Medill: Coffee and conversation finds common ground between Muslims and Jews

Published on May 12th

Religious conversations between Muslims and Jews  take place in coffee shops across Chicago. They gather every other month to discuss religious text and its application to daily life, an attempt to bridge cultures with distinct differences and similarities.

Discussions over Coffee is one of many events hosted by the Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative. The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs established the organization in 2001 as a response to an increase in hate crime against Muslims after Sept. 11. The two religions unite through culture, education and joint actions with a focus on how to improve the Chicago community.

“It creates an interesting and a lively, an important space just to bring people together,” said coordinator Asaf Bar-Tura. “We have it in coffee shops not in more institutional settings is to create that casual and open inviting atmosphere.”

Tuesday’s conversation at Noble Tree Coffee and Tea in Lincoln Park centered on criminal justice and text from the Quran and Talmud, Jewish civil and religious law writings. About 30 people listened as speakers Imam Al-Deen and Rabbi Larry Edwards answered questions concerning legal protocol and the need for witnesses in civil cases as outlined in scriptures.

Soliman and Zahra Khudeira attended their first Discussions over Coffee not for the topic, but to learn more about the communication effort.

“Any time that two religions come together to talk, I see positive things in it,”  Soliman Khudeira said. “To me, the event by itself is good, so I’m not interested in a specific topic, it’s just the conversation.”

There is no set structure but the audience dictates the conversation through questions and reflections. A clerical representative of each religion presents a portion of scripture or religious text then the group breaks up into smaller groups to discuss. Coming back together as a large group, audience members can present insights gained and ask additional questions.

Religion has interested Carol Goldbaum since she spent a summer in Pakistan in 1962. She sought answers to questions about Islam tradition at the event.

“All religions should be mixed together and understand each other,” she said. “I have a copy of the Quran and I can’t figure out how to read it. I don’t understand its structure so that’s one of my questions.”

Unrest between Palestine and Israel causes a conception of Muslims and Jews as uncommunicative, said outreach coordinator Gerald Hankerson of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago. But he said groups involved in the initiative attempt to break this misconception.

“There may be differences in political viewpoint and cultural viewpoint, but there’s often far more similarities,” he said. “We really cultivate the idea that we should be proactive based on our faith traditions to make a better society here in Chicago.”