Event draws the faiths together, cultivating new bonds by embracing similarities, accepting differences

Recent hate crimes targeted at Muslim and Jewish communities across the country have led to mutual outpourings of support. Last month, a crowd-funding campaign launched by two Muslim Americans raised more than $100,000 within two days for repairs to a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri.

In the same month, a crowd-funding effort for an arson attack of a Florida mosque garnered donations in increments of $18, signifying Chai, a Jewish symbol and blessing for a long life.

Closer to home, members of the Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka and the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth are demonstrating how people of the two faiths can create greater understanding through their differences, and build friendships from their similarities.

The idea for Love Your Neighbor came after Andrea Potashnick, along with her husband and two sons, visited the Islamic Community Center for the first time, bringing a bouquet of flowers the Sunday after the election.

According to Potashnick, it was their way of showing support to their Muslim neighbors in a time of uncertainty and rising Islamaphobia. “I think also to give the families hope that kindness would prevail,” she said.

During their visit, the Potashnick family was introduced to the center’s Sunday School director Mateen Ali and families from the mosque. They were warmly welcomed and invited to stay to witness the prayer service that afternoon.

“Afterwards, a lot of the families came up to us, thanked us for coming, gave us hugs, and told us how much they appreciated us being there,” she said. “One parent even said how important it was for their children to see and hear what we did.”

Ali expressed his gratitude of the Potashnicks’ visit that day.

“It meant a lot for me at that time, and for my community, for someone to come in and show their genuine support,” said Ali, who grew up in Plymouth, where he is now raising his children with wife Farhana. Noting the uncertainty throughout the Muslim community, “Having them there was overwhelming for a lot of people ... it meant a lot to us.”

Potashnick realized she wanted this experience to extend beyond just the one visit.

“As much as they appreciated us being there and showing our support, I realized I wanted that too,” said Potashnick, a member of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka.

“Throughout history, Muslims and Jews have had a lengthy, complex and often tense relationship, which admittedly, I struggle to understand,” said Potashnick.

“In today’s political climate, we have the unfortunate commonality of being increasingly targeted in various hate crimes,” she said. “We both have also been subject to false accusations based on our religious identities. We are two separate communities, often living as neighbors but leading separate lives.”

Potashnick began working with her friends and the rabbis at Adath to begin making connections between the Jewish and Muslim communities with one goal in mind: “Embrace our similarities, respect our differences, and organically cultivate new bonds in order to model for our children a world filled with unity and acceptance,” she said.

Adath member Brandie Itman came up with the name Love Your Neighbor.

“I saw it as the epitome of what we were hoping to accomplish,” Itman said. “We may not be neighbors in the literal sense, but we are all in this world together ... I thought that if we could see each other as neighbors instead of strangers, we could break down the walls that society and lack of knowledge have built and come together as one big community full of love and acceptance,” she said.

“Planning for the first Love Your Neighbor event was truly a team effort and not something I could have done on my own,” Potashnick said. “The process was natural and unforced because so many people were willing to donate their time and expertise.”

Members of the Northwest Islamic Community Center, including Sadia Tarannum and Farhana Ali, soon became involved in the planning.

The center already had been reaching out to other faith communities, providing education on Islam in an effort to break down barriers and negative stigma through community outreach and interfaith programs.

Oftentimes, these outreach programs are the participant’s first experience meeting and interacting with a Muslim, Tarannum explained. It provides an opportunity to show how Muslims are a part of the community, which ultimately builds compassion and understanding of each other.

“We become a neighbor,” she said.

Love Your Neighbor became a natural branch of the mosque’s effort “to understand and celebrate the similarities we have and embrace and respect our differences,” said Tarannum.

“Even for the Muslim community, it’s been great to learn about the different religions and how the Christians and Jews practice,” she said. Collectively, they learn and understand each other’s faith traditions on a deeper level, she said.

The first Love Your Neighbor event was Feb. 4, in which Adath invited members of the center for a short Havdalah service in the social hall at Adath. Havdalah is a Jewish religious ceremony or formal prayer marking the end of the Sabbath.

There were activities for kids, a human BINGO game to foster conversations and a potluck dessert bar.

“Looking around the room, strangers were becoming neighbors, and neighbors were becoming friends,” noted Potashnick.

Tarannum described the event as warm and welcoming.

“I loved the conversations that were happening around me,” she said, noting the longing from both sides to connect was always there, someone just had to take the first step. The events “brought that longing up to the surface,” she said.

“We create a culture of curiosity with hard questions, with deep learning over sacred text, with fun games, with good food. As Jews and Muslims we have many of these touch points to share, that remind us of our ancestors, and give us the space to grow through similarity and difference today,” said Rabbi Aaron Weininger.

“In a time of disturbing rhetoric targeting Jews and Muslims, including our kids at school, we can show up with our values to shape a different reality, to craft a different language, to embody what might become,” Weininger said.

The second event was March 5 at the center.

Just as the center members learned about the Jewish faith traditions at the first event, members of Adath had an opportunity to learn about Islam and continue fostering those friendships that blossomed a month earlier.

“Our intention is to create a sustainable model for us to continue and build our friendships,” Potashnick said, as they being to form committees from both congregations for future connections.

“In my lifetime, I never experienced anti-semitism so close to home. I never thought I’d have to raise my children in a world with such hatred,” Potashnick said, pointing out the recent hate crimes against the Jewish community.

It is through Love Your Neighbor and other interfaith work that gives Potashnick hope for a more peaceful future. “It gives me faith that we will overcome adversity, and we will do it with the support and the helping hands of our neighbors.”

Contact Kristen Miller at Kristen.Miller@ecm-inc.com.

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