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Despite tensions, Jewish and Muslim students come together to talk

With passions flaring red hot over the fighting in Gaza, organizers almost cancelled the dinner at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque and civic center last night.

With passions flaring red hot over the fighting in Gaza, organizers almost cancelled the dinner at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque and civic center last night.

Young inner-city Somali Muslims had been scheduled to sit down with suburban Jewish teens and learn from one another about their lives, customs and beliefs.

But Abdisalam Adam worried that tempers could burst out of control. He directs the Dar Al-Hijrah center in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Minnesota’s Somali youth were incensed by news reports about the destruction in Gaza and the killing of hundreds of Palestinian Muslims. Regulars at the mosque felt the pain of the Palestinians and wanted nothing to diminish their voices denouncing Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip.

Many of their Jewish counterparts were ardently defending Israel’s right to retaliate for rockets Palestinian militants had fired into Israel.

Better to postpone the dinner, Adam told Seth Skora at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Honoring tradition
But face-to-face conversations about cultural and religious differences had been the driving reason for bringing these students together in the first place. To run scared from one another now could undermine the whole point of starting the dialogs last year.

They could honor their separate allegiances while also exploring whatever common ground they could find, leaders for both sides decided.

And so, a busload of Jewish teens pulled up to the mosque on Cedar Avenue just before evening prayers. Honoring Muslim tradition, men and boys entered through one door while girls and women filed into the door designated for them. All left their boots just inside the doors and took seats at tables that also were segregated by sex.

The Jewish students watched in polite silence while the Muslims knelt on rugs for their last prayers of the day.

Then everyone filled plates with African stews, spiced rice, salad, fruit and rolls of the soft Ethiopian pancake bread called injera.

You wouldn’t have known from her friendly and sometimes funny conversation that Fartun Ahmed had joined a heated protest on the steps of the state Capitol just two days earlier.

At the Capitol, Muslims and peace activists denounced Israelis as terrorists, colonialists and killers.

Here, at the candlelit table, Ahmed and her friend Khali Mohamed told Jewish students from Wayzata and Maple Grove what it was like to arrive in Minnesota as a refugee from fighting in Somalia. They joked about the gaffes they had made as little girls unlocking the mysteries of Minnesota-style bus schedules and school lockers.

This setting for the dinner was one of at least four mosques in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Ahmed and Mohamed explained.

“What makes a mosque a mosque?” the Jewish guests asked.          

It has to be a place set aside for prayer, said the Somalis.

At the next table, Hannah Page who goes to Blake School asked Ilhan Hassan from Minneapolis South High School where she buys her enveloping outfits called hijabs.

“My skirts are all too short to have such interesting patterns,” Page said.

Curious students
Page and Jewish students from Minnetonka High and St. Paul Academy were curious about the form of the prayers Muslim’s offer five times a day.

Are they all the same prayer?

The numbers of bows made during prayer differ at different times of the day, Hassan explained.

After dinner, the program opened with melodic chanting in Arabic of a passage from the Qur’an.

“Peace be with you,” Abdisalam Adam said in his welcome to the Jewish guests.

“This is a very difficult and painful period in the lives of Muslims and Jews,” he said.

But the two religions also have found much to share throughout history, he said.

“We are all saddened by the suffering,” he said. “Fighting is one way that people deal with one another, but there are better options.”

One better alternative, Adam said, was making every effort to help young Muslims and Jews learn to understand one another.

Wednesday night’s dinner was part of a project started in 2007 when the Justice Squared program at the Jewish Community Relations Council coordinated an interfaith dialog between teens from Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka and Dar Al-Hijrah. The project gets support from the McKnight Foundation.

There was broad support from both communities for the first meetings last year which focused on immigration.

Still, in the charged atmosphere of the current deadly conflict, it took courage to go ahead with a Muslim-Jewish dinner that could draw criticism from defenders of both sides.

“At this point in history, there may be a tendency to stay away from one another,” Imam Sharif Mohamed said at the dinner. “So I am happy that you have come to this mosque this night . . . we open our doors to you.”

Rabbi Norman Cohen from Bet Shalom said: “On the other side of the world there are Jews and Muslims who are killing each other, and we know it doesn’t have to be that way. . . . What we are doing here is part of the answer. . . . What we are doing tonight is a very important step in making sure that Jews and Muslims are not doing to each other what they are doing right now in other parts of the world.”

Nobody said anything about caring less for their competing causes. 

Later, Fartun Ahmed said the plight of the Palestinians “is on my mind every minute of every day.”

Yet she welcomed Jewish visitors, many of whom passionately support Israel’s rationale for punishing Gaza.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Ahmed asked. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”