Provost of Berkeley religious institute is a Sufi Muslim with a heart connection to Judaism

For most of his life, Ibrahim Farajajé has had to explain himself.

“I don’t fit into people’s categories, and I’m used to that,” he said in a recent interview. “But sometimes I don’t feel that I can rightfully answer people’s questions [about me] because the thinking that formed the questions is based on a way of seeing the world to which I don’t subscribe.

“This is something I’ve taught my students for the past 26 years. If you answer the question, you’re giving power to that way of thinking. So when people ask how could Jews and Muslims possibly get along, if I rush to answer that question without reframing it in terms of the history of many centuries of coexistence in some parts of the world, I’m already accepting by definition that we have an oppositional relationship, when that is not at all what I believe.”

Ibrahim Farajajé, who is 6-foot-7, stands tall among faculty members at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. photo/courtesy of starr king school

Farajajé, 59, is many things. He is provost of the Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist school of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, as well as a professor of Islamic Studies and Cultural Studies there.

He is a longtime queer activist, writing about gender, sexuality and HIV through a religious lens.

He has working knowledge of 17 languages, Aramaic, Portuguese and Judeo-Turkish among them.

He is the father of 16-year-old Issa Nessim Enver, whose mother is Farajajé’s partner.

He is a Sufi Muslim, and a spiritual teacher and guide.

And one more thing: He, in his words, “embraces Jewish religious practice and participates actively in a Jewish Renewal congregation.”

That congregation is Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, where Farajajé will be teaching a daylong workshop on March 18. He will also be co-leading a Sufi-Jewish retreat in two months in Santa Rosa, with Chochmat HaLev’s music and meditation director Brian Schachter-Brooks and noted spiritual leader-teacher Zvi Bellin.

Farajajé, who stands 6-foot-7, is hard to miss in a crowd. He is almost certainly the only dark-skinned man in any given situation with a flowing white beard, a hat, tattoos, pierced ears and a pierced septum, with tzitzit (ritual fringes of a prayer shawl) peeking from his clothing.

Born in Berkeley, Farajajé grew up in a progressive household. Both of his parents are racially mixed, and his lineage includes Ethiopian, South Asian and Native American bloodlines. Religiously, his parents were open, encouraging him to explore all traditions. (As a child, he had some Jewish in-laws, and now his stepmother is Jewish, as well.)

Ibrahim Farajajé and his son, Issa Nessim Enver, at High Holy Day services at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley. photo/charles lerrigo

As a boy, he sung in the San Francisco Boys Choir, and made many Jewish friends there. Through them, he was invited to several bar mitzvahs.

In the late ’60s, at age 16, he read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his House of Love and Prayer. He was deeply touched by what he read, so he wrote Carlebach a letter, and treasured the response he got. This led him to explore Hassidism.

Around the same time, he also had a Palestinian math teacher who taught Farajajé “a lot about Islam as a path of love, oneness and unity.” But this teacher of Islam had attended a Quaker school as a youth, which led to another lesson — that what seems to be contradictory doesn’t always have to be.

“That has been a recurrent theme in my life,” Farajajé said, “that things that appear to be in opposition often are not in radical opposition to each other.”

Farajajé went off to Vassar College at 16, where he began studying religion, quickly realizing that what interested him most was “spirituality, the mystical traditions, the oneness of all being.”

While studying for his doctorate at the University of Bern in Switzerland, Farajajé became fascinated with Andalusia, a region in Spain, and its 700-year period between 711 and 1492 — considered by many to be a golden age of cooperation between Muslims and Jews. “There was such complexity and richness,” he said. Later, he visited the region and connected to its spirit.

That led him to start devoting a lot of his studies to the history of Jewish-Muslim co-existence, especially when it pertained to matters of the spirit. For the Starr King School, he developed the Andalusia Project, in which Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist and Muslim students (and others) come together to study their interconnected histories and traditions.

“A term that recurs in the Koran, especially about Avram Aveinu (Abraham our father) is that Avram is a believer. Muslim with a small ‘m’ is someone who has surrendered to the Divine embrace. There is also a lot of emphasis on being a believer, and there was a category of believers who worked beyond religious boundaries but believed in the oneness of the Divine.” He continued, “What I feel in my heart of hearts, in my religious belief, is this radical cleaving of the oneness of the Divine, which connects to the oneness of all being through that.”

Which is the core of both the Judaic and Islamic traditions.

Ibrahim Farajajé

“We are united in that radical belief and love of the oneness, and for me, the compatibility is the greatest. It’s a pity that we don’t realize how close we really are. Beyond the superficial similarities between Arabic and Hebrew, in our histories, there have been Jewish Sufis in the Maimonides era. Our practices grow from the same roots.”

Farajajé says he is committed to talking about this to try and change a way of thinking that includes asking a Muslim what he is doing at a synagogue. “My answer is, if we know our traditions and roots and sources, we’re very intimately family in the functional sense of the word. Going to a relative’s house, you know you have a connection. They may do a bracha (blessing) differently, but you see the common threads that unite you. I burn with that inside of me.”

Farajajé keeps kosher, and lives a mostly halachic life. “I personally feel comfortable with how I live, but I understand that people can always have questions about it,” he said, adding that in this country, Judaism is defined by Ashkenazi experience. “When I’m in other places in the world, these questions don’t arise, which is interesting. Sometimes I wonder, if I had a different skin color, would people be asking these questions?”

He acknowledges that one could accuse him of cultural misappropriation, but he dismisses that with “I’m coming from a place of respect and grounding.”

Although Farajajé first visited Chochmat HaLev many years ago, he more recently got drawn into Jewish Renewal when he was asked to teach a course on Sufism and Islamic mysticism in Turkey to a Jewish Renewal group on its way to Israel.

“[Participants] didn’t expect that I would know anything about Judaism, so they were really surprised,” he said. Farajajé also has met and studied with Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal who lives outside Boulder, Colo.

“When we met, he said, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ We had a beautiful heart connection,” Farajajé said.

Farajajé and his family spend half the year in Turkey, where he hosts retreats for students at the Starr School. But when in Berkeley, he is often seen at Chochmat HaLev, where he participates in the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) and recently helped lead a Tu B’Shevat seder.

Because of his living half the year abroad, his son, Issa Nessim Enver, has been largely home-schooled.

While Enver says he feels more Muslim because that’s more what he’s used to, he says he is very much his father’s son, and feels connected to Judaism, as well. Enver has not only studied sacred chant with a Turkish muezzin (one who leads the Muslim call to prayer) but he plays two classical Turkish instruments, the rebab (a spiked fiddle) and the tanbur (a long-necked lute).

When he is in town, Enver plays with the musicians at Shabbat services at Chochmat HaLev. He also has sung the past two years at Chochmat’s High Holy Days services (visit for a sample). In synagogue, he has sung poems in Arabic by Rumi and Ibn Arabi, a Sufi mystic, as well as a Turkish Sephardic melody of “Adonai Selichot,” which he learned from listening to a recording of Turkish cantor Salomon “The Nightingale” Algazi.

“I’m just sharing that tradition,” Enver said.

While he made it clear that his love of spiritual music and spirituality in general was not imposed by his father, he did say, “I’m his son, so I love all this mixing of things. It’s right up my alley. I love prayer and ritual in general, in all forms, which, I know, is kind of weird to hear from a 16-year-old.”

“Aleph/Alif: The Non-Dual Body,” led by Ibrahim Farajajé, will take place from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. March 18 at Chochmat HaLev, 2215 Prince St., Berkeley. $54-$82.

“Meaning Through Being” is a Jewish-Sufi retreat May 11-13 at the Angelica Center in Santa Rosa. $230-$275, plus donation.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."