Building Bridges with Muslim Leaders

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a weekend retreat of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) of the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI). MLI was launched in 2013 under the co-leadership of Imam Abdullah Antepli, director of Muslim affairs at Duke University, and SHI senior fellow Yossi Klein Halevi. Over four years, four cohorts and some seventy participants, MLI has nourished a community of American Muslim leaders committed to understanding the complex religious and political issues we grapple with within the Jewish community.

Over the course of the weekend, I had opportunities to spend time with many of these leaders, engaging in honest conversations laden with both curiosity and tension. As we spoke, in quiet corners and over meals, I experienced their deep desire to understand my community, and an equal willingness to open themselves up to any questions I had about theirs. We talked politics, faith, culture; about hopes, dreams, and fears.

But most important, I found myself responding - to their deep and authentic desire to understand and connect - with my own authenticity, allowing myself to be vulnerable and honest.

At a retreat focused on coalition building, one theme from a teaching session by SHI’s Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer prompted my own reflections: a need to be clear, with ourselves and with our partners, about the imperatives that drive our work and our institutions. At JCRC, some of these would include our commitment to the national project of Jewish peoplehood including a Jewish state, and our will to speak and act with one voice as one community.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular imperative that has long guided much of our work: the belief that the American Jewish community is best served – as we’ve been over many decades – when our nation is dedicated to equality of opportunity for all people. We all benefit, and as Jews we have thrived individually and as a community, in a free society dedicated to constitutional liberal democracy where freedoms – of press, of speech, of privacy – are cherished, and where the dignity of all people is protected. We are guided by the belief that only in a society with no tolerance for discrimination of any kind, and no obstacles standing in the way of opportunity for every one of us is one, can we all truly thrive. We know too well that a culture that demonizes and marginalizes others threatens us as well.

It is this belief that has compelled JCRC to work on civil rights issues, on criminal justice reform, and – long before I came to Boston – on women’s and LGBTQ equality.

At this moment, when such a vision of our nation seems challenged in so many ways, this strategic imperative to defend the American idea of a democracy has risen, for us, to a place of necessity and urgency. And engaging in these honest conversations with Muslim leaders, I could not help but think of the urgent necessity for the mainstreams of our two communities – the two largest faith minorities in this country - to stand together to meet this challenge.

I’ve experienced firsthand those in each of our communities who want to keep us apart, who focus on the extremes and the challenges that divide us. But this week, not for the first time, I am reminded that there are many who seek to build bridges between us.

In this moment of challenge for our nation, surely the bridge builders - those who seek to hold the centers of our two communities and to bind them to each other where we can in a shared interest – can, if they choose, be stronger than those who work to keep us apart. This is not simple or straightforward work, and I don’t say this naively. But when I see the work being done by this group at MLI, the relationships, the commitment, the honesty, I know that more is possible and that we have a role to play in supporting this work. And if we have a role to play, surely we have a responsibility to do what we can to meet this urgent moment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

P.S., for another feature on the solidarity between Boston's Jewish and Muslim communities, read the piece in Friday's Boston Globe.