Formally and informally, local Jews and Muslims get to know each other
By Martha Moody Jacobs, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer, January 2011
It’s a feeling some Jews might relate to. Ramzieh Azmeh says the biggest thing she noticed as a head-scarf wearing Muslim woman after 9/11 was that “people were not as indifferent.” Her husband, Wa’el Azmeh, recalls thinking that people around him were wondering, “Why don’t we get rid of those people?”
Ramzieh and Wa’el Azmeh, a married couple originally from Syria who are now both Dayton physicians, were then living in Wichita, Kan. The aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks brought new urgency to their attempts at interfaith dialogue, a mission of theirs for years.
Now, the Azmehs are central figures in a group of Daytonians interested in and actively working to forge Jewish-Muslim connections.
This group is neither large nor well-organized. Some though not all of the participants are active in the Dayton Interfaith Trialogue, a group started after 9/11 to promote friendship and foster understanding among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Dr. Eric Friedland describes his friendship with the Azmehs as “very close, like family almost.”
Several years ago, Friedland, a retired professor of Jewish studies, gave a talk at Temple Israel about Maimonides’ attitude toward Christianity and Islam.
In the audience were the Azmehs, who spoke to him after the talk. Friedland says he had “minimal and token” contact with Muslims prior to meeting the Azmehs, but he was familiar with their customs. “I was very aware that Ramzieh shook my hand,” Friedland recalls.
The Azmehs and Friedland decided to study Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed together, “on the condition that we read it in Arabic.”
Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, was born in Cordoba and lived in Egypt. He wrote in Arabic transposed to a Hebrew script.
Friedland remembers his first meeting with the Azmehs. “I’m a Zionist,” Friedland said.
Ramzieh answered, “Many, many years ago we were neighbors. You left, then you came back, and it’s taking us a while to get used to it.”
The group got through The Guide to the Perplexed and moved on to other studies. Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin of Chabad was among those who took part in the studies.
“My best friend in high school was half Lebanese and studied in Egypt,” Klatzkin says. “Jews have lived with Muslims and had tremendous cultural exchanges through the years. It’s a reality of Jewish life that there’s a connection.”
“The problems in the world are real,” Klatzkin says. “There is antisemitism and the world seems complicit…We’ve tried to solve religious problems by politics, and it doesn’t work. It has to work from the people up, in their own conscience.” For Klatzkin, the connections should be “heart to heart and spirit to spirit of people before God.”
Rabbi Bernard Barsky of Beth Abraham has spoken at Trialogue events and is friendly with the Azmehs, whom he describes as “wonderful people.”
“There are people who just hate Muslims and Islam,” says Barsky. “It’s an ignorance of Jewish history.”
In the past, Jews had communities throughout the Islamic world — in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. Medieval Cordoba, in Spain, was a famously thriving Muslim-ruled city where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in harmony.
Currently, Wa’el Azmeh is reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in Hebrew with Friedland and Friedland is reading the Koran in Arabic with him. “We’re finding borrowings both ways,” says Friedland in delight.
As to Israel-related issues, Friedland says, “We have chosen to concentrate on the positive. Once in a blue moon we get political, and we’re very frank — about our annoyances with the other, and our annoyances with our own.”
“What the Azmehs have enabled me to do,” Friedland adds, “is realize that when you talk about Islam, you’re talking about a multifarious phenomenon. You simply can’t say ‘the Arabs.’ There’s a whole range of views within the Arab world.”
Bill Gronefeld of Temple Israel has been a member of the Trialogue for seven years and is now the group’s president. The group arranges both social programs and presentations.
“It’s an opportunity to work and socialize and find out we have the same worries, concerns and interests,” Gronefeld says. “I can’t change the situation in the Middle East, but maybe I can change the situation in Dayton.”
Or, as Muslim Dr. Sa’eed Bezreh says, “Human interaction is the strongest antidote to hatred.”
Before joining the Trialogue, Gronefeld says, he didn’t know any Muslims. As members of the different faiths discuss theology, Gronefeld has been surprised to find Jews and Muslims believe many of the same things.
“We believe in one God, not a Trinity like the Christians,” says Gronefeld, “and we don’t agree with the Christian concept of grace”— the precept encompassing the belief that the death of Jesus atones for the sins of his believers.
“If we understand each other better, we can live together better,” says fellow Trialogue member Dr. Ron Gilbert of Temple Israel.
Gilbert’s interest in meeting people from different backgrounds stems from his time in the military. In Montgomery, Ala., he saw separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks. In San Antonio, an advertisement that read “Anglos only” baffled him until someone told him, “That means they don’t want a Hispanic like me.”
“That shocked me,” Gilbert says. “I look at people based upon their own attributes, not what they’re born into. In this country, thank goodness, most people do that now.”
“I can see Muslims don’t fit the stereotypes we see on television,” Gronefeld says. “I often hear people say, after a terrorist attack, why don’t the Muslims speak out? Well, they do.” Gronefeld cites a recent opinion piece in The Dayton Jewish Observer by Wa’el Azmeh.
Wa’el Azmeh for his part, expresses a certain weariness about the question of “why Muslims don’t speak out.”
Every time there’s news of a terror attack or threat of Muslim origin, he fires off an e-mail decrying it.
“I’m a good guy,” he says. “Do I have to send out an e-mail every time? Most people want to go on with their life…Muslims are tired of being asked to defend all things Muslim.”
He talks about doing presentations on Islam for clubs and religious groups and looking out to see people drinking coffee or dozing off.
“I feel like an entertainer!” he laughs. “I hate that. The people who call us to speak are the people who need least to listen to us.”
Dermatologist Sa-eed Bezreh says being Muslim in America can feel like “an awkward position…There’s a natural reaction to blend in, to not stick your neck out. Muslims are struggling with this thing. They’re tired of talking about themselves.”
Still, Bezreh gives presentations about Islam, most recently a Friday evening talk at Temple Israel.
“Being out there, it builds bridges,” he said. “There’s a choice to be xenophobic or to be open and embracing.”
Rabbi David Sofian, who invited Bezreh to speak at Temple Israel, says Bezreh’s talk on immigrants and acculturation received “a very positive response.”
“His point was we don’t have to agree on everything to have common ground in many things,” Sofian says.
Sofian, who hopes to involve Temple Israel in further Jewish-Muslim events, sees such interaction as the latest iteration of interfaith dialogue.
“We’re doing work now that was done successfully in the past between Jewish and Christian communities,” he says.
He notes that the Muslim population in America is rapidly growing. “It’s important that we develop relationships.”
“It’s not always easy,” says Ramzieh Azmeh. “My first presentation, my knee-cap was jumping up and down. I was a shy person, but I felt I had to overcome.”
She speaks of a sense of duty, a priority to break barriers. The Azmehs are busy. They have, between them, five speaking commitments during the week they are interviewed. “It’s not always like this,” Ramzieh Azmeh demurs.
Balancing tradition with modernity
Bezreh and the Azmehs feel there are things Muslim-Americans can learn from American Jews. They note that most Muslims in America are first- generation immigrants, just beginning to confront the issues of assimilation, intermarriage, and preservation of identity that the American Jewish community has dealt with for years.
Bezreh says some Muslims are finding that “the beliefs of generations don’t fit with modern life” and are envisioning a new form of Islam that remains connected to the Koran.
The same ingredients that led to the birth of the Reform movement in Judaism, Bezreh suspects, are brewing in contemporary Islam. After all, Bezreh says, the Koran states that Judaism is the history of monotheism.
Friedland says he’s smitten with Arabic. He notes that both Hebrew and Arabic come from Aramaic; both have words with three root letters; both use prefixes and suffixes to expand meaning, and both have genders not only for nouns but for the verb associated with the noun. “When you take Arabic, your Hebrew improves exponentially,” he says.
“Modern Jews are missing something,” Friedland says. “We can recover some of our Semitic roots by communing with our Muslim friends.”
On Dec. 11, 2010, the Azmehs and Friedland participated in an interfaith dialogue at Antioch College’s Coretta Scott King Center for Intellectual and Cultural Freedom. To see the program, click here.