A bishop, a rabbi and a motley assortment of Jews and Quakers walk into a mosque…. The opening of a bad joke or the start of a remarkable night?
It began with an email from Rabbi Brent asking whether we would be interested in attending an iftar at an Islamic community center (not a mosque) about 30 minutes south of Beacon. We said yes, not knowing what to expect, not even knowing that iftar is the Arabic word for the meal that breaks the 30-day fasts of Ramadan. I fussed over what to wear, whether to cover my head. Typically, Chip didn’t fuss at all. Not his style. But then again, I have never been aware of any Muslim restrictions on men’s attire.
Somewhat nervous, we arrived at the Hudson Valley Islamic Community Center in Mohegan Lake at the appointed hour, found our way into the entry area. And waited. A few members of the Muslim community drifted in. A few Jews from other congregations in Putnam Valley, Peekskill and Somers. A couple from the Quaker Meeting House in Scarsdale. And a Ukrainian Bishop, who in short order told us that his father was Jewish. Turns out that he leads a predominantly Latino Catholic church in Peekskill (not affiliated with Roman Catholic). Soon, we were joined by our host Zaed Ramadan, a gregarious, dyed-in-the-wool American whose love of the Mets dictated the color of the linoleum flooring in the entry area.
We were not in a mosque but rather in a sprawling community center that had once been a Catholic school. It included the customary classrooms, a gym, playing fields, an enormous cafeteria and kitchen and, not surprisingly, brightly lit prayer rooms devoid of decoration except for the red and gold patterned prayer rungs lined up perfectly to face east. The hallways were hung with colorful posters explaining Islam and its connections to other religions.
Zaed joined us somewhat breathless and a little later than expected because he and his family were responsible for the iftar that night – a complete meal for 100-200 very hungry people. We gathered that for Zaed this was not a big problem because he runs a number of cafes and has a catering business. But, a different family hosts the iftar for the 30 days of Ramadan, either preparing the entire meal themselves or having all or part of it catered.
Zaed took us on a tour of the center, explaining that the community had tried unsuccessfully to establish itself in Chappaqua, but after considerable time and expense had cast about for another site. They had found this abandoned school in 2006 and had begun extensive renovations, which are continuing. The center is used for everything from prayer, to classes to basketball tournaments. The children attend religious school on Saturdays and there are additional lessons in the Quran during the week for adults and children alike. There is always a communal dinner on Friday nights (the start of the Muslim Sabbath), at which all are welcome. We quickly got the sense that HVICC may be the most progressive and diverse Muslim community just about anywhere. If I am not mistaken, it has an entire committee devoted to interfaith outreach. But back to the tour….
Zaed explained some of the traditions and significance of Ramadan, which celebrates the revelation of the Quran to Mohammed. It is a time of inward reflection, marked by what Zaed referred to as an inner jihad, a term that he used to describe the personal struggle in which a Muslim seeks to better himself during Ramadan. He distinguished this personal struggle from the far less attractive connotations that have come to be associated with the word “jihad.” Ramadan is a period in which charity (Sadaq) is emphasized. During Ramadan, fasting begins at sun-up and lasts until the last rays of light leave the sky. For our visit, that meant promptly at 8:20 pm. Zaed was joined in his explanations by his cheerful partner in interfaith outreach, Asad Ba Yunus, one of only two Muslim federal judges in the U.S.
Together Zaed and Asad explained what would take place at the iftar. Just before 8:20, there would be a call to prayer broadcast through the PA system. The assembled faithful would break their fast with dates and water and would then enter the prayer room for a brief prayer, men in the front, women in the back, a tradition that we were told seeks to protect women’s and men’s modesty. Children, divided like their parents, by sex. The meal itself, taken in the expansive cafeteria, would follow the brief prayer. Of course, the children raced to the food the minute the prayer was done. Although HVICC does not prohibit men and women from sitting together, it was apparent that the cafeteria divided by sex, with women on the left and men on the right.
Looking around the cafeteria, I saw people of every color and national heritage from South Asian to African, mixing together in what can only be described as a veritable United Nations of Muslim faithful. Despite our religious differences, every single person we encountered was eager to make us feel at home.
I sat with a group of women of varying ages. Amy, Paula, Esme and Minna in short order dispelled any lingering unpleasant notions I might have had about Islam, not by way to preachiness but rather by way of genuine kindness and personal example. We chatted about the tradition of separating men and women. Amy explained that she was delighted to sit with her friends, as she saw quite enough of her husband. Esme, the youngest among us with an adorably restless 9 month old on her lap listened, somewhat in disbelief I think, as the discussion turned to teenagers and the travails of their parents. I was amused when Paula said she would have to leave a little early because her daughter, a beautiful teen, had announced that she would not, could not eat the dinner that was served so Paula had ordered Chinese food for pick up. In case it is of interest, all of the women were covered, i.e., had donned the hijab, but none of them wore the chador, which covers the entire body and which obscures the entire face. I had opted to wear a scarf out of respect for my hosts, but others in the group of visitors did not. The one place that a woman’s head must be covered is in the prayer room.
Chip sat with Asad (the judge), and a few other fellows who turned out to be equally interesting. I am not sure what they discussed but Chip came away with the same sense as I did – people just like us. Which, we concluded was the point.
Following the meal, the faithful joined the lengthier evening prayers. We listened for a while, letting the mellifluous sounds of the chanting of the Quran wash over us. We decided not to enter the prayer room itself, concerned that we might disrupt the praying. Instead, we stood outside, looking in through the windows that lined the room. The traditional postures were assumed uniformly with the exception of a small boy who was sprawled out on the floor. The unison postures and chanting carried a powerful feeling of community, similar to that of an orthodox synagogue.
Throughout the evening, I was struck by how much we Jews share with our Muslim neighbors. In the course of a single evening, I had learned more about Islam than I had known, that Moses is mentioned over 100 times in the Quran, whereas Mohammed is mentioned only 4 or 5 times. That every one of the five prayers that observant Muslims recite each day includes a request that Allah bless Mohammed’s family as Allah has blessed Abraham’s. That there is no prayer book other than the Quran. That it is written as poetry. That it is an honor to recite the Quran and lead the congregation in prayer. That two strapping young college students in this congregation had, in fact, memorized the entire Quran. That a Bishop, a rabbi, and a motley assortment of infidels can feel perfectly at home surrounded by Muslim faithful. I hope that we will have occasion at BHA to extend the same hospitality to the members of HVICC as they did to Chip and me, and that such exchanges will enhance our mutual understanding and appreciation of each other. A bishop, an imam and a rabbi walk into a shul....