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Northeast Ohio's Jews and Muslims Finish Up One Dialogue and Hope to Launch Another

Dialogue
M.L. SCHULTZE
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WKSU

Sunday marks the culmination of one discussion among Jews and Muslims in Northeast Ohio -- and the start of another one. As WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports, the local dialogue predates Charlottesville, the Muslim travel ban and the election of Donald Trump. But all of those developments have lent an urgency to the effort to get the Children of Abraham – and beyond -- talking.

For nearly two years – one month at a synagogue and the next at a mosque -- local Muslims and Jews have been getting together for a light meal and a heavy discussion. Among the topics: Jerusalem, religious tolerance and just how to understand what are delicately called “the difficult texts,” like one in the Old Testament that seems to advocate killing an entire tribe of men, women and children, and its counterpart in the Qur’an about smiting the necks of unbelievers.

In March, Allia Haque and Rabbi Josh Brown struggled through such passages at one of about a dozen tables at Temple Israel in Akron.

“I personally see it as a test of faith, to see how important interpretation is," Haque suggested.

Krakauer and Mir
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU public radio
/
WKSU public radio
Arthur Krakauer (left) and Dr. Ghulham Mir started the dialogue

“Maybe I feel this personally because of my role as a rabbi," Brown added, "but it gives religion a bad name. There are people who say, ‘I don’t want to be part of organized religion. Organized religion just hurts people and divides people.’” 

'We're not the only place in the United States that's doing this, but there aren't many.'

The format for the 11 sessions comes from a national curriculum called “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation,” developed in 2007 by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Islamic Society of North America.

The local passion for it came from Dr. Ghulham Mir of the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent and Art Krakauer of Temple Israel. Muslims and Jews are tiny minorities in America and Ohio, they note, so they expected there’d be some shared interests. But the results have surprised even them.

“What surprised us is that we have come this far and become such good friends, brothers and sisters," sasid Mir.

"We’re actually able to lay the cards on the table on difficult questions, and have an honest conversation," added Krakauer.

Islamophobia and AntiSemitism

"Northeast Ohio is such a beautiful place to build a counter-narrative that is built upon -- not divisiveness, not fear -- but actual unity, love and all of the beautiful things that come building diverse communities."

The group had been drawing 40 to 50 each month.

The last session was at the Islamic Society – a soaring white building in Cuyahoga Falls undergoing a major expansion. More than 100 people attended, with many coming from outside the two congregations.

The topic was antiSemitism and Islamophobia. It was July, a month before white nationalists chanted against Jews in Charlottesville, but after attacks on Muslims and mosques and temples and Jewish cemeteries around the country.

Each table had a different question to answer. One was how to respond when someone makes an offensive religious comment. Cuyahoga Falls Police Chief Jack Davis was among those working on the answer. After all, his city, once jokingly known as Caucasian Falls, is now home to the largest mosque in the area and an increasingly diverse population. Still, he acknowledged, he occasionally runs into a raised eyebrow and a comment about ‘those people.’

“I’ll get that; I’ll get: ‘You know what’s going on at that Islamic center?' ‘Yeah, they’re teaching children and they’re having services, like every other church and school in our city.’”

Islamic Center of Akron and Kent
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU public radio
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WKSU public radio
The outreach includes inviting people to prayers at the Islamic Center of Akron and Kent.

He, Ahmad Deeb and a half-dozen others at the table came up with a response they think can make a difference.

'They may come from irrational fear. But they're still feelings. And you can't combat feelings with simply thought. You have to combat it with empathy and then some coherent thought.'

Deeb suggested a step-by-step approach.

‘Step one is, ‘Why do you believe this?’ so as not to de-legitimize their emotions regardless of where they come from. They may come from irrational fear. But they’re still feelings. And you can’t combat feelings with simply thought. You have to combat it with empathy and then some coherent thought, hopefully.”

Added the chief: “I’d sum it up as: ‘Be quiet for a moment, listen to what they say. But don’t be quiet.’”

Rabbi Eric Yaffie and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, who helped establish the national dialogue among Muslims and Jews will be speaking from 7 to 9 at the University of Akron Student Union Sunday night about challenges for Jews and Muslims in the community, country and world.

Inviting people in
Deeb has given a lot of thought to such questions. As administrative director at the Islamic Society, it’s part of his job to understand not only his faith, but the questions others have about it. So he often invites non-Muslims to observe Friday prayers, calling it a beautiful opportunity.

"I love the people here, and I think Ohio in general, but definitely Northeast Ohio, is such a beautiful place to build a counter-narrative that is built upon not divisiveness, not fear, but actual unity, love and all of the beautiful things that come building diverse communities.” 

Deeb and the local founders of the Jewish-Muslim dialogue said national events were bound to have an impact here. But Dr. Mir and Krakauer says it’s also sustained a passion for the effort.

“We’re not the only place in the United States that’s doing this, but there aren’t many,” Krakauer said.

And Mir said, "We don’t want to let this opportunity for peace slip away from us. There’s so much we need to learn from each other. And there so much in common with us..”

Both expect to see the effort extend beyond Muslims and Jews, beginning with Sunday night. The two national authors of “Children of Abraham” are coming to Akron to speak.