Simple Habits of Greatness

POMPTON LAKES — On a recent Sunday morning, Mohammed Ferras Alhomsi ushered the crew of Jews, Christians and Muslims into his backyard.
There were Jewish men wearing kippot and Muslim women in hijabs. The crowd ambled onto a cozy patio and dug into a halal and kosher brunch. They exchanged gleeful greetings and hugs. The pile of bagels dwindled.
The conversation flowed like a noisy stream until the dozen or so participants were nagged into a smiling silence.  
The intimate, bimonthly gathering in Passaic County is one of about 120 groups around the world that were created in the hopes that they can gradually point the way toward ending ancient animosities. The meetings are affiliated with the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Encounter Association, a nonprofit which promotes cross-cultural dialogue, mostly between Muslims and Jews.
Pre-pandemic, the gatherings drew roughly 4,000 people annually, according to the 21-year-old association. 
Here in North Jersey, the group brings together an assortment of clerics, professors and businesspeople regularly in the hope of building bridges. They discuss faith, family and, occasionally, politics, even as conflict in the Middle East seems intractable as ever. 
“We all have the same problems,” said Khaja Khateeb of Paramus, a Muslim business owner at the brunch. “We talk about our children. Some are running away from religious life and getting into trouble.”
The Interfaith Encounter Association has earned accolades from UNESCO, the World Movement for Global Democracy and, most recently, from the Israeli government, which in May honored it with the Presidential Award for Volunteerism. Leaders hope the publicity will help draw in new participants.  
The IEA’s aim is to promote peace by focusing on shared religious values, said Rabbi Bob Carroll, a Teaneck rabbi and chairman of the association’s board of directors. A computer engineer and former chaplain who splits his time between Bergen County and Jerusalem, Carroll, 63, was instrumental in establishing the local chapter.
“If religion is part of the problem, it must be part of the solution,” he said.
Ali Agha of Brooklyn, who often commutes to the meetings in New Jersey, said he’s learned a lot about Judaism from these conversations while his Jewish friends have learned about Islam.   
“We discovered we had a lot in common, like how each of us view the Messiah, how both of our religions believe in taking responsibility for our planet. Jews pray three times a day and we pray five times a day. It boggles the mind that there’s so much conflict given all of our similarities,” said Agha, 36, who works in finance. 
“It’s easy to fear people you don’t know,” he added. “People might feel that Muslims are bad, but usually it’s because they don’t know a Muslim person. So these groups help to build friendships in other communities.” 
Later this month, Agha is releasing an interfaith podcast with Christian and Jewish friends called “The Jew, The Muslim and The Other Guy,” to help spread the message.
This conclave has been meeting for seven years, first in the Teaneck home of Alan Brill, a Jewish professor of religion at Seton Hall and more recently at the home of Alhomsi, a Syrian-born Muslim who came to the U.S. in 1988.  
After a few laughs, Joan Goldstein of Fair Lawn, one of the group’s veterans, finally got the brunch down to business. “It is a holy time for everyone,” she said happily, noting that Easter and Ramadan had recently concluded. Jews, meanwhile, were in the midst of counting the Omer, the weeks between Passover and Shavuoth, which marks the giving of the Torah.
Talk turned to the spiritual practices surrounding the holidays.
The participants shared their own perspective on sacred time. After an hour, Alhomsi brought out mint tea and the conversation continued between slurps.      
Across the years, the group has discussed how various religions view philanthropy, mental health, and joy. Sometimes, talk turns to the issues plaguing their communities. 
Goldstein said last year’s military conflict in Israel and Gaza was stressful for group members whose relatives live in Israel or in Palestinian villages. “We were all asking each other, `Are you OK? Is your family OK?’ We were all praying for the best.
“That’s the whole point of this. We became friends and we care about each other. We’re not going to stop caring about each other during difficult times.” 
The North Jersey group is one of a growing number of grassroots efforts seeking common ground between Jews and Muslims, despite (or maybe because of) the Middle East conflict. Among the U.S.-based efforts are Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which builds relationships between Muslim and Jewish women. There’s also the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee in New York, which aims to build relationships and stand against hate through shared values.   
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Such groups can offer meaningful experiences and help participants get past stereotypes, said Ned Lazarus, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University,  who has studied peace-building efforts in the Israeli and Palestinian divide.
“The dialogue between the participants is done between a specific group in an intimate way that builds trust and can be very powerful,” he said. “But that’s not the same as a mass political movement. It doesn’t change the larger political dynamics that drive the larger conflict.”
While participants can enjoy warm conversations and forge personal connections, the reality of violence in the Middle East can’t be ignored, critics say.
Even these “peacemaking” groups can’t always keep the peace: Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom generally steers clear from politics but made an exception last summer by releasing a statement about the Gaza conflict that seemed to put much of the onus on Israel. Some Jewish members were angered and left the organization, according to media reports. 
The Interfaith Encounter Association says its concept helps adversaries connect and overcome their prejudices. “These types of conversations have transformative power,” said Yehuda Stolov of Jerusalem, the group’s founder and executive director.
Stolov, 61, who holds a PhD in physics and Jewish thought, launched IEA in 2001. In Israel, the group draws participation from Muslims, Jews and Christians, Palestinians and Israelis, and people from all academic, professional and socioeconomic  backgrounds, he said. 
The conversations steer away from controversial topics to focus on what participants share in common. Limiting political argument ensures that when divisive issues do arise, they are discussed in ways that won’t destroy relationships, said Stolov.
“We have to avoid quarreling about the past if we want to build a different future.” 
Back in Pompton Lakes, Alhomsi said bridge-building “gives me purpose in life.” 
Years ago, he organized an interfaith event at his Union City mosque. Brill, the Seton Hall professor, attended the event and the two became friends. Brill invited him to the interfaith discussions just then getting off the ground in his Teaneck home.
“Everyone comes with good intentions,” Alhomsi said. “There’s a lot of passion behind what we’re doing.”
Now a leader of the group, he’s eager to help it grow and to bring in more Muslims, including Palestinians from nearby Paterson.  
Carroll, who served in the Israel Defense Forces, said he was drawn to such conversations precisely because of his time in the military. He lived in Jerusalem through terrorist attacks and wars, and believes the only way for Muslims and Jews to survive in the Holy Land together is by working on peaceful coexistence. 
Yet he’s also realistic.
“The conflict isn’t going to be resolved soon,” he said. “But we are, year by year, increasing the pool of people who feel we aren’t each other’s enemy and we can work this out.” 
On Sunday, it was clear that the power of the group’s efforts had made a dent on the next generation: Alhomsi’s 5-year-old daughter, Hala, watched the gathering in her home wide-eyed. 
Then, she approached one person after another, generously offering her doll and puzzle, and asking, “Will you play with me?” 
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Email: yellin@northjersey.com Twitter: @deenayellin 

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