Muslim-Jewish Groups Partner For Dialogue, Social Justice Work On Christmas


In a twist on the “Shabbos goy” phenomenon, it’s long been a tradition on Christmas Eve for an interfaith-minded Jewish doctor to swap shifts so an Episcopalian or Presbyterian colleague can go caroling, or for a Jewish cop to walk a beat on Dec. 25 so a Catholic partner can be home with his family.

But increasingly these days, perhaps in a sign of the times, Jews and Muslims are gathering on Christmas in church soup kitchens and senior centers for service-oriented projects, and even for text study sessions that tease out common ground in each faith’s teachings.

This year, several Jewish and Muslim members of two local chapters of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national interfaith organization, will gather on Christmas Eve to serve to the needy at the soup kitchen of the Church of St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic house of worship in Chelsea.

Around the country, the majority of Sisterhood’s 100 chapters will take part this month in some type of joint Jewish-Muslim programming on Christmas or Christmas Eve. And in other cities, such Jewish organizations as synagogues, Jewish Community Relations Councils and other groups will partner with Muslims for dialogue and social justice work in what is emerging as a trend on the holiday.

The Jews will be forgoing the ritual of eating out at a Chinese restaurant and taking in a movie; the Muslims will be giving up a day off.

“We aren’t trying to make a statement. We recognized a need.”

“We aren’t trying to make a statement. We recognized a need” to serve, said Chelsea Garbell, a Seattle native and veteran of interfaith work who leads one of Sisterhood’s Manhattan chapters along with a Muslim colleague, Shifa Mahmoud, whose family has roots in Kashmir.

Garbell’s chapter volunteered last year at the same church soup kitchen. “Service is important to both communities,” she told The Jewish Week.

Mahmoud, an analyst for the City of New York who describes herself as “an Orthodox Muslim,” said she recommended the day-off work at a soup kitchen as the most appealing of available “Christmas Eve and Christmas Day volunteer opportunities.”

“Charity and public service are core principles in Islam,” Mahmoud said. “Muslims are commanded to serve and give charity as one of the pillars of the religion. The interfaith aspect of this project is also appealing to most Muslims. Many folks in the Muslim community welcomed joining with Jewish and Christians, who are honored as ‘People of the Holy Book’ in the Koran.”

“The purpose of this day,” said Sheryl Olitzky, Sisterhood’s co-founder, “is to carry out the values and practices of service, social justice and acts of loving kindness that run deep in the Muslim and Jewish traditions. We chose Christmas Day because … it is a time when staffing in social service organizations are lower and many people feel especially discouraged by being alone, homeless, hungry, or working and away from festivities.”

“The growing attacks on American Muslims including President Trump’s Muslim refugee ban have brought our two communities even closer together.”

Participating chapters of Sisterhood’s second annual Sadaqad-Tzedakah Day will put together hygiene kits for refugee women, make baked goods for inmates, volunteer in nursing homes and hospitals, and pass out holiday gifts at senior centers.

Christmas, said Chris Sacarabany, executive director of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, “is a time for Muslims and Jews to demonstrate their solidarity and empathy for their Christian sisters and brothers, of acknowledging our common faith and common fate in this season of sharing and caring for the other.”

“The growing attacks on American Muslims including President Trump’s Muslim refugee ban have brought our two communities even closer together,” said Sacarabany, who added that Rabbi Marc Schneier, FFEU president, will be in Israel next week “to explore the launching of such events in Jerusalem and Akko next year.”

Jewish-Muslim programming is taking place in Detroit, Seattle, St. Louis, Austin, California’s Orange County, Trenton and Montclair, N.J., among cities in the United States, as well as in Halifax, Canada, and Buenos Aires.

The practice is late arriving in New York City, perhaps because of the sheer range of options here and a host of Jewish and Muslim organizations with competing agendas, said Rabbi Bob Kaplan, who coordinates intergroup activities at New York’s JCRC. “There are multiple things you can do on Christmas.”

“It shows that Muslims and Jews care not only about building good relations with each other, but also about serving the larger society in general.”

No central organization coordinates such Christmas Day interfaith cooperation in this country, or keeps track of how many programs take place, but anecdotal research indicates a steady increase in recent years.

“It shows that Muslims and Jews care not only about building good relations with each other, but also about serving the larger society in general and the Christian community in particular,” said Walter Ruby, former program director for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

In Detroit, Mitzvah Day, begun 25 years ago by that city’s JCRC, expanded eight years ago with an invitation to the Michigan Muslim Community Council to participate.

The program, said Beverly Phillips, assistant director for public relations of the Detroit JCRC, which dispatches volunteers to visit the homebound elderly and deliver gifts and toys to needy families, “has grown in size and also evolved into additional projects … such as Mitzvah Makeover days at public schools.”

One of the most extensive Muslim-Jewish Christmas programs takes place in Houston, where the Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism and the Minaret Foundation, an independent Muslim-oriented educational organization, will co-sponsor an afternoon of text study on Christmas Eve at the synagogue.

The program, the ninth under the two groups’ auspices, will include discussions of the faiths’ respective teachings about charity (tzedakah in Hebrew, sadaqah in Arabic), collection of funds for a future collaborative project, and building of tzedakah boxes.

“We always have egg rolls.”

“This is a Jewish-Muslim Christmas,” a Christmas without a Christian flavor, said Steven Gross, senior rabbi of the Congregation.

The altruism-based nature of the Houston program allows participants to raise “the hard questions” about their respective communities in an atmosphere of trust, while concentrating on their shared beliefs, said Shariq Abdul Ghani, Rabbi Gross’ partner in founding the program.

The elephant in the room — Middle East tension between Israelis and Palestinians – is usually in the back of participants’ minds, but does not interfere with the local goals of the interfaith programming, leaders of several initiatives said.

“Politics are not discussed on the Day of Service,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council.

The Houston program began after an interfaith travel mission to Macedonia and Croatia in which Rabbi Gross and Ghani took part a decade ago. Ghani, a self-described activist-entrepreneur and former youth worker affiliated with Houston’s Minaret Foundation, asked the rabbi one morning, “What do you guys do on Christmas?”

They learned that members of both communities were free that day.

“Why don’t we do something together?” Ghani suggested.

The joint programming was born.

The first-year activity was a Maariv-Maghrib Friday night service and vegetarian Chinese meal and your-neighbor’s-faith discussion session at the rabbi’s synagogue. Some 100 people showed up — 50 each from the Jewish and Muslim communities; most of the Muslims are from East Asian backgrounds.

“We thought it would be a one-time thing, and we would see what happened,” the rabbi said.

The participants wanted to keep the good feelings going, he said.

In subsequent years the program has alternated between the shul, mosques and neutral venues like the Museum of Natural Science.

About 150 people now take part each year; Rabbi Gross and Ghani have limited the program’s size to maintain its sense of intimacy.

He told of one woman, a gate agent for an airline, who reluctantly attended an early session. She has since overcome her reluctance and learned about Islamic practice, the rabbi said; the woman has warmed to the annual program’s mission and become one of its most avid advocates. She told the rabbi, “I can be your poster child.”While most members of the rabbi’s congregation support the Christmas Day activities, some initially harbored suspicion of taking part with members of the Muslim community, Rabbi Gross said.

Rabbi Gross and Ghani said they hope to expand their program beyond once-a-year on Christmas, and bring in other local Jewish and Islamic organizations.

Ghani, a Houston native who grew up in a family of immigrants from Pakistan, said he hopes to offer his model of Jewish-Muslim cooperation to “the wider community.”

The Jewish-Muslim program in Houston, which will be on Christmas Eve this year, will feature a discussion of Islamophobia, an exploration of the two faiths’ teaching led by Rabbi Gross and an imam, and a light snack that will include latkes and applesauce for Chanukah.

And one recognition that the program is taking place on Christmas:

“We always have egg rolls,” Rabbi Gross said.