Jewish, Muslim congregations to participate in joint events

The conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East has often caused tension between people of the two different faiths living in other parts of the world.

To ease that tension, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams have established relationships with each other, hoping their dialogue will trickle down through their congregations and promote peace and understanding.

Those relationships, both new and old, will be celebrated this weekend in the Twin Cities at several events that are part of a larger effort in the United States, Canada and Europe to bring Jews and Muslims together.

Nine congregations in Minnesota, including one Catholic congregation, will participate in the so-called "twinnings" events. About 100 Jewish synagogues and 100 Muslim mosques in the U.S., Canada and Europe have joint events planned during the weekend.

Last year, about 50 synagogues and 50 mosques participated, and organizers with the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding said they expect interest in the program to keep growing.

"It says there's a real hunger out there for this in both communities," said Walter Ruby, Muslim-Jewish relations program officer with the foundation. "Both communities have a strong interest in working together.

The events in the Twin Cities include an interfaith prayer service, a discussion about the afterlife, a dialogue about faith and daily life, and scripture readings from the Torah and Koran.

The hope is that the relationships between the congregations will break down stereotypes and combat "Islamophobia" and anti-Semitism, said Rabbi Amy Eilberg, director of the Interfaith Conversation Project of the Jay Phillips Center in Minnesota.

"The strategy is to focus on first learning how we're alike, and then learning how we're different," Eilberg said, adding that congregations are not advised to begin their discussions talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Twin Cities congregations meeting this weekend are at various stages in their relationships, Eilberg said. One is new while another has gone on for about 15 years. Eilberg has seen some relationships flourish to the point where members of the congregations are able to invite each other over for dinner and get to know each other.

The deeper the relationship, the more likely it is to foster the kind of understanding that could promote peace in the Middle East, she said.

"Once you've sat in the living room together, you simply can't make those generalizations anymore. You know about their families, their children, their prayer lives," Eilberg said.