Manna rains on Marblehead interfaith project

 

Pictured left to right: Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez and Pastor Jim Bixby

When Temple Sinai’s Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez and Pastor Jim Bixby from Clifton Lutheran Church first met at a Marblehead Ministerial Association meeting last summer, they both sensed a spiritual connection that went beyond them being among the youngest in the room.

“His church and Temple Sinai have a lot of similarities,” said Cohen-Henriquez, who is known as “Rabbi David” to his congregants. “Both are small. Both are in Marblehead. And both are dealing with contemporary theological challenges where people are not going to services like they used to. We are both striving to find ways to engage the new generations.”

Bixby, who congregants call “Pastor Jim,” grew up in Miami next door to many Panamanians, and he was fascinated when he found out Cohen-Henriquez was born in Panama. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t think I know anyone from Panama who is Jewish, let alone a rabbi, let alone a man with a hyphenated last name and a gift for storytelling,’” Bixby said with a chuckle.

The two spoke at length and realized their connection ran deeper than congregational size and demographics. Both aspired to engage their communities into social action while connecting personally and spiritually with their neighbors of different faiths.

Bixby learned of Temple Sinai’s decision to focus its social action on homelessness and of its support for Lynn shelters. He shared his church’s emphasis on helping recently arrived refugees and immigrants at Lynn’s New American Center.

With both congregations committed to providing food for marginalized people in need in Lynn, the two spiritual leaders decided to combine forces.

The result is “The Manna Project,” a joint mission with three components: a pulpit exchange, a Harvest Festival, and a food-packing event to benefit the needy in Lynn.

The September pulpit exchange was a huge success. Bixby addressed a Friday night Shabbat service and Cohen-Henriquez spoke at a Sunday morning church service. Both events drew congregants from both communities and thrilled the two clergymen.

Cohen-Henriquez had been in churches before, but had never been to a Sunday service, and certainly had never spoken to a congregation from a Christian pulpit.

The similarities between the two traditions impressed him. The Lutheran selected reading (similar to the weekly Torah parsha) during his appearance happened to be about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, known to Jews as the parting of the Red Sea. He captivated the churchgoers with midrashim that retold familiar biblical stories in ways outside the traditional Lutheran framework.

“Seeing people react to these stories that fill in the blanks, appreciating and rediscovering treasures that were already there, was really satisfying,” Cohen-Henriquez said.

The communitywide Harvest Fest, timed to coincide with the end of Sukkot and Oktoberfest, was a fund-raiser with vendors, games, and food, which both communities prepared and sold together. Shepherded by Temple Sinai Executive Director Susan Weiner, and Clifton Lutheran Church UpReach Council member Pat Small, the event raised $2,000 toward its $5,000 goal. Each dollar raised buys a meal for a family of four.

To fill the fund-raising gap, The Manna Project will sell tickets for a monthlong daily raffle in January. Bixby and Cohen-Henriquez went to local Marblehead businesses soliciting donations. (“Seeing a pastor and a rabbi entering your store must be like the opening of a joke,” Cohen-Henriquez said with a laugh).

Both were struck by how generous the business owners were and by how much they appreciated seeing clergy from different traditions work together.

The Manna Project’s third and capstone event is a food-packaging gathering on March 4, which will involve both communities’ social action committees and many volunteers. “We will need as many hands on deck as possible in order to get out the 3,000 to 4,000 meals we hope to prepare. Many hands make light work!” said Small.

In the meantime, both the pastor and the rabbi are positive their collaborations will not end with The Manna Project.

“Our communities are getting to know each other. We even see our missions as intertwined,” Bixby said.

“It’s a consciousness that transcends how you pray,” echoed Cohen-Henriquez. “There are many more things that bond us than separate us.”

For more information on The Manna Project, call Temple Sinai at 781-631-2763 or Clifton Lutheran Church at 781-631-4379.

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Scores Brave the Storm to “Ask a Muslim Anything”

 

 

Heavy rains and winds did not douse the interest of over 125 people who braved the elements last Sunday for the opportunity to ask Arab-American Muslim Robert Azzi, a longtime photojournalist, newspaper columnist and former Middle East advisor to Phillips Exeter Academy, “anything.”

 

The event, hosted by the First Church in Salem, a Unitarian Universalist church, is the kickoff in a series of events the church is sponsoring to foster interfaith dialogue and engagement.

 

“We are at a crucial time in modern U.S. history as far as understanding other faiths — especially Islam,” said Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell, a pastor at the church. “It is crucial that we develop some rudimentary understanding about different faiths.”

 

Barz-Snell admitted that the title of the question and answer session — “Ask A Muslim Anything” — was deliberately provocative to “invite questions and produce dialogue.” And for over an hour and a half, the crowd of mostly non-church members complied, asking about everything from why women wear hijabs (head scarves) to the origin of violent jihad.

 

Two young Muslim women, Zoha Qumar, a Columbia University student and Phillips Exeter graduate, and Tan Nazer, a Saudi Arabian senior at Phillips Exeter, accompanied Azzi and were available to answer questions. Neither wore a hijab.

NAzer and Qumar

Phillips Exeter senior Tan Nazer (left) and Columbia University student Zoha Qumar answered questions from the audience.

 

The first question, asking about the distinctions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, drew a chuckle from Azzi, who joked, “I love it when we start a forum with a softball.”

 

Salem resident, Jeff Cohen, asked Azzi whether it is difficult to encourage children to continue to wear traditional clothing in the current American climate of Islamaphobia. “It should break our collective heart that women are shedding the head scarf because of intimidation.” Azzi said.

 

He later noted, however, that a lot of women here and abroad are covered not by preference, but because their families and, in the case of patriarchal Saudi Arabia, where men are in control, their governments impose it. “This is wrong. It should be a personal choice,” he said, adding that the definition of modesty in Saudi Arabia has changed in an oppressive way that burdens women.

The questions turned to contemporary American life when Nat Carpenter of Beverly asked how an observant Muslim, who desires to pray to Mecca during the day, can also work in an environment that might not accommodate that desire, as recently happened to a group of Somali workers who wanted to convene for prayer during their work shift in Colorado.

 

“I don’t see a reason why employers couldn’t make accommodations for workers to exercise religious rights and freedoms during lunch or coffee breaks as they would for any other American,” Azzi said.

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Over 125 people showed up last Sunday at First Church in Salem to ask Arab American Muslim Robert Azzi “anything.”

 

Perhaps the most pointed question of the forum, and the one on many people’s minds judging from the nodding heads in the audience, was asked by Paul Marquis of Salem.

 

“Does the Quran (the principal religious text of Islam) advocate violent jihad?” he asked.

“There are a lot of Muslims who misunderstand jihad,” Azzi said. “Those who believe in violent jihad have not read the Quran with an open heart.”

 

Azzi suggested several times throughout the Q&A session that poor, illiterate Muslims are recruited by political factions, like ISIS and the Taliban, that distort religion in order to gain a military and economic foothold. “Who is it that profits from this kind of rhetoric? We can’t yield the playing field,” he warned.

 

On the domestic front, Azzi described recent one-on-one conversations he had with several Republican presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, who has advocated bombing and putting American boots on the ground to defeat ISIS. Azzi said the American obsession with ISIS could be traced to the fact that we did not get the success we wanted after 9/11 when we invaded Iraq.

 

“ISIS is a cancer. We have elevated them way out of proportion in terms of their capability, threat and theology. We love to have villains,” he said, adding, “We have never come to terms with having Muslims in our midst in this country.”

 

Azzi’s comments about mainstream American press and the role it plays fanning the flames of anti-Muslim rhetoric met with loud applause. “Radical Islamic terrorism sells,” he said. He then challenged the audience to turn away from Yahoo, the New York Times, NPR and other Western media sources and read the English Al Jazeera instead. “Take a look at the world the way the rest of the world sees it.”

 

He believes that it is possible to put a “stake through the heart” of the religious debate that polarizes people in this country.

 

“There is common ground. The question is how many people are willing to challenge the orthodoxies of their religion to get back to the scripture and look at the similarities in messages among all religions,” Azzi said, citing the prophetic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which all have a version of the “golden rule.”

 

Asked what questions he wishes he had been asked, Azzi said that he would have liked to talk more about the connections between faith traditions and also the history of Islam in America going back to the days of slavery. Nonetheless, he was pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable and interested the questioners were — and how respectful everyone was.

 

“I believe that as long as people keep talking to each other — to host forums where opinions and information can be exchanged with respect for each other — then there is hope,” he said.

Pictured at top: Robert Azzi, an Arab-American Muslim, answered questions at the First Church in Salem’s forum, “Ask a Muslim Anything.”

 

For more information about future programs, go to firstchurchinsalem.org or call 978-744-1551.

One Handful of Mud at a Time

Pictured above: Professor Mohammed Khallouk

When is the last time you read the same two articles in a Jewish newspaper and an Islamic e-magazine?

This is a story about a Muslim professor and e-magazine publisher and a Jewish writer and editor who saw in each other’s writing an opportunity to broaden the horizons of their readerships. It is a story about hope and possibility. It does not dwell on the challenges that politics, culture and religion pose. Instead, it focuses on common human ground and the way each of us can build a better future, one relationship at a time.

As editor of the bi-weekly Jewish Journal, I received scores of unsolicited articles and opinion pieces. A small percentage of the ones I actually read were appropriate for our publication and of those, I only had room for a handful in every issue.

Every now and then, however, an article would reach out and grab me in a way that I knew I had to publish it. Professor Mohammed Khallouk’s “Can Sworn Enemies Ever Become Friends?” was one.

This is how it began:

“In my youth in Morocco I was taught to hate Jews, and especially Israelis. I was convinced that Jews and Muslims could never become friends and that the relationship between Israelis and Arabs was based on hostility. The reality of cultural and religious pluralism in my new home country of Germany and an examination of Moroccan history, which shows that Jews and Muslims have lived in harmony for centuries, have convinced me that differences in religion cannot be the true reason for the animosity between them in the Middle East today.

I recently traveled to Jerusalem and wrote a travelogue about the experience. My meeting with one Jewish shopkeeper in the Western part of Jerusalem was especially unforgettable. My experience with this friendly and open-minded man named Abraham motivated me to write him a letter, which I included at the end of my book. This letter is a mirror of my experiences in the Holy City on the whole and my experiences meeting Abraham in particular.”

In his letter to Abraham, Professor Khallouk’s describes his revelations while in Israel, the gist of which are reprinted here:

“Even more than at the Holy Sites, I experienced this sense of brotherhood in Jerusalem’s everyday life. There were Jews like you who approached me as a fellow human with neither awkwardness nor fear. Appearance, origin and religious belief were unimportant. You saw me as a person who needed your assistance, and you spontaneously offered your help.

This human interaction has shaped my view of Jerusalem ever since. Jews are henceforth in my consciousness no longer my sworn enemies. I was able to experience them as my friends, soul-mates and spiritual brothers. While I continue to disagree in many key points with the State of Israel’s political stand on the Middle East conflict, Jews in West Jerusalem now matter to me as much as do Arabs and Muslims in the east of the Holy City. You have shown that you understand the importance of humanity essential to both Islam and Judaism.

The experience of seeing people of different cultures and religions coexisting so closely makes me long to return one day to the Holy City. The warmth with which we dealt with each other makes me hopeful that it might also inspire the political and social leaders. This is how political conflict can be overcome. Brotherhood and solidarity need to be the dominant image that Jews and Muslims have of each other.

I recognize your human kindness as a model for the rest of the world as well. This applies not least to German society, in which despite its cultural and political pluralism sometimes indifference and self-centeredness prevail. In Jerusalem I met a Judaism that reaches out to others. The guiding principle can be expressed thus: Only in dealing with the You, can the I find its identity.”

I emailed Professor Khallouk, telling him how much his message moved me and that, while I would have to edit it due to print space constraints, I wanted to publish it. I wanted our Jewish readers to hear a reasoned and reasonable Muslim voice, one that advocated human kindness and empathy, one that, these days and especially recently in the Journal’s pages, is too often ignored.

We exchanged several increasingly friendly emails. His article appeared at the top of the Jewish Journal May 28 Opinion page. Mine appeared at the bottom, an article entitled “Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony” that praised the interfaith Tufts University Baccalaureate ceremony for being a powerful reminder that we are members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, the differences of our separate identities.

When I sent Professor Khallouk the pdf of the Opinion page, he replied with this email:

Dear Shelley,

Thank you very much for the publishing of my  article. It was a great pleasure for me to find it on the same page with your nice literary report about diversity and the baccalaureate service.

If you do not mind I would like to translate  your piece into German and publish the translation on the website of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany

I also wish you a beautiful day and would be happy for another opportunity to work together with you.

Mohammed

The article appeared recently at http://islam.de/26575.php.

The point of the story is quite simple. We can recognize and seize opportunities to shape the future with a foundation of coexistence and compromise, or we can construct it from a place of separation, hostility and stereotyping. Either is possible and both require the same action: human hands, building together, one handful of mud at a time.

Prof. Mohammed Khallouk is a political and Islamic scientist with German and Moroccan roots. He is an expert in Islamic Thought and Politics, Political Islam and is skilled in intercultural dialogue between the West and the Islamic World.

Prof. Khallouk received his Ph.D. in 2007 in Political Science at the Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. His doctoral thesis dealt with Political Islam in his country of origin, Morocco. His M.A. degree in Political Science at Marburg University in 2003, based on his thesis about the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was honored with the German Academic Exchange Prize. He also received a M.A. degree in Arab and Islamic Thought at Mohammed V – University of Rabat, Morocco, in 1997.

Khallouk served as a lecturer in Political Science from 2008 to 2012 at Philipps-University of Marburg and from 2010 to 2012 at the University of German Federal Armed Forces Munich. Since 2014 he has served as Professor for Islamic Studies at Qatar University, Doha.

To read Professor Khallouk’s complete article, go to  http://boston.forward.com/articles/187449/can-sworn-enemies-ever-become-friends/#ixzz3fGMBw3Yy

Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony

My youngest recently graduated from Tufts University, marking a rite de passage and the turning of a page for both us. The day before Commencement, we attended his Baccalaureate Service. In the sea of caps and gowns, he was nearly indistinguishable from his 1,250 colleagues. In the audience, among the dewy-eyed adults, so was I. It was hard work to catch each other’s eye as the processional sped past. This was not a personal, private setting to mark a journey from one stage of life to the next. This was the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center, and it was overflowing at its seams.

Yet, unlike the Commencement ceremony the next day, the Baccalaureate Service somehow spun a magic web that connected every individual in the building to each other. Despite the cavernous, detached environment, the substance of the service touched me in a way that was unexpectedly intimate, spiritual and bonding. This was no small feat for an arcane Christian tradition from medieval times.

The original purpose of the Baccalaureate was literally to honor graduates with “laurels of oration” as they cross the threshold into their lives beyond their college years. The ceremony, a religious graduation custom that originated in 1432 at the University of Oxford, was a religious service of worship in celebration of, and thanksgiving for, lives dedicated to learning and wisdom.

At Tufts, the Baccalaureate was coordinated by the University Chaplaincy and the Interfaith Student Council. It marked the last time for the senior class to be alone together as a class. As a parent focused on trying to figure out where 21 years went, it was a helpful reminder that this day was bittersweet for my son too.

It was also a multi-faith celebration that spotlighted the students’ (and their parents’) shared heritage of diversity and common values of learning, service and teamwork. The program emphasized prayer, meditation and contemplation. And live music: jazz, a traditional Gaelic song and a traditional African American spiritual.

Even the brochure felt more like a global prayer book than a graduation agenda. Instead of pages listing individual winners of competitive awards and prizes, the program was chockfull of readings and blessings. The title page pictured the 15 religious and philosophical symbols of the traditions practiced by the Tufts community.

Five “Lessons of Inspiration” illustrated the different ways students from 37 nations and 47 states acknowledged what is sacred to them. The selections came from Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Humanist sacred texts. Reading the English translations, it was impossible not to admit and admire their similarities.

Hearing the Upanishad (Sanskrit), the Bible (Hebrew) and the Qu’an (Arabic) in their original tongues was even richer. The languages “felt” holy, both melodious and hymnal. Each prayer spoke of peace, the beauty of life and the dignity of endurance. It was a powerful reminder that, while we are a diverse people that honor and take fierce pride in our separate identities, we are also members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, those differences.

Anthropologists define rite de passage as marking the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time. What a persuasive and nurturing capstone the Baccalaureate was for these fledgling adults. And for their parents, too.

It’s a Good Friday for a Seder

Passover and Easter are highly charged religious holidays. This year, the first Seder falls on Good Friday and it’s a perfect opportunity to reflect on some surprising similarities between the Jewish and Christian springtime commemorations.


Both memorialize important historical events central to the identity and belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. For Jews, the Passover tradition is a powerful link that defines us and binds us as a people to each other and to God. We share the retelling of our Exodus from bondage in Egypt when God promised to save us and we were delivered from slavery to freedom. For Christians, the week of important historical events leading to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the backbone of their narrative as a people. Both stories are full of pain; both stories transform that pain into salvation.

Like Passover, Easter centers on the family and food. The Seder and Easter dinner are sacred times for families to gather, share a meal and renew their connection to their heritage through ceremony. Both holidays transform bread into ritual symbols. We eat unleavened bread, or matzah, to remember our ancestors who fled so quickly they did not have time to let their bread rise. Matzah is both the bread of our affliction and the sustenance of our freedom. For Christians, too, bread is both sacrament and sacrifice in the form of the Holy Eucharist, a wafer that represents Christ’s body.

Finally, both holidays acknowledge reverence for springtime, the season of renewal and rebirth. The egg, symbol of fertility and new life, plays a prominent role at the Seder as we dip a hardboiled egg in salt water to symbolize both new life and sacrifice. After the meatless (and eggless) Lenten fast, eggs became a staple of the Easter meal to celebrate the end of the privation of Lent. Today, dyeing Easter eggs celebrates rebirth through rededication of faith.

While we are certainly aware of the stark religious differences between Jews and Christians that Easter crystallizes, perhaps this year when we sit down to our Seder on Good Friday, maybe even as an interfaith family, we might focus as well on the commonalities that transcend those distinctions. We all cherish freedom, we all love God and, especially this year, we all revere spring.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on April 2, 2015.