If I Didn’t Know It was a Mosque, I Would Have Sworn I Just Walked into My Temple

They greeted us at the steps to the social hall, smiling warmly and asking us each to put on a name tag. Handshakes around, introductions made, we were conveyed up the steps. Each family was ushered forward by a host. The kids disappeared quickly. Girls went down to the climbing bars and swings; boys were swept up into a pick up basketball game. We ate delicious food, prepared with special attention to Jewish dietary requirements. We shmoozed (talked to one another), which began the process of building relationships between the two groups – Muslims and Jews. Imam Ahmed Patel and Rabbis Paul Kipnes and Julia Weisz shared values and ideals from the two traditions, Islam and Judaism. Touched by the warmth, the food, and the communal caring, one Or Ami congregant reflected, “If I didn’t know it was a Mosque, I would have sworn I just walked into our synagogue.”

Over 125 Jews and Muslims gathered at the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley (ICCV) as part of an intentional process of developing relationships between our two communities. Congregation Or Ami’s group, led by Kevin Palm and Vice President Marina Mann, brought young and older together for Sunday evening dinner. We share a few reflections from Or Ami members on the experience:

Vice President and co-Convener Marina Mann comments:

Our April 29th gathering was a really momentous and exciting occasion for about 70 people from Congregation Or Ami. We attended an amazing evening at the Islamic Center of the Conejo Valley where we were welcomed with open arms to join them for an evening of food, conversation, and general getting to know one another. They were so gracious and really helped us realize that the similarities between our two religions are really greater than our differences. 

Both Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz and their families attended and were invited to address the crowd. The Imam Ahmed Patel did so too, leading us in a prayer before the meal and beautifully explaining the significance of what was said. After the meal and discussion, we were invited to join them to observe one of their evening prayer sessions. Here too, everything was explained to us. 

Soon, we will be reciprocating by having families from the Islamic Center come to Or Ami to “break bread together.” We also plan on organizing some joint social action projects where we can work side by side to help change the world.

Co-convener Kevin Palm reflects:

I am still so impressed that we got over 125 Jews and Muslims together for dinner! The folks at the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley were so gracious and open. My wife Robin and I shared our table with two Muslim moms. Each of us shared what it is like to be either Muslim or Jewish in America. The Muslim women shared the challenges of being Muslim and raising their kids in America, especially post-9/11. They expressed how even certain teachers say things in their kids’ classrooms that are disparaging towards Muslims and Islam. 

Robin and I were able to share that up until the 1960s-1970s, being Jewish in America was a tough slog too. Housing and country clubs excluded Jews, and it was difficult for Jews to get hired by certain companies. Through the Civil Rights Act amongst other things, the views of Jews began to change. While anti-Semitism still exists in America, there is a lot less of it than years ago. We acknowledged through the work we are doing together that we can help spread the word that being Muslim does not mean being a terrorist. 

While not directly expressed, it can be said that our Jewish families and the Muslim families are doing our best to raise good children who can help improve our world, especially if we can work toward all getting along and understanding each other better.

These Muslim hosts did not consider Jews as being a minority in America, which we thought was interesting. We were able to share that we still are very much a minority. This comment led to a dialogue about influence by the media and how Jews have done well in this area, while American Muslims are still learning how to get their message out. 

Finally, I heard an interesting definition of jihad from our friend Azhar. He said jihad means “to struggle,” as in struggling to be a good Muslim while still being human. It sounded similar to what Yisrael means as “one who struggles with the concept of G-d.”

Or Ami President Lucille Shalometh Goldin writes:

We have heard our Rabbis say that we are all God’s children. I really felt the power of those words as I walked into the Islamic Center and was greeted by their members with the same warm welcoming smiles that we at Or Ami show when we greet those who walk through our doors. 

Muslims and Jews sat around tables talking as people.

To the outside world our beliefs may seem very different. Still, the more we spoke about raising our children and what we wanted for them and how we wanted them to treat others, to help less fortunate, and to treat their neighbors, we began to realize that we were more similar than different. We were a room of parents and neighbors, a community with hopes and dreams for our children and families. The warmth and laughter in the room was contagious. Like in our Jewish culture, they welcome guests over a good meal so there was a beautiful spread of delicious food awaiting us. No one left hungry! Following our dinner we went down to the Mosque’s prayer space to observe them in prayer, a very peaceful ritual that is done five times a day. 

We left the Islamic Center, promising to have our hosts back to Or Ami and of course to serve them a meal in our synagogue home and having them experience one of our services. We are all most excited about doing a joint social action project for our community which involves our kids too. This event was one I will not soon forget!

Past President Susan Gould shares:

Our dinner at the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley was so wonderful. It felt like Congregation Or Ami (with headscarves instead of yarmulkes). The hosts could not have been more welcoming, delightful and open. As I was getting around, I had a conversation with Laila at the table next to ours. She and Or Ami member Cyndi Friedman had been talking about intermarriage and how parents would feel if their children married out of the faith. My new friend Diana and the rest of our table discussed tolerance (and intolerance), prejudice, and our goals for raising well adjusted children. 

The Imam and assistants at the Islamic Center were funny – it was reassuring to hear them speaking about everyday things (like food and Costco) the same way we do! We Jews and Muslims have so much more in common than the common misperception that “we are enemies” would lead you to believe. Yes, there are extremists on the Muslim side. But there are also intolerant extremists among Jews as well. Gatherings like this encourage the progressives on both sides of the Abrahamic divide to break bread and break barriers.

We have high hopes for the future as our two communities – the Islamic Center of the Conejo Valley and Congregation Or Ami – spend more time getting to know each other and helping to heal the divide.