NEW YORK (JTA) — Daisy Khan seemed right at home in the ornately decorated main sanctuary of B’nai Jeshurun, a large and vibrant synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I want to thank you for inviting us into this sanctuary, which is very much like a mosque,” said Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
She added, “It feels strange to wear shoes in here!”
Several dozen women — approximately equal numbers of Muslims and Jews — had come together at the Nov. 14 event to discuss gender issues in their respective faith traditions. From the food on the table — hummus and flatbread — to the integrated small-group dialogues, the evening focused on how much Jewish and Muslim women have in common.
The gathering was part of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s “twinning” project bringing together Muslim and Jewish congregations and organizations to share each other’s traditions. This year marks the fourth annual Weekend of Twinning, which began officially last Friday and continues through mid-December. Events have taken place across America.
“We are using this event to get people to communicate who did not communicate before,” said Walter Ruby, the foundation’s Muslim-Jewish relations programs officer.
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based nonprofit founded by Rabbi Marc Schneier and co-chaired by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, launched the twinning program in 2008.
In the first year, 50 synagogues and as many mosques participated in the project. Since then, the number of participating organizations has jumped to 250 and includes not only synagogues and mosques but community centers, cultural groups and on-campus clubs.
“We are the sons of Abraham coming together,” said Imam Souliman Konate of the Masjid Aqsa mosque in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, adding that “this is the right moment” for this type of program. The mosque is participating for the first time in the twinning weekend.
“Hopefully we are on the journey to the promised land of reconciliation and greater understanding,” Schneier said.
The foundation added a new platform last year: the virtual twinning event. Jewish and Muslim groups in 16 countries — including India, Slovakia, Uruguay and Pakistan — are engaging in online interfaith discussions.
“Some people in countries like Pakistan have never had the opportunity for Jews and Muslims to speak together,” Ruby said.
The purpose of the twinning weekend, Ruby said, is twofold: to learn about the other faith and to come together to do good in the world. Some programs are educational endeavors, with Jews and Muslims observing and partaking in one another’s traditions, such as festive meals. Others are joint social service projects.
Ruby acknowledges that the foundation did not create the concept of Muslim-Jewish exchange.
“We want to be careful not to say that we are inventing the wheel,” Ruby said. “There are situations where Muslim and Jewish communities have an ongoing relationship; we are just here to ask them if they want to come under our umbrella.”
The weekend of twinning has hit occasional bumps. In 2010, the Sutton Place Synagogue on Manhattan’s East Side pulled out of the program, citing the controversy then raging over the proposed Islamic center near the former World Trade Center site. The synagogue’s rabbi had expressed concern about working with Khan’s husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who had been the public face of the project.
The program also faced difficulties in Buffalo, N.Y., that year, when two local synagogues decided to withdraw, citing concerns about the program’s co-sponsor, the Islamic Society of North America. Asked about the latter incident, Ruby responded that “ISNA is committed to Jewish community outreach,” adding that “we feel very strongly that ISNA is a good organization.”
The event with B’nai Jeshurun and American Society for Muslim Advancement, which are veteran participants in interfaith dialogue efforts, did not run into any snags.
“We are in a room full of inspiring people,” said Nadia Ilahi, an American Society member. “These types of events create a bond of sisterhood.”
Rabbi Felicia Sol, one of B’nai Jeshurun’s three spiritual leaders, began the evening by discussing areas where she finds gender inequality in Judaism. After a lengthy presentation about these facets of tradition, Khan explained how her experience with Islam mirrors these struggles. The women then broke into smaller groups to talk about inequality on a more personal level.
Asked about the concept of twinning, Arline Kane, a Jewish participant, answered that “It means that we are finding out we are closer than we think.”
Khan also noted the commonality between the traditions.
“Islam,” she said, “is like a 1,400-year-old Jewish tradition.”