OPINION: A shul iftar is no longer extraordinary, but the novelty has never worn off

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OPINION: A shul iftar is no longer extraordinary, but the novelty has never worn off

Bringing Jews and Muslims together is not interfaith tokenism. It is investing in a relationship we shouldn’t disregard, nor belittle, writes Remona Aly

Iftar at Alyth. Photo by Caleb Hyman.
Iftar at Alyth. Photo by Caleb Hyman.

When I told a Muslim friend some years ago that I was off to the synagogue for iftar, she did a double take. Yet going to a shul has been my Ramadan fix for nearly a decade; now when I tell her, she’s nonplussed. 

Normalised as it has become, the extraordinary has never rubbed off. When I was first invited to Alyth Synagogue’s ‘kosher iftar’, I was drawn by the fusion that brought Jews, Muslims and people of all backgrounds into one space.

As a Muslim, being so graciously hosted in a shul during Islam’s holiest month, was palpably significant. In a climate that barely exists without tension between our faith communities, these encounters aren’t only timely, they are essential. For this is not interfaith tokenism, it is investing in a relationship we shouldn’t disregard, nor belittle. The sincerity in the willingness to learn – and eat – side by side, coupled with the open hearth has kept me coming back.

Remona Aly.

The kosher iftar was originally conceived by Alyth’s former rabbis and Muslim interfaith consultant Julie Siddiqi, who is co-founder of The Big Iftar, a nationwide community initiative. “I don’t know anywhere in the world this is happening in this way,” remarks Julie, as the Muslim call to prayer gently echoes around the shul. “I am so humbled and grateful for the love and hospitality shown by the Rabbis and the whole team at Alyth.”

Since its inception ten years ago, the iftar has continued to grow, this year welcoming almost 200 attendees. Forty-two year old David, who converted to Islam 25 years ago, told me it was the first time he had been in a shul. A local to the area, he’d walk past synagogues but felt apprehensive to approach the gated entrances. On hearing of the kosher iftar he jumped at the opportunity to be inside a shul and says he instantly felt “the warmth of the Jewish faith.”

A highlight for David was standing close to the Torah scrolls. “Seeing the etiquette surrounding the holy scriptures taken from the Ark, to gaze upon the words and hear it recited, was such a honour. Informal events like this bring light to the community as they break down so many boundaries between Jews and Muslims, who come together to exchange experiences over food.”

Certainly, the kosher iftar brings more than food to the table. Alyth embraces the opportunity for cross-faith learning, and I have been privileged to teach alongside Rabbi Hannah Kingston for several years, this year joined by Kiera Phyo, the Reconciling Leaders Network Director for the Archbishop of Canterbury, to discuss the “Great women behind our great men” in our respective traditions.

Rabbi Hannah says the iftar is her favourite time of the shul’s calendar, even if, by her own admission, it “may sound funny” coming from a rabbi. “The most wonderful thing about this year’s iftar was that it felt like welcoming friends back into our home. Over ten years, we have made real and genuine relationships and we continue to build these connections with each person who steps foot through the doors. It feels like a night of warmth and light, in a world that often feels bleak,” she says.

Geo-politics have overshadowed a relationship that goes back well over 14 centuries, but I see Alyth setting a different narrative. It is proof of what we stand for, not only what we stand against. We cannot allow ourselves to be merely defined, nor only engage with one another, in the confined context of conflict.

This is not to dismiss the difficulties we face, the intolerances that threaten to engulf us, nor the gravity of the issues we see within and between our communities, but we must also acknowledge and reinforce the constructive spaces.

Platforms such as Alyth’s iftar offer us alternatives that seek to build trust and even repair fractured relationships. Every gesture, every shared moment, every intimacy between our faiths is an antidote to our troubled times.

A walking testament to this is synagogue member and Cambridge student, Ben, who has attended Alyth’s iftars since he was 11 years old. The iftars have acted as a catalyst for his own interfaith leanings. “I’ve always had a natural interest in interfaith, and the Alyth iftars helped cement and fortify that passion.”

Ben, who is also his university’s former interfaith officer as well as JSoc president, tells me that his experience of the kosher iftar has helped him find more ease in befriending Muslims including the Islamic society’s president, who is Palestinian.

Ben also breaks his Yom Kippur fast on a date, learning from his fasting Muslim counterparts. “It’s not just interfaith”, he says, “it’s about friendship.”

As I left the shul, after a particularly long Muslim-Jewish goodbye, and headed towards the mosque for Ramadan night prayers, I carried with me a fresh taste of the evening’s nostalgia, and the reminder never to take any of this for granted.

  • Remona Aly is a journalist and broadcaster with a focus on faith, lifestyle and identity.  She is director of communications for Exploring Islam Foundation which led a campaign on stories of Muslim-Jewish solidarity (http://www.missingpages.co.uk/). She also presents podcasts for various platforms.
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