s complicated and has its own agendas or interests that take away the purity of intention. As religious scholars or a faithful community, the intention is to build a righteous community of families and individuals, while you discuss practical aspects of daily life: how to live, pray, deal with school, children, in-laws. It was two different groups working very hard to advance the well-being of their communities…to feel that you are one human family. At the end, that was my feeling.”


Spreading the Word

The first two dialogues were so successful for establishing common ground and sharing interpretations of law and scripture that the network of scholars and leaders resolved to broaden the impact of the series through community outreach. The third and final workshop, “From Classroom to Congregation,” included Muslim and Jewish congregational leaders in addition to academics. It took place in Washington, D.C. and ended with a tour of the White House and a briefing with the community engagement
staff there.

Experiences from the earlier workshops shaped the format for the last. The daylong closed sessions allowed for frank and open discussion that would not have been possible in a public forum. Hospitality was critical in building trust and the creation of networks to continue the conversations that began at the workshop. A well-attended and favorably received public forum was held during which gleanings from the workshop sessions and the larger context of the need for dialogue were shared.

In this final round, the public presentation was more accessible than the closed convenings, Hadsell says. “There was also the discernment to create, Sharing the WellA Resource Guide for Jewish-Muslim Engagement, that could be put in the hands of Jewish congregations, mosques, maybe churches, too,” she adds. “It would be aimed at lay people who are in the communities, so the fruit of the project wasn’t just academic papers and relationships, but was much more widely spread.” Hadsell got a big supply of the publication and sent it to many leaders of congregations, where it was widely and enthusiastically received. “At the beginning there was some trepidation, she recalls. “Are the communities involved going to support their own people getting involved? In the end, it was extremely well thought out and collegial.”

Sharing the Well was the culmination of almost five years of creating bridges of understanding and partnership between American Muslim and Jewish leaders. It was created to answer the question at the heart of the third workshop: Would it be possible to bring the same level of relationship-building to the broader Jewish and Muslim communities in America? The publication’s goal was to highlight what Muslims and Jews in America today share, and to use this as a starting point for deeper learning and dialogue. It contains:

1. Guidelines from experts in the field on how to begin and sustain open and productive interreligious dialogue.

2. Essays by religious, academic, and communal leaders from both religions, centered on values and traditions that Jews and Muslims share, which serve as content for interreligious learning and engagement. These essays cover nine subjects that Muslim and Jewish authors explore independently, and they include discussion questions to help spark conversation.

3. Twenty-four diverse examples of Jewish-Muslim engagement programs from around the country —inspiration for readers to create and expand such programs in their communities.

The book is divided into three sections: “Caring for Others,” “Family and Heritage,” and “Religious Life.” It also contains chapters on “Guidelines for Interreligious Dialogue” and “Shared Learning and Discussion,” and
a glossary.

The book’s editors deliberately chose to omit discussion of the Israel-Palestine dispute, realizing that it casts its shadow over every Muslim-Jewish dialogue and inhibits the mutual understanding and trust needed for friendly conversation around sensitive issues. Kim Zeitman Kaplan, who edited Sharing the Well along with Elsanousi, remembers the discussion surrounding this topic, including a Muslim scholar’s remark that “you must walk before you can run.” As she explained, “If you want people with little background to see each other as people, bringing up a divisive issue is not helpful. We want to create relationships and understanding, so people aren’t talking to the enemy but to their friend. When you meet someone for the first time, you ask the easy questions—not politics. Once you’re friends you can listen to each other’s opinion. We do acknowledge other approaches in the book; it’s all a matter of how you handle it.”

Creating the publication was more complex and time consuming than Kaplan had been prepared for, but she says it was important to get the structure and topics right. It was equally important to add to, not repeat, what was already available. While everything in the guide had to be factual and correct, it was essential that the writers insert their own experiences as well, as the guide was not meant to be used by a facilitator but by people telling their own stories.

“It was a big accomplishment, and even if it hadn’t been published, the process alone was very enlightening for the scholars involved,” Kaplan says. “Although the authors did not have time to talk to each other about their writing plans within the scope of their assignments, in the resulting guide, seeing the parallels that come out organically illustrates how much the two groups share,” she says. “It was a huge success for writers and readers, and for men and women from all areas of Jewish and Muslim life —a spectrum of voices. The fact that you can use it as you see fit is a big plus. It can be an ongoing process, or for holiday time, whatever is relevant to a particular community. It offers many opportunities for people everywhere. “

Kaplan says the book really came to life for her about a month after the project ended when she was invited to speak on a panel on interfaith work at the ISNA convention, which drew tens of thousands of Muslims from all over the country. “It was one of the most wonderful experiences ever,” Kaplan says. “It was August and, not realizing how the other women there would be dressed, I was the only one with bare calves. No one looked at me strangely, but I felt the difference. Since I was obviously not Muslim, people asked why I was there, and when I said I’m Jewish, everyone was so hospitable, and I was invited to speak to people everywhere.”



Elsanousi, who is now Director of External Relations, Secretariat of the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, believes “history will report that we started this kind of relationship. We can see there is trust building, a level of cooperation, and it is possible to enhance understanding between two communities. When I tell people wherever I go, they can’t believe it.” Active in international interfaith work, he was recently in the Middle East meeting with religious leaders “from both sides” and brought Sharing the Well along. “They welcomed it and see it as a milestone,” he says. “It’s good for our society as a whole and reflects positively around the world, particularly in Europe. It’s not as good everywhere as here.”

Another product of the three-year program was a special issue of the academic journal The Muslim WorldFounded in 1911 and sponsored by Hartford Seminary since 1938, the journal disseminates scholarly research on Islam and Muslim societies and on Christian-Muslim relations. This special issue —Judaism and Islam in America—includes articles dealing with the shared challenges of interpreting, or reinterpreting, the religions’ approach to sacred texts, traditions, and law. Taken together, these writings confirm that the struggle to maintain authenticity while remaining relevant in a pluralistic, democratic society is nearly identical for Jews and Muslims. As Alwani writes in the introduction, “In addressing the daunting social challenges confronting the community of all faith groups, perhaps a collective effort by the interreligious community would introduce a new chapter in interfaith relations.”

Reaching Out

The workshops helped to set the groundwork for dialogue-based pilot projects between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland. Held in –2013–2014, these projects forged genuine bonds between the two communities, and participants have pledged to do similar programs in the future. The general premise of Judaism and Islam in America—to take the alliances formed among the academics and bring them into the wider community—came to fruition in four pilot projects:

•Adas Israel Congregation and Masjid Muhammad, Washington, D.C.: The two congregations gathered for an evening exploring the role of the Jewish- and Muslim-American communities in the American Civil Rights Movement.

•Georgetown University Jewish and Muslim Student Organizations: These student groups met in the Jewish gathering space on campus, Makóm, to share dinner, dialogue, and a screening of the critically acclaimed documentary, Little Town of Bethlehem.

•Beth Shalom Congregation of Columbia County, Maryland, and Howard County Muslim Council: The congregations developed a program with a series on Talking about Israel.

•Temple Rodef Shalom and McLean Islamic Center in Virginia: A dinner and movie event (Enemy of the Reich: A Muslim Woman Defies the Nazis in WWII Paris) was held at Temple Rodef Shalom.

“We didn’t know how successful we could be on the community level,” Visotzky says, “but for both Muslims and Jews it was a marvelous outcome.” Elsanousi sees a need for such a program “not only here at home but globally. There is a need to find ways to communicate this kind of work,” he says. “The larger society needs to know Sharing the Well, and we need to find a way to do that.” According to Alwani, “You come out of this kind of discussion— wow! We really need to know how to approach each other and get to know each other in a positive way. And to try even for a short time to leave your biases and judgments away from this kind of conversation, and see what the result
will be.”