It was Friday night, the start of the Jewish Sabbath. It was also Christmas Day. So what did the synagoguge’s congregation do? Why, what anyone would do–host dinner for a group of newly-arrived Muslim refugeees from Syria.
Wait, that doesn’t sound like something a Jewish temple would do? Then you haven’t met the members of Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, New Jersey, who hosted 10 refugee families from Elizabeth to join them for the traditional Jewish dinner on Christmas–chow mein and egg foo yong, of course. One refugee family from Paterson also accepted the invitation.
“The room was packed and at every table American Jews and Syrian Refugees were smiling and trying to communicate,” Rabbi Elliott Tepperman told BaristaNet. “Everyone had name tags in English, Hebrew and Arabic and with very few words beyond each other’s names, extraordinary warmth and gratitude was expressed.”
Kate McCaffrey of Maplewood, who expressed concern over the “demonizing of immigrants” in light of comments by presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the governors of other states who have expressed a desire to bar immigrants from setting in their states–wholeheartedly supported the move of the temple to invite the immigrants to share a meal.
“They were very enthusiastic,” said McCaffrey. “We really have no idea what their experiences with Jews are or what their feelings are. They accepted the invitation overwhelmingly.”
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, the leader of Bnai Keshet, explained to website NJ.com that the Syrians’ plight is one that they can understand due to their own experiences and those of their ancestors. “Members of our congregation and people throughout the Jewish community have really felt called to help the refugees. As Jews, we all come from refugee families and we know in our bones what it’s like to have hateful rhetoric directed toward us,” Tepperman said. “Many of our parents were Holocaust refugees.”
The statement describing the event said, “Conceived of to counter the anti-Muslim rhetoric of absentee NJ Governor Chris Christie, the event went beyond breaking bread. Guests eagerly asked about potential job contacts, ways to learn English as a second language and how best to advocate in the public schools.”
Rana Shanawani, a woman of Syrian descent living in Short Hills, has been helping the refugees and gave them the reference to the congregation in Montclair who hosted them. Shanawani called the email she received from the synagogue “wonderful” and “amazing.” “We reached out to the families and asked how they felt about it.”
She didn’t know what to expect at first when these two very different groups started planning to come together on Christmas.
She said the reaction “was very favorable” and that “everyone agreed to go.”
She said they had been “strategizing on how to give as good an impression as possible. They’re bringing flowers and trying to be as harmonious as possible. It’s so wonderful, I’m so happy there is so much enthusiasm on both sides,” Shanawani said.
The children played an especially large role in convincing their families to go to the gathering. Shanawani said the refugees are trying to create a good impression in the community and attending the dinner is a big part of that.
One would think that keeping to both kosher and halal dietary laws would be a challenge, so in order to avoid that problem, they served vegetarian food catered by a Kosher Asian restaurant in West Orange called Woxx. The meal also included challah, the bread traditionally served on the Jewish Sabbath, and included blessings over candles.
These days, the tensions between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East seem more heated than ever, but the two groups came together in a spirit of peace, charity, and mutual understanding this holiday.
According to McCaffrey, in Elizabeth, there aren’t as many Muslims and the refugees have reported having slightly more trouble fitting into the community. Their aren’t as many support programs for the families, and the schools there aren’t as equipped to deal with students who speak Arabic. The Muslim population in nearby Paterson is much larger, so it’s been easier for the refugees to settle in there.
“They want to show their support, they want to show that they don’t feel that way,” she said. “We’re trying to show a positive model of sharing, of breaking bread. We really intend this as solidarity, not charity,” she said.
These days, the headlines are all about coping with anti-Muslim sentiment, thanks to the current political climate. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria has caused thousands of refuges to pour into Europe and the United States, causing rising religious tensions in those areas. Small gestures of peace such as the one from Bnai Keshet can make tremendous difference in helping to encourage understanding between religions.