Four weeks ago, 75 Jews and 75 Muslims met together for three hours at the Islamic Center in Villa Park. The event was called An Evening of Tzedakah-Sadaqah: Being a Muslim or Jewish Minority in Today’s America.
Strange bedfellows, you say?
The relationship began in 2015 when River Forest residents Syed Mohuddin Ahmed and his wife Nausheen Akhter did not want to drive all the way out to Villa Park to break the fast during Ramadan with friends. When the Oak Park Temple heard that their Muslim neighbors were looking for a space to accommodate a larger crowd than a living room could hold, they offered these Muslims the use of their hall.
The gathering on May 6 was the fourth time the two groups have gotten together, and by the way they greeted each other on entering the mosque you would think they were old friends.
In Hebrew Tzedakah means “charity.” According to Omer Mozaffar, a member of the Islamic Center, Sadaqah comes from the same Semitic root as does Tzedakah and means “making truth.”
The two groups were comfortable with each other, partly because they had discovered that they had a lot in common. They both trace their faith traditions back to Abraham. They share a history of being persecuted minorities in the U.S., and the adults in both congregations worry about their children losing their identities because of assimilating into American culture.
They were also comfortable in each other’s presence because Rabbi Max Weiss and his congregation were willing to move out of their comfort zone and into what I will call a “Lewis-and-Clark zone.” They discovered a good deal of overlap in their two traditions. Lewis and Clark, of course, were the leaders of what was called the Corps of Discovery Expedition, which traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean between 1804 and 1806.
I’m sure that when they told their families about the adventure on which they intended to embark, their mothers responded, “Are you nuts?!”
That’s how mothers usually respond when their children, especially their adolescent and young adult children, want to leave the comfort zones of home and family and tradition — in other words the way we’ve always done things — and test what they are made of by spreading their wings and “driving new roads.”
Rabbi Weiss and members of Oak Park Temple were going against what we might call their maternal instincts by taking the risk of entering a somewhat unexplored territory in which there was no guarantee they would be comfortable — or even safe.
Most of you are aware that there is a well-documented trend in this country for people to gravitate toward communities or lifestyle enclaves populated by those who look and, what’s more important, think like they do.
On the one hand, I get that. Syed Mohuddin Ahmed, Nausheen Akhter, and Rabbi Weiss have never been in my Lutheran Church, partly because their identity as well as their comfort is dependent on frequently congregating with people who believe more or less like they do.
So for Jews from Oak Park to venture out to the Islamic Center in Villa Park was a bit like a Lewis and Clark expedition. Thankfully, what each group discovered was that they had enough religious and cultural overlap, enough in common to “sing in harmony” even though they might be singing different notes.
Discovery expeditions don’t always have happy endings, of course. That’s why leaving our comfort zones is always a risk.
But here’s the thing: Because people are not only living in lifestyle enclaves but also clinging to the comfort of viewing the world from inside ideological bubbles, this country, this state and sometimes even this village experience varying degrees of polarization.
When I ask people to do something they don’t believe in or agree with — sign a pro-life or pro-choice petition for example — these days they often respond with “I’m not comfortable with that,” an amoral statement. “Comfort” is a word describing a feeling. It doesn’t belong to the realm of ethics, to language about right and wrong. It’s a symptom of a drift in this culture away from the word “should” to individualized expressions of emotion, from ethics to psychology.
Maybe I’m being a bit counter-cultural in using the word “should” but I’ll use it anyway. All of us, I contend, should go on Lewis and Clark expeditions, away from our comfort zones, and experience unexplored cultural, religious and ideological territory. If it makes you uncomfortable, I daresay comfort has really little to do with it.
You should do it and do it regularly because 1) it will, as your parents would sometimes say, be good for you, and 2) our society desperately needs bridges instead of walls built along the borders of our comfort zones.