Alper Jewish Book Festival

Rabbi and imam become friends, write a book and work together

When Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali became friends, they dispelled the myth that Jews and Muslims can’t get along.

Now they are on a mission to share their reconciliation with the world.

“When I started inviting Muslims to go to synagogues, several came to me and said, ‘We never trust Jews,’” said Ali, imam of the Jamaican Muslim Center, the largest mosque in New York City. that receives nearly 2,000 guests on any given Friday.“We spent some time together. We had some open, honest and very frank discussions, and like any other relationship in life, some people click and some don’t,” said Schneier, an 18th-generation rabbi, who founded the Hamptons Synagogue in Westhampton, N.Y. “We clicked.’’

Now the pair is trying to bridge the chasm between Muslims and Jews by encouraging action over dialogue.

At Bet Shira, the two men spoke about the book’s three sections: their journey, which was edited by the New York Times Religion Columnist Samuel Freedman, controversial texts in each religion’s holy books and contemporary issues.

The Rev. Priscilla Felisky Whitehead, a board member of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, moderated the presentation, part of the 33rd Annual Alper Jewish Community Center Book Festival, which runs until TuesdayNov. 5 relations between blacks and Jews. Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons is the chairman of the organization.

Seven years ago, Schneier refocused the foundation’s mission to stabilize relations between Jews and Muslims. That was when he asked Ali to embark on the journey with him.

Each of the men is a leading figure in their religious community.

Schneier is a native New Yorker. He is acting chairman of the World Jewish Congress, spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and has been named a top 50 rabbi by Newsweek.

Ali, who was born in Indonesia, studied at the International Islamic University in Pakistan, taught for two years in Saudi Arabia and moved to America in 1996 to lead the Al-Hikmah Mosque in New York City. He is a recipient of the 2009 Ellis Island Medal of Honor Award, and was one of two Muslim leaders invited to Ground Zero by President George W. Bush a few days after 9/11.

The two ask followers of each faith to understand the context of their sacred texts.

“What it said in the Koran must be put in the correct context, because in each holy book you have to understand wisely or else you will be hijacked by your own holy books,” said Ali, using Muslims’ misinterpretation of the word jihad as an example. “It is originally understood as self-empowerment. It’s more of an inner struggle.”

Schneier echoed Ali’s sentiments.

“We don’t trust because we think the sacred text is speaking disparagingly about the other,” said Schneier, adding that Islam and Judaism are more similar than they are different. “As the children of Abraham, we must recognize that we share a common faith and a common fate.”

For both Ali and Schneier, the understanding has come from listening to the other faith’s followers.

“I was able to overcome inner struggles once I encountered Muslim leaders who were speaking out to defend my community,” said Schneier.

Said Ali: “Living in your comfort zone doesn’t open your mind to learn about the other. Religions have been wrongly understood as a source of conflict, and I think our engagement of interfaith partners could change that notion.”

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