Synagogue brings together Jews, Muslims for holy Ramadan meal

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A few dozen East Bay Muslims observing Ramadan broke one of their traditional daily fasts in what might seem like a nontraditional fashion: having dinner with a few dozen Jews.

Then again, maybe it’s more a tradition than an anomaly — it was the fifth annual Iftar hosted by Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

The Iftar dinner at Netivot Shalom photos/congregation netivot shalom

The June 21 event brought synagogue members together with the Turkish Muslim community of the Pacifica Institute East Bay, along with Jews and Muslims from around the Greater East Bay. More than 80 people participated, with balanced representation from both communities.

An Iftar is the evening meal that ends the sunrise-to-sunset fasts held each day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began on June 18. But the gathering at Netivot Shalom was much more than just a meal.

From 2 to 8 p.m., women from both communities worked together in the kitchen to create a mostly Turkish-style feast that included dolmas, mercimek koftesi (lentil and bulgur patties served on lettuce leaves), pogacha (pastry filled with spinach, feta and green onions) and a fish dish with a tomato and pepper sauce.

And kasha varnishkas.

Chynara Tolubaeva (left) and Hilla Abel preparing one of the dishes

Meanwhile, rabbinic student Josh Buchin and Imam Fatih Ates spoke in the sanctuary about the traditions of each faith regarding fasting, forgiveness and thankfulness.

“We are like a fish that is in the sea but is unaware of the water,” Ates explained. “Fasting helps us to become aware of the blessings of God and to appreciate them.”

A few minutes before sunset, Ates chanted the Muslim call to prayer, which some considered a powerful moment. “I looked around and saw that several Jewish people were looking very moved and even teary,” said Netivot Shalom’s Serena Heaslip, one of the organizers.

Those observing Ramadan broke their fast with water and dates and then went to the synagogue’s library for a prayer session. Afterward, everyone sat down for dinner.

Lee Bearson (left) and Sinan Can share a laugh while enjoying dinner

“The two communities interspersed themselves at the tables and … all around the room people were engaged in conversation,” Heaslip observed. “People talked about their work or schooling, they talked about Turkey and the United States, they talked about being Jewish and being Muslim, they talked about their own family traditions around religious observance.”

There were even “conversations about politics and the sharing of jokes,” Heaslip added. “People are people.”

Another Iftar service at a synagogue is scheduled for Sunday, June 28, at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. Co-organized by the synagogue and the Pacifica Institute, the second annual event is being sponsored by the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition.

“What’s unique is the sponsorship by the 19 congregations representing all five major faiths that compose our Peninsula Multifaith Coalition,” said PTBE’s Dick Heiman, one of the organizers. “We are expecting a capacity crowd of 200 from these congregations.” — j. staff