JCCSF explores how Judaism, Islam intersect

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When the JCC of San Francisco approached David Giovacchini about teaching a class on Judaism and Islam, he jumped at the chance.

“Muslims and Jews have such a long, long history of living together,” he said.

“Looking at the last few decades, you see that relationship has gone sour,” he continued. “But historically, you find lots of places where Jews and Muslims lived together and created harmony.”

Giovacchini, who is Jewish and the Arabic librarian at Stanford University, will teach a class in December at the JCC called “A Shared Tradition: Jews and Muslims in Islam.” It will focus on references to Jews and Judaism in Muslim scriptures.

The course is one of a dozen classes, exhibits, lectures and performances within the JCC’s fall/winter initiative called Salaam/Shalom, which explores the convergence of Judaism and Islam.

“There’s so much misunderstanding and fear that exists in popular culture about what Islam is, so we wanted to have an open dialogue that didn’t include politics,” said Rabbi Elisheva Salamo of the JCC. “This is a constructive way to create understanding and partnership.”

For instance, a teacher from the Pacific Arabic Resources school in San Francisco will teach an Arabic class; two women from the San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group will teach a basics-of-Islam course.

Maha ElGenaidi, founder and director of the San Jose group, said her goal is for participants to gain a greater literacy in Islam.

But she also wants to advance the Jewish-Muslim dialogue beyond the conflict in the Middle East.

“We’re asking the question: Can American Jews and Muslims have a conversation about anything other than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? And if yes, what is that conversation about?” she asked.

“The conflict defines our relationship here in America, which hasn’t been exactly positive. We want to change the paradigm of that conversation, and talk about issues on which we can come together,” she said, citing things like Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism and maintaining a religious identity in a secular society.

Salaam/Shalom’s roots were planted after Barbara Lane, director of lectures and literature, arranged for Judea Pearl (father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and a professor at UCLA) to speak on a panel with Souleiman Ghali, founder and former president of the Islamic Society of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, a local Arabic teacher contacted the JCC about learning Hebrew. He was paired with a JCC Hebrew instructor, and the two had such a good time learning the other’s language that they proposed a course in comparative linguistics.

Lane and Salamo soon began thinking up other ways the JCC could explore the connection between Judaism and Islam. The women hope Jews and Muslims attend Salaam/Shalom courses and lectures.

Lane said she hopes both groups will “see an intersection with a culture they previously didn’t think had any parallels with their own.”

The events range in focus from film, literature, poetry, art, history and language.

Giovacchini said he’s looking forward to the entire Salaam/Shalom program, not just his course.

“I think it’s very exciting and important to stress how much Islam and Judaism share, as opposed to highlighting their differences.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.