Interfaith Connections Battle Bigotry, Promote Goodwill

Dr. Benjamin Sax addresses the audience at the Jewish-Muslim Governor’s Day to Serve event. (Justin Silberman)
Dr. Benjamin Sax addresses the audience at the Jewish-Muslim Governor’s Day to Serve event. (Justin Silberman)

For as long as Nejaat Ibrahim can remember, she has always had a soft spot for helping those who are less fortunate.

It started when Ibrahim, 20, came to Maryland from Ethiopia 15 years ago and has continued to take shape since she started at Goucher College last year. In high school, she was heavily involved in Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, a nonprofit that teaches teen girls to deveop  essential life skills, and continues to carry all the lessons she learned with her to this day.

“As a Muslim, I believe it’s my job to share my blessings, because nonprofits have been a part of my life and helped  me so much,” Ibrahim said. “I feel like it’s part of my duty to give back however I can, and  I just think it’s everybody’s  responsbility to do what they can.”

The third Jewish-Muslim Governor’s Day, which took place at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Monday, provided Ibrahim the chance to show her support for a worthy cause. She was one of more than 50 people from the Greater Baltimore Jewish and Muslim communities who  assembled “blessing bags” for homeless Marylanders and took part in an interfaith discussion on social justice.

It was all made possible by the Baltimore Jewish Council and Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, an independent, educational nonprofit organization that seeks to advance interreligious dialogue and understanding.

Martha Weiman, past president of the BJC and chair of the organization’s Interfaith Dialogue, said bringing local Muslims and Jews together has been an essential initiative of hers for quite some time. For more than 10 years, Weiman, who helped organize the event and delivered the opening  remarks, has been heavily  involved in Muslim-Jewish  dialogue, putting together various meetings aimed at uniting the two groups.

“We like doing these hands-on events, because it gets people out of their seats, gets them talking and gets them to meet people.” Weiman said. “I love the idea of getting into small groups, where you can share your perspective, because I think it’s very important we have this type of dialogue.”

Participants put together “blessing bags” for needy residents. (Justin Silberman)
Participants put together “blessing bags” for needy residents. (Justin Silberman)

A $1,800 grant from Gov. Larry Hogan was used to buy household supplies — such as baby wipes, socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, granola bars and water — for the 150 blessing bags. Particpants were encouraged to take as many of the bags as they saw fit and to provide them to anyone on the streets they felt might be in need.

Benjamin Sax, the Jewish scholar at ICJS, said he has witnessed firsthand how team-building excercises between people from all different walks of life help aliveate whatever differences they may have  religiously.

“This is a way for us to be more entrenched in activites between Jews and Muslims and Christians,” Sax said. “We’re background on all this, because we do the educational piece to edify the event and provide more service.”

Alison Kysia, an educator at the ICJS, agreed, adding that it is important to understand varying viewpoints even if people don’t necessarily agree with them.

“We can’t just get into a room and stand next to one another. We have to engage in one another’s traditions and start to think about what it means to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim and how we can build friendships,” Kysia said. “If religion is always this taboo subject, which in American culture we are taught that you shouldn’t talk about religion in the public sphere, I think at [ICJS] we are trying to challenge that idea. If we really want to build friendships with one another, we have to  engage those relationships.”

Zainab Chaudry, Maryland outreach manager for the Council on American Islamic Relations, spoke on the number of similar challenges that Muslims and Jews around the world continue to combat on a regular basis.

“Islamphobia is on the rise, and anti-Semintism is also on the rise,” Chaudry said. “The same forces of bigtory and hatred and predjudice that fuel one also fuel the other. It’s so  important for the [Muslim and Jewish communities] to work together not only to push back against the hate, but also  to show that we can work  together for a positive purpose and bring more peace and goodwill into the world.”

Tabra Sy, an 18-year-old freshman at Goucher College, said she plans to remain active in volunteering events involving the ICJS.

“I am definitely all for  humanity,” Sy said, “and I love having the ability to help people. I feel like this was a humbling experience for myself in terms of being able to give back to those less forunate and see that people who are privileged do care about them and don’t marginalize them.

Josh Sherman, a former ICJS intern and current program  associate for Repair the World Baltimore, hopes to see more  interfaith services geared toward buidling stronger relations within the community.

“I’ve always found that I connect best with my Judaism in interfaith settings when talking about interfaith issues or talking about religion,” Sherman said. “I think this a really beautiful thing, and I think there needs to be more interfaith work.”

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