Article Op-Ed

Befriend Your Fellow Neighbors

Befriend Your Fellow Neighbors

Author Benjamin Kweskin by

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My next-door neighbors are Somali Muslims. Recently, the mother came to our house to say hello and my three-year-old began jabbering at her; she held his hand and kissed it. When we first moved into our home another neighbor--a white man--drove up to my family as we were walking along the sidewalk and--unsolicited--began sharing his thoughts on how our “African neighbors home” was “dirty” and implied they somehow held different values from “us.” So many ignorant assumptions exited his mouth and it was apparent he never sought to get to know them as people and certainly not as neighbors.

As someone very actively involved with various Jewish organizations in Atlanta there is a noticeable gaping hole when it comes to comprehensive outreach and engagement with the disparate Metro Atlanta Muslim communities. In fairness, the converse is also true. While there are some organizations doing truly impactful work and some synagogues and mosques participate in each other’s programs now and then, this is neither centralized nor consistent and lacks any long term strategy.

Sadly, more often than not the proverbial elephant in these rooms surrounds Israel-Palestine but is that all our respective communities are able to focus on?! Is this such a stumbling block that it would preclude all other (arguably more) necessary work to move Atlanta, Georgia, and thus the United States forward? As this is a conflict over 6,000 miles away none of us will solve here in the Peach State, I am much more concerned with issues affecting my family and community here rather than one completely beyond my control and bandwidth.

From immigration, incarceration, antisemitism, Islamophobia to more ‘mundane’ issues like education and transportation, we should instead focus on issues that we collectively have a stake in locally.

I have the honor of being a newly installed board member of Atlanta’s Jewish Community Relations Council, and have been asked to co-lead a committee reaching out to the Muslim communities on converging issues where we can build coalitions with. Additionally, I sit on the ‘Muslim’ subcommittee of the larger Community Engagement Committee of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival which is perhaps the largest of its kind in the world.

While I genuinely commend and applaud these organizations and initiatives, it is still not sufficient. Both the 130,000 and nearly 60,000 strong Jewish and Muslim communities respectively in Metro Atlanta should seriously and purposefully begin to prioritize each other and forge meaningful, lasting bonds every day-- from the classrooms to the board rooms, to our neighborhood committees. While there is strength in diversity there is even more strength in meaningful and lasting friendships built on mutual respect and education.

I am extremely honored and privileged to be the first Jewish speaker of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. I joined in part to show my new Muslim friends and colleagues that there are Jews in their communities who support their mission and objective to humanize and personalize Muslims objectively as well as simultaneously serving as a bridge to the Jewish community who often know little about Islam or Muslims. Indeed America’s “Judeo-Christian values” is long overdue to include space for those who practice Islam, the third Abrahamic faith.

This past fall, as part of Limmud Atlanta+Southeast’s annual festival, I invited three of my colleagues from ISB to speak to dozens of Jews from across Metro Atlanta about topics pertaining to Islam. It was the first time this was done in our Limmud history, and for many participants, the first time meeting a Muslim face to face. It was a transformational weekend--even for my own parents who participated.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, there are forces both within and outside our midst seeking to divide and conquer our communities. These tribalist and particularist approaches have their place, but if we are to advance our communities and societies, we simply cannot afford to allow them to dominate our narratives. We must constantly attempt to break down unnecessary barriers in any way and recognize that both communities share a great deal in common and recognize that both faith traditions understand that all humankind is created in the Divine image of God:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם
“And G-d created Adam [Man] in G-d’s own image, in the image of God He Created him [Man] male and female G-d created them".

Torah: Genesis 1:27
هُوَ اللَّهُ الْخَالِقُ الْبَارِئُ الْمُصَوِّرُ ۖ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ
“He is Allah, the Creator, the Originator, the Maker of images. To Him belong the best names.” Qur’an: Surat al-Hashr 59:24

In light of increased antisemitism and Islamophobia in our country, acts of solidarity are of course welcome and it is heartening to see such statements and actions in response to violence and hatred. However, I do not wish to have my faith defined by antisemitism and I am sure Muslims would not want theirs defined by Islamophobia.

I am more fulfilled in my Judaism learning and engaging with my Muslim (and other) friends and colleagues--this enhances my faith and life. I wish to experience more of this in the months and years ahead and I consistently believe that Muslims and Jews are natural allies and friends. So let’s come together and strategize on how to best ensure our city and state moves forward in 2020, together. G-d willing, إن شاء الله and בעזרת ה׳.

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