By Sharon Otterman
May 12, 2017
Florence Nasar kept checking her phone. She was at an interfaith dinner last Sunday aimed at building friendships between New York Jews and Muslims, and the guests, all in their 20s and early 30s, sat on couches around her, sharing stories about their religious practices, their pasts and their quests to define who they are.
Ms. Nasar, a Syrian Jew, was actually living those themes. Her secret Muslim boyfriend was on his way.
She had not told her family about him, she explained to the other guests, because in the insular community in New Jersey where she was raised, intermarriage is forbidden. But Ms. Nasar, 27, an artist and a dancer, no longer lived at home.
She has recently been hosting interfaith events between Syrian Jews and Syrian Muslim refugees, eager to explore their shared heritage. Out of her own interest in understanding people, she had met someone.
Ms. Nasar was one of about 100 guests at a series of intimate Jewish-Muslim dinners that took place last weekend around Manhattan and Brooklyn to build interfaith understanding. Lonnie Firestone, a modern Orthodox Jew and freelance writer from Brooklyn, came up with the idea for dinners after President Trump’s victory. She wanted to bring Muslims and Jews together in a spirit of friendship, so they could work together against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
“When you have a natural affiliation with people, you can advocate for them effortlessly,” she said. “It’s like you don’t think about advocating for a relative. And I really liked the idea that friendship and common ground naturally emerges from sharing food together.”
With two rounds of dinners so far, the project is one of many interfaith efforts going on in the New York area and nationally to promote Jewish-Muslim relations. But unlike a large event at a synagogue or mosque, these meals distinguish themselves by their intimacy, with no more than six guests in a Muslim or Jewish home. Guests can linger over dessert and tea as they move from easy conversations to more sensitive themes.
“My hope was if you were to look at New York City from above, there would be a constellation of homes where these dinners were all happening, and like a secret sense of unity between people who are all taking part,” Ms. Firestone said.
Ms. Firestone and her Muslim co-planner, Samir Malik, matched families with families and singles with singles, hoping shared stages of life would help the conversation flow. They wanted observant Muslims and Jews to participate, along with secular ones. In all, there were 19 small dinners held last weekend, each with its own flair.
Ms. Firestone, for example, hosted a Sabbath meal at her home for a family that was similar to her own. She and her husband, David, are religious Jews; her guests were observant Muslims. Each family has two children, including in each, a 6-year-old boy obsessed with “Star Wars” Legos.
Before the meal began, Ms. Firestone, 37, lit the Sabbath candles and said a blessing. She and her husband then placed their hands on the heads of each of their children to bless them with an ancient prayer, as they do each week.
“That’s really sweet,” said Saima Muhammad, 37, a dentist in Park Slope.
“I like that it’s so child-centric,” said her husband, Faisal Anwar, 36, a software engineer. They had never been to a Shabbat meal before, and Ms. Firestone said she had never had Muslim guests in her home.
The traditional blessing over wine was said over grape juice, so that the children could participate. Later, the two couples spoke about why the two religions had such different attitudes toward alcohol.
Though politics briefly came up, most of the conversation centered on challenges of raising children in Brooklyn — where do they go to school? How do you handle religious education?
Different themes dominated the discussion at the Sunday evening dinner in Midtown West, where eight young Muslims and Jews spoke about their personal paths to figure out who they are against the backdrop of their inherited traditions.
Georgia Halliday, 26, was raised as an atheist in a liberal Massachusetts suburb, but converted to Islam three years ago and now wears a hijab. Aqsa Mahmud, 30, is a Muslim born in Pakistan who was raised in the rural American South, has a Jewish Pakistani grandmother and Jewish relatives in Israel.
Nashira Pearl, 27, grew up as one of the few Jews in Manitowoc, Wis. Her parents drove an hour and a half to Milwaukee each month to stock their refrigerator with kosher meat. Her husband, Josh Pearl, grew up in Chicago, attending modern Orthodox Jewish day schools through his childhood.
The Pearls explained how they had built their New York community around their synagogue, the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn, which the Firestones also attend. One of the Muslim friends who hosted the dinner, Danish Munir, 30, shared how he found his footing in New York though the Islamic Center at New York University, which specifically reaches out to young Muslim professionals. “I walked in and I inherited like 500 friends,” he said.
The dinner discussion eventually turned to the most difficult aspect of building interfaith relationships: the possibility of love. Is that somehow the ultimate realization of such outreach? Or is it a transgression and a betrayal of religious belief?
Ms. Nasar explained how many of her Syrian Jewish friends refused to get involved with her own interfaith efforts to dine with Syrian Muslims, through the NYC Muslim Jewish Solidarity Committee. Not because of politics, she said, but because friendships could lead to intermarriage, which their community forbids.
“In the Syrian community, that’s one of the biggest fears, because they say that the other Jewish communities are disintegrating, and we are the only ones that are still strong,” she said, referring to intermarriage.
Ms. Nasar knew her mother suspected something. She had recently told her that she didn’t want to go to Jewish singles events because she was dating someone, without saying who it was. “And she’s like ‘Fine, don’t tell me anything about them. As long as they’re Jewish.’”
But he wasn’t. Moments after she told that story, the door opened, and Mehmet Rezan Altinkaynak, a former CNN reporter from Turkey, swept into the interfaith dinner with a beard and a big, warm smile. Ms. Nasar soon went to sit on the couch next to him.
There was a feeling of a shared secret and a mutual bond. The room was filled with people who, each in their own way, had taken risks to be there.
The other guests didn’t pepper the couple with questions, though Mr. Munir, the host, said he wanted to hear how they met. Ms. Halliday, the Muslim convert, instead shared her story. “My mom cried when I came home in a hijab,” she told them. “But they are coming around.”