As dusk settled over south Minneapolis on a June evening, about 120 people sat in the sanctuary of Shir Tikvah Congregation, preparing for an evening of prayer, discussion and fellowship.
No, it wasn’t a service marking the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. On this night, Shir Tikvah congregants welcomed members of Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque, from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, for an iftar – the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan, one of Islam’s most important observances.
For the members of Shir Tikvah, the dinner felt like a natural expression of support for a group of people who often feel culturally isolated.
“We have seen this before, so we are reaching out to our Muslim brothers and sisters and letting them know that they are as much a part of this community as we are,” Shir Tikvah Rabbi Michael Latz said.
Shir Tikvah’s dinner is part of a broader effort among Minnesota’s religious communities to make connections with Muslim congregations during Ramadan.
For the past decade, for instance, a program called Taking Heart, coordinated by the Minnesota Council of Churches and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, has connected Christians (and other non-Muslims) and Muslims during Ramadan. This year, about 1,000 people outside the Islamic faith are expected to take part, according to the Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert, an Episcopal priest who oversees the program.
Mosques participating in Taking Heart do the hosting, often providing information about Islam before the evening meal.
“People really appreciate the presentations,” Bronson Sweigert said, “but I think what is really encouraging is that what they really value is the opportunity for small group conversation.”
That was an overarching goal at the Shir Tikvah dinner. To generate discussion, the synagogue placed a list of ice-breaker questions on each table. At the top: “How did you or your family come to the United States? Please, share the story with us.”
Sama Noor, who attends Dar Al-Hijrah and came to the iftar with friends, called it “a beautiful feast.” He added: “Getting to know each other, being open to each other, being friendly to each other – this is very important. We love this interfaith dialogue.”
Shir Tikvah members Andrea Breen and Billy Perkiss, who are married, sat with guests at one table trying some dates – often the first food eaten in breaking the Ramadan fast.
“With everything that’s going on, it’s important to connect with other people,” Breen said. Her husband added: “We don’t know anything about each other – we have to start somewhere, get to know each other and just put a personal face on a situation you only hear about.”
In December, the mosque plans to return the favor by hosting a Hanukkah observance for members of the synagogue.
A long day’s end
Ramadan is a monthlong observance that consists of fasting, from sunrise until sunset, prayer and introspection. Fasting, one of the “five pillars,” or fundamental principles, of Islam, is observed as a way for Muslims to focus on ideals like compassion and self-restraint. (This year, Ramadan falls between May 26 and June 24).
At Shir Tikvah, around 9 p.m., the worshippers from Dar Al-Hijrah went into the basement of the synagogue to pray – the men in one room, the women in another. By the time they had returned to the foyer, plates of beef kabobs, roasted potatoes, rice, chickpeas and other dishes had been placed for them on long serving tables.
For the Muslim guests, it was the welcome end of another long day without food.
Sharif Mohamed, the imam of Dar Al-Hijrah, took a seat next to Shir Tikvah members Maryasha Katz and Pat Schmatz around 9:30 p.m. He had spoken to the group, led prayers and visited with synagogue members. Approached by a reporter, he said: “I’d love to talk, but can I eat first?”