Jews and Muslims Meet for an Evening of Food and Solidarity

Attendees fill their plates with vegetarian food before discussing their hopes and fears.
Attendees fill their plates with vegetarian food before discussing their hopes and fears. (The Ink/Matthew Seyler)

Around 50 Muslims and Jews met on a rainy Tuesday evening at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism synagogue for a Peace and Solidarity Potluck event to talk about their hopes and fears over dinner and dessert.

The event, co-hosted by the Upper West Side synagogue, the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee and the Jamaica Muslim Center, took place one day after a Muslim MTA worker was pushed down a set of stairs by a man who allegedly called her a terrorist.

“There’s a lot of tense emotion going on,” said Michelle Koch, director of operations for the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee. “But we’re not a protest movement; we’re about getting to know people and bridging gaps.”

Michelle Koch, director of operations for the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, addresses the crowd. (The Ink/Matthew Seyler)

Attendees filled their plates with samosas, falafel, tofu and other mostly vegetarian dishes from a buffet set up in the back of the room. When everyone had taken a seat at one of six tables, Koch asked that they introduce themselves to their neighbors.

Rachmiel Harris, 55, was a natural leader at his table. In addition to working with the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, Harris is the executive director of Abraham Children’s Interfaith Program in Queens, an organization with similar goals as the committee.

“There’s tremendous misunderstanding between Muslims and Jews,” said Harris. “The issue is not differences between them, but just getting to know the similarities.” A problem in uniting the two groups that he identified early on was that Muslims, though invited to interfaith events, would not attend because men and women were seated together.

Harris overcame this obstacle when he created his organization in 2006. “The women and the men were seated separately,” said Harris. “So the Muslims accepted that as the Jews respecting them.” Though some progressive Jews dislike enforced segregation based on gender, Harris says the move was uncontroversial with orthodox Jews, who already separate men and women during prayer services.

After introductions, the conversation at Harris’s table moved from the Black Lives Matter movement to the threat of anti-Semitism and, eventually, to the homemade vegan rosewater pudding brought to the table by a young Jewish woman of Syrian descent.

Despite his spirit of religious inclusion, the three men, one woman, and one person who identified as neither male nor female at Harris’s table were all Jewish. The room as a whole skewed that way–only about a fifth of attendees were Muslim.

The Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee hosts several events per month, including film screenings and panel discussions. Turnout is unpredictable, according to Koch. “Usually it’s balanced,” she said. “But sometimes it happens that more of one faith comes.”

One Muslim at the potluck was Sayed Sabir, 31, who helps plan events with the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee and studies global affairs at New York University. Sayed, who immigrated from Afghanistan in 2009, joined the group after meeting Koch at a Hanukkah celebration held at a mosque.

Sabir believes focusing on relations between Muslims and Jews is important because of global animosity between the two faiths. “We should not bring it here,” said Sabir. “We should see how we can do things together with the principle of coexistence in mind.”

The evening ended with the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Lauren Herrmann, 40, asking members of the audience to share their thoughts with the room. Several people spoke up with messages of togetherness.

Rabbi Lauren Herrmann asks attendees to share their thoughts with the room. (The Ink/Matthew Seyler)

According to Koch, bringing people together can be more effective than protesting. “It’s a slower process, but it’s longer lasting,” said Koch. “And it has a ripple effect.” A second Peace and Solidarity Potluck will be held at the Jamaica Muslim Center, date to be determined.