Local Jewish and Muslim women who have found that what unites them is greater than what divides them came together to bake hallah, chat, and enjoy traditional foods.
During the Feb. 21 program at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, the women watched as Rabbi Shira Stern, an educator at the synagogue and director of the Marlboro-based Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling, showed them how to braid the dough.
After the Jewish women recited Hamotzi over the freshly baked loaves, they joined together for a traditional dinner featuring specialties of their Middle Eastern, Pakistani, and Indian cultures.
“We came here in the interest of tolerance and peace and to learn about each other’s religion and culture,” said Zakiya Kathawala of Hazlet.
As the smell of the baking bread filled the temple, Muslim members of the group asked about the symbolism of the Hebrew lettering and items on the bima, including the Torah scrolls inside the ark.
Rabbi Donald Weber, who acknowledged he, rather than Stern, was handling the scrolls because “her hands were doughy,” took out a scroll originally from Iraq. As the women gathered around, he explained the painstaking way in which the text was written, its significance, and how it is read. At the Muslim women’s request, he also recited and translated a brief passage.
“The Torah is seen as a living being,” Weber explained. “That is why we reach out and touch and kiss it. We stand up when a Torah comes into a room.”
In response to a Muslim woman’s asking how many names Jews have for God, Weber said that tradition has it that there are 72 ways to describe the different aspects of God — “just like Don, Donald, abba, rabbi are all me,” he said.
“In the Koran we have 99 names for God, all describing his different attributes,” said one of the Muslim women, finding another commonality between the two religions.
When the Jewish women left the sanctuary to begin setting up for dinner, the Muslims stayed behind to lay out mats for their evening prayers facing the ark, which points in the direction of both Jerusalem and Mecca.
Stern said this was the third gathering for the group, which is in the process of forming its own chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, the national organization run by Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick. Olitzky had been scheduled to attend the gathering, but bowed out due to illness.
Stern said the local group was formed after she met Fatima Masood, the principal of the Islamic Center of Old Bridge Academy. The two met after leaving a Marlboro Board of Education meeting that drew numerous community members concerned about a board member’s anti-Muslim post on Facebook.
“We decided we needed to get together and talk,” said Stern.
“In the community there was no effort to get to know each other, so someone needed to take that first step,” said Masood.
Members hope to hold activities involving children and young people.
Other ideas for future programs include discussions about the Koran and Torah, holiday celebrations, and such family issues as divorce. At their next meeting, at the Majid Al-Wali mosque in Edison, the group will focus on Abraham, and his impact on both faiths. Traditionally, Jews are considered descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac, while Arabs are said to be descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael.
Stern pointed out that Genesis simply notes that after Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried their father — the first mention of Ishmael since he and his mother were sent away from his father’s house.
“How did he know?” asked Stern. “There were no cell phones. Ishmael knew because he and Isaac were brothers and they obviously stayed in touch.”
Naheed Rahmet of Manalapan said she is eagerly anticipating the next event. “I am amazed at this group. I’ve never seen anything like it; just learning the explanation of the prayers, just everything,” she said.