Why the Mosque came for dinner
RABBI GREG ALEXANDER
Three years ago, we reached out to the Open Mosque in Wynberg to build a bridge between Muslims and Jews in Cape Town. We offered to host an Ifthar, a traditional breaking of the fast that happens each night of the month of Ramadan. For Muslims this is a period of introspection and prayer similar to our High Holy Day period over Elul and Tishrei.
We felt that, given the tensions that had grown between our communities – which were largely focused on the violence in Israel and Palestine – we needed to do something to build bridges and show that Jews and Muslims in South Africa can be friends.
Dr Taj Hargey of the Open Mosque was an enthusiastic partner, and what we absolutely agree on is that we do not want those disagreements about Israel to poison the relationships between our communities.
Jews and Muslims have long histories of good relations not only here in South Africa, but all over the world as well. We wanted to make sure that our communities could work together for better understanding.
So, we started to plan our first Ifthar. We suggested that our guests arrive as the sun was setting, so that they did their Adhan (call to prayer) in our shul sanctuary – we laid out rugs for them. We would then provide the traditional tea, dates and samosas for breaking the fast. They would then join us for our Kabbalat Shabbat service and then we would have the Friday night dinner together.
Both our communities were very nervous in the days leading up to the event. Our security was getting calls from community members, who felt that we should move the event to a neutral venue or cancel it outright. The mosque was getting pressure from its members as to why they had to supply names of all guests in advance (this was a requirement from our side so that we could manage who was going to come in the gate).
To keep things calm we decided that Dr Taj and I would greet each person at the gate, which we did. Despite some really nasty emails and phone calls, we went ahead and on Friday night, the group arrived.
It was incredible – our shul was packed out. I joked with many of the congregants that I now know how to fill the shul every Shabbes – invite Muslim guests!
It felt like a yom tov, with everyone excited and greeting each other, asking about why they do what they do and why we do what we do. And our community watched them pray their evening prayers and then they watched (and joined) ours too. It was a remarkable thing to see how everyone went from fearful to celebratory in one evening.
Dr Taj was clear that he wanted to reciprocate our hospitality, and we eventually came up with Chanukah – he would host one night of Chanukah in his mosque.
So, last year in December, a big group of congregants turned up at the Open Mosque in Wynberg with their chanukiot. Dr Taj had laid on a huge kosher meal, including latkes. We sang, we explained the history and symbolism of Chanukah and we lit many chanukiot there that night.
On Shabbat Naso last week, the biggest group of Muslims (over 60) came and joined us for Ifthar and we now knew many of them from previous years.
The weeks leading up were tense, given the protests at the Gaza fence, and Dr Taj and I kept in touch to reassure each other that we were going ahead. In his words: “We must do this all the more now.”
This year was the third year, and as we learn in Kohelet, “A threefold cord is not easily broken”, and so we will, PG, continue this tradition in years to come. We will continue to reach out to other mosques and Muslim groups, and encourage continued dialogue and friendship between our communities.
- Rabbi Greg Alexander is the rabbi of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation