A big group portrait of many people, including some women in hijabs
Participants at a Jewish-Muslim Tu B’Shevat event in Sycamore Park, Mill Valley, Feb. 11, 2017. (Photo/Laura Paull)

‘I needed this’: Marin Jews, Muslims celebrate Tu B’Shevat

When Mill Valley resident Cody Harris decided last year to form a local network of Jewish families, he had no idea that in 2017 they’d find greater purpose inviting Marin Muslims to join them.

That’s what happened the morning of Feb. 11, when 60 Jews and Muslims came together in Mill Valley’s Sycamore Park to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, sometimes called the Jewish new year for the trees.

“I just sent an email to the Islamic Center of Mill Valley and asked them, ‘Would you be interested in joining us?’ ” said Harris, 38, who along with his wife, Rebecca, cofounded Marin Mishpucha.

It had been his New Year’s resolution to reach out to non-Jewish communities, and “in light of recent events my first thought was the Muslim community,” Harris said. “I sent the email just before the executive order on immigration was issued. Now it is more important than ever to connect with different religious groups. We need to build empathy, compassion and democracy.”

“We took it as a gesture of support,” said Shamia Munshi, who coordinates communications at the Islamic Center. “[Harris’] organization felt Tu B’Shevat could be a symbolic event as we plant seeds of understanding, kindness and new friendships.”

Salma Nakhuda and her 22-month-old daughter at the interfaith Tu B’Shevat gathering (Photo/Laura Paull)

The same day, the Mill Valley Muslim community responded with a “Yes,” as did many of those on the email list of Marin Mishpucha.

“I really like this ‘bridging communities’ concept, especially in these times,” said Jodie Lustgarten, who arrived with her husband, journalist Abrahm Lustgarten, and their 11-month-old twins. Residents of San Anselmo, they said they did not know any of their Muslim neighbors.

“I want people to feel welcome and part of a larger community,” Abrahm Lustgarten said, carrying one of the babies on his shoulders. “Coming out to a park to meet some of them seems like a small thing to do. And I’d be doing it even if Obama were still president.”

The Lustgarten twins were too young to appreciate the potluck spread of apples, dates, almonds, grapes and pomegranates brought by Marin Mishpucha members, but the older kids did, crowding elbow to elbow at the feast. Members of the Muslim group expressed delight when they learned that these were foods traditionally consumed at a Tu B’Shevat celebration.

“Our Prophet Muhammad enjoyed these same foods!” Munshi exclaimed.

At another picnic table, the Harrises laid out flower seeds and little pots of topsoil. It was the first sunny day in weeks, auspicious for planting. The children rushed over and jostled for seating. They listened patiently as Harris explained why Jews plant trees and seeds on this holiday. Then they dug in and got their hands dirty. Harris took out his guitar and sang a few traditional Jewish songs. But when he broke out into the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” the adults joined in.

“I think just getting families together to meet one another is an unalloyed good,” Harris said.

Munshi agreed. “As a teacher myself, I know how important it is to teach our children empathy and compassion despite differences,” she said. “And how one positive impact can spark a ripple among our little ones.”

Our Prophet Muhammad enjoyed these same foods!
—Shamia Munshi

Khadija Hansia, 28, said many in the Mill Valley Muslim community were related, hailing from the state of Gujarat in western India. She described the morale of the community as cautiously good. They are, however, aware of recent attacks on mosques in cities nearby. “We’re keeping our eyes open,” said Aziz, who preferred not to reveal his last name. “But we love our non-Muslim neighbors,” he said.

“There’s been a ton of support from local Jewish community members and institutes,” Munshi said. The Islamic Center “has had Jewish people send in emails voicing their concerns and letting us know that they do not support what is coming out of the White House. We have been blessed with outstanding Jewish neighbors and we continue to support each other.”

Joanne Greene, director of Jewish engagement at the Osher Marin JCC, has been working with Rabbi Elana Rosen-Brown on the JCC’s Salaam-Shalom: Speaking of Peace initiative to build solidarity between the two communities.

“The JCC had a bomb threat a few weeks ago,” Greene said. “Our executive director received a call from the imam, and I personally received three separate emails from Muslim people I know, expressing their distress and their support for us. This is the positive reality we are creating.”

Matt Kovinsky, 44, a Mill Valley tech consultant, brought his 4-year-old daughter to the event. “We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Never again.’ Well, this is the time: We have to stand up. It’s our responsibility as Jews,” he said. “This isn’t even about politics. It’s about doing the right thing.”

Certainly, politics don’t respect nap times, so by 1 p.m. parents had packed up their bags and wheeled their strollers out of the park. Some parents were seen shaking hands and exchanging contact information. Harris expressed relief that it had gone well.

“Personally, I needed this,” he confessed. “I’ve been so full of angst. The situation is so embarrassing. But at the end of the day, if you can bring good people together, good things will happen.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.