Medill Reports: Chicago Jews and Muslims work to find common ground (VIDEO)

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Can Jews and Muslims play and pray together?

When Ramadan and Rosh Hashana overlapped in September 2007, members of a Chicago interfaith group came together at a local synagogue to practice their respective rituals of prayer and feasting.

The Jewish-Muslim Community-Building Initiative hosts get-togethers like that one throughout the city. The group has gone on excursions to Muslim butchers, hosted interfaith art exchanges, spent nights at the theater and organized Jewish-Muslim text studies, hoping to provide the space for Jews and Muslims to interact and exchange ideas.

“People coming into the conversation don’t expect to agree,” said Asaf Bar-Tura, director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ teen programs. “They expect to learn what the other perspectives are.”

The initiative was launched in late 2001 by the Jewish Council for Urban Affairs and partners with several Chicago organizations, including Jewish Women International, American Muslims for Activism and Learning, the Jewish Public Action for Change Today and CAIR Illinois.

Bar-Tura described himself as agnostic but said that Judaism is central to his identity. He participated in the first Jewish-Muslim text study in January, an event led by laymen instead of religious scholars of either faith to encourage a conversation about how regular people apply these religious texts to their lives.

“It was a very good atmosphere. Very open,” Bar-Tura said. “People asked questions about very basic things that they didn’t know about other religions and spoke very honestly about their experience with their religion.”

The initiative’s members say they are committed to sharing stories about their lives as Chicagoans, Cub fans and religious minorities living in the United States.

“I am an orthodox Jew, so I have more in common with a religious Muslim than with an atheist,” said Irene Lehrer Sandalow, a JCUA outreach and education director and coordinator of the initiative.

“Muslims pray five times a day and religious Jews pray three times a day,” Sandalow said. “It’s interesting how it’s hard sometimes to leave work or take a break from work so we can pray. We can talk about those shared experiences” she said.

Experts say that the kind of grassroots interfaith work being done in Chicago is part of a new, progressive trend and is a critical element towards solving larger religious conflicts.

Community-centered interfaith work “separates the politics from the faith,” said Jena Luedtke, Director of the Center for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialog in Washington, D.C.

Sustainable, long term peace, Leudtke said, “is not going to happen through the world leaders.”

“Peace building through dialogue is going to succeed through human-to-human contact on the grassroots level,” she said. “It’s everyday people making connections, doing that work that’s going to make the difference.”

Still there are limits to expanding this kind of dialogue.

Gerald Hankerson is one of the founders of the this interfaith effort. In 2000, during the Palestinian intifada, Hankerson was a student at University of Illinois at Chicago and then a recent convert to Islam.

In the midst of the political crisis unfolding in the Middle East, he befriended a Jewish classmate and the two “spoke candidly about making a pact to show a strong face and to publically declare that our communities would be in open dialogue.”

When Hankerson presented the case for a mutual declaration to his fellow board members at Muslim student association, he was rebuffed.

Undeterred, Hankerson continues his interfaith work and recently emcee’d an interfaith arts exchange (see related video).

Copyright © 2008, Medill Reports