Ramadan in Northern Virginia’s ADAMS Center, which brings together all faiths in prayer, is a wonderful example of Jewish-Muslim interfaith understanding
By Andrea Barron
photography courtesy Andrea Barron
It may be hard to imagine Muslims praying every night of Ramadan in a synagogue, but that’s exactly what happens every year when the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and another synagogue open their doors for members of ADAMS during Ramadan. Muslims unroll their prayer rugs in the social hall to prepare for prayer, on the wall behind them is an abstract painting with the Star of David, a traditional Jewish symbol.
The ADAMS Center (All Dulles Area Muslim Society) is one of the largest mosques in the United States and a leader in interfaith relations. It serves over 6,000 families in the Washington DC and Northern Virginia area, the majority of whom are immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh or the children of South Asian immigrants raised in the United States. The mosque also has a sizable number of Arabs, including many Egyptians, Muslims from Africa and African Americans.
Every Ramadan, ADAMS holds an interfaith iftar, where it invites rabbis, ministers and spiritual leaders of other faiths to speak. “Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection and fasting, a time for people to give and share, a time when people of other faiths can learn more about Islam,” says ADAMS leader Rizwan Jaka, a Pakistani-American. “What better way to celebrate Ramadan than by inviting Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Mormons and everyone else to enjoy a delicious South Asian meal and learn about Islam?”
Mahmoud Arafa, an Egyptian who heads a design and communications firm, expresses his admiration for the local attempts at interfaith understanding. “I pray Jumaa in a Virginia synagogue which offers prayer space for Muslims every week, and have gotten to know the rabbi there. I remember asking him, ‘How on earth did Jews accept Muslims praying in a synagogue?’ I thought to myself, why don’t we Muslims invite Jews into our place of worship, and that is just what ADAMS has done! This was a real moment of pride for me as a Muslim.”
In April of this year, as Israel continued its aggressive settlement expansion plan in the West Bank and extremist settlers attacked Palestinian civilians claiming a “religious right” to “inherit the land,” militant Palestinians from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip were firing rockets targeting Israeli civilians celebrating Passover. But in Sterling, Virginia, a half-hour from Washington DC, Jews, Muslims and a few Christians were celebrating the Jewish holiday together at the ADAMS Center.
It was the sixth Passover seder organized by ADAMS and a local group — Washington Area Jews for Jewish-Muslim Understanding. A gathering of American Jews, Israelis, Syrians, Egyptians, Pakistani-American Muslims, Christian Pakistanis, a Palestinian, a Panamanian Muslim and ADAMS’ Sudanese-born Imam Mohamed Magid all sat around a large table in the mosque basement to celebrate the ancient Jewish holiday commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt over 3,000 years ago, and the universal desire for freedom.
Jaka, chair of the ADAMS Board of Trustees; ADAMS Interfaith Director Farhanahz Ellis; and members of the Jewish community welcomed everyone to the seder ahead of the ritual reading of the haggadah, a small book that recounts the story of Moses leading his people to freedom. They then shared a meal of matza (unleavened bread) and horseradish. Jews traditionally drink four cups of wine at the seder, but grape juice was a great substitute at this one.
Tarek Khalil, who emigrated from Cairo in 1997, helped organize the first seder with Jewish activists in 2002. “It was just a year after the September 11 attacks,” Tarek recounts. “The Muslim community here was under a lot of pressure because of misunderstandings about Islam. I thought the seder could help Americans understand authentic Islamic values with universal appeal like justice, fairness and charity. Egyptians tend to see American Jews as homogeneous, with one political stand on Israel. But this isn’t true. Lots of liberal Jews in the US disagree with aggressive Israeli policies, most of those at the seder genuinely believe in two states and fairness and justice for the Palestinians.”
One of them is Larry Greenfield, who grew up in an orthodox Jewish family in New York City and attended Jewish religious schools. He no longer considers himself orthodox, but is still active in his local synagogue. Greenfield has spoken out against Israeli policies going all the way back to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and like an increasing number of American Jews, worries that Israel could turn into an “apartheid state if it continues the occupation.”
Besides Imam Magid, known nationally for his interfaith outreach, public service and advocacy for women’s rights, there was another Muslim leader at the gathering, Nihad Awad. Awad is the founder and executive director of the Council on American-
Islamic Relations (CAIR), a grassroots Muslim organization with almost 30 chapters in the US. Awad explained that his personal goals for attending were the “need to listen deeply to those with whom we disagree, justice as an Islamic value and the perspective of a Palestinian refugee.” Awad was born in a refugee camp in Amman; his parents were expelled from Lydda, now the Israeli city of Lod, during the 1948 war.
Arafa also recognized the need to listen to the other. He found himself sitting next to Tal Harris, an Israeli from OneVoice, a grassroots Israeli-Palestinian peace group. “Before going to the mosque, Muslims take off their shoes,” recounts Arafa. “So I decided to take off my prejudice and engaged in a lively conversation with him. It was an amazing experience.”
Ibrahim Hussein, another Egyptian attending the celebration, was impressed by how much Muslims and Jews demonstrated genuine respect for each other’s traditions. “Too many Egyptians have been influenced by Saudi Arabia and are becoming like the Wahhabis,” he maintained. “They are forgetting the verses of tolerance and understanding and respect for other religions in the Quran, and that true Egyptian Islam is a moderate Islam.”
That interfaith respect came to life when the Muslims and one Jew went upstairs to pray twice during the seder. Dan Spiro, a Washington lawyer wearing a yarmulke (a Jewish skullcap) decided to pray right next to the Muslims. “Rizwan Jaka from ADAMS introduced me,” recalled Spiro, “and when the prayer was over, people greeted me warmly, which was no surprise since we had all had the privilege of praying together.”
Though the annual seder is one of the highlights of the ADAMS Center’s interfaith work, it is just one example. The mosque began collaborating with local churches many years ago in interfaith community service projects. Ellis, for instance, sits on the Board of Directors of an interfaith group that assists low-income and homeless people with food, housing, child care and other services, and gives talks about Islam at local churches.
Over the last decade, ADAMS has developed partnerships with Jewish congregations and the activists who organized the seder. In 2009, Imam Magid and Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, formerly with Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, were honored as “Washingtonians of the Year” by a local magazine for the public dialogues they conducted for Jews and Muslims. Imam Magid, also president of the Islamic Society of North America, has visited the Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps twice with other imams and led a group of Muslim leaders to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to denounce holocaust denial in the name of Islam. et
To learn more about ADAMS’s interfaith and Ramadan activities, visit the website www.adamscenter.org
Andrea Barron, a long-time Jewish activist for Israeli-Palestinian peace, has helped organize the annual interfaith seder with the ADAMS Center since its inception in 2002.