The high holidays are behind us, together with their emotional and spiritual peaks. Whether these peaks occurred in a synagogue, outside in a Sukkah, or on a street filled with dancing Torahs, they have all left their mark. How they will shape our year remains to be seen.
Here in Chicago, amidst the excitement over the World Champion White Sox, we enjoyed one such peak, an incredible evening that simply cannot be sent to the dustbin of history. It was a Muslim-Jewish, Judaic-Islamic coming-together that must live on beyond Sukkot. The program was a joint Iftar- Ramadan break fast and Sukkot celebration right in our synagogue, our “house of prayer for all nations.”
On a rainy Sukkot Sunday, over seventy people shuttled from our sanctuary for speeches about Ramadan and Sukkot by Muslim and Jewish leaders. Then, while we made the afternoon Jewish prayer in the sanctuary, over twenty Muslim men and women prayed their Salat in the JCC’s gym across from the synagogue. Dozens of Muslims watched minchah in our synagogue, and dozens of Jews watched the Salat accompanied by traditional hand washing and mats. For the first time, these people were seeing up close how their fellow worshipers prayed.
Afterwards, we went downstairs in the social hall for the simple Iftar meal of water and dates for the thirty or so Muslims who were fasting. Finally, we all retired to a strictly kosher, hallal dinner where Muslims and Jews of every age group and nationality could not stop mixing and talking and sharing their religious lives.
There was so much goodwill at this event, so much warmth and civility, that it felt like the words of Zachariah 14, from the first day of Sukkot, has come true: “Once a year the gentles will come to celebrate Sukkot.” In fact, the Muslims at this event insisted on seeing our Sukkah, even though that meant walking in the rain to see it.
Muslims were invited as individuals through the contacts with the Jewish Council for Urban Affairs, which co-sponsored the event with our shul. But many of these individual Muslims are leading figures in the Chicago Muslim community who were not afraid to be seen and photographed with rabbis in the sanctuary. In fact, one leading Muslim organization, CAIR – Chicago, put the whole event, including pictures of the sanctuary and sukkah, on their website.
This is not an organization known for loving Israel, and though one cynical observer felt that CAIR was exploiting this event to gain legitimacy, I prefer to take their goodwill at face value. Jews conveyed the magic of Sukkot and Muslims communicated the excitement of Iftar. Combined with a shared enthusiasm for food, this exchange broke through all other barriers, at least for the evening.
“It was my first time inside a Synagogue observing Jews pray,” said Dina Rehab, CAIR – Chicago’s Outreach Coordinator. “The Rabbi was very friendly and astute to the fact that there were guests observing. He made sure to explain things. I very much appreciated the opportunity.” This comment sounds honest and sincere, not contrived for the media.
Sukkot is over and with it a month of high holy days and festivities. We have all returned to our regular jobs, our normal year-round synagogue programs, and our busy lives in the secular world. Unfortunately, we look at the news from the Middle East and there is still no magical peace in Israel no apocalypse of Gog and Magog, as we read about in Ezekiel. Religion doesn’t seem to be the great peacemaker at it was in our synagogue a few weeks ago. Possibilities and dreams from our Sukkot seem far away, a distant chapter.
Yet, the Sukkot-Iftar celebration was real. We will not forget conversing with each other that night, sharing experiences of our holidays, and being in each others presence as we engaged in intimate prayer before God.
I ask us not to leave Sukkot behind, but to carry it into the months ahead. Let us recapture these innocent interactions between Muslims and Jews, who perhaps begin the conversation with the protection of Sukkot, Ramadan and Iftar, but might be able to continue that conversation beyond.
Last month we read the following from Isaiah 56 as part of the liturgy: “My house will be called a house of worship for all nations.” The prophets were more astute politically than we give them credit for; maybe a shul is a good place to start to welcome the nations, and maybe it is not too much to ask Muslims and Jews to “observe” each other’s holidays every year by viewing and appreciating them. Our jobs this winter will be to turn the dreams and fantasies of Rosh HaShana and Sukkot into reality, rather than to abandon them. Having seen our Muslim friends in Chicago hear my prayers, pray in my institutions, and share my food and hospitality, I am confident that Sukkot can come true.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a leading modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago. A Rhodes Scholar in Arabic Thought from Oxford University, and received ordination from RIETS and Brisk Rabbinical College.