Jews and Muslims Make Passover History at a Virginia Mosque

A year ago, we posted on an alternative Passover Seder at Georgetown Day School where we told the story of Egyptian author Ali Salem and his crossing of the desert in a beat-up old Soviet jalopy on a journey through Israel. This year, we’ve asked Andrea Barron–a friend, JCC neighbor, Peace Cafe stalwart, GMU professor, and Program Manager for International Affairs at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, to tell us of another extraordinary Passover gathering between Muslims and Jews in our area. Here’s her article. (Comments welcome)

Every year Jews all over the world gather together to celebrate the ancient holiday of Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt over 3,000 years ago and the universal desire for freedom. This year Barack Obama made history when for the first time, the president participated in a traditional Passover seder meal in the White House.

But just 25 miles from the White House, Washington area Jews and Muslims made their own kind of Passover history. On April 11th, the fourth night of Passover, over 30 Jews and Muslims and a few Christians came together to celebrate Passover at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), a large mosque located in Sterling, Virginia.

The seder organizers –ADAMS Board Member Rizwan Jaka, Interfaith Director Farhanahz Ellis, and Andrea Barron from Washington Area Jews for Jewish-Muslim Understanding– said they wanted Muslims and Jews to build bridges of understanding and mutual respect at a time when the world was being polarized by extremists. Discussion was organized around this seder’s own Four Cups of Passover — Understanding, Respect, Justice and Peace – with a focus on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and other current issues.

For Imam Mohamed Magid from ADAMS, the Seder was an example of the kind of interfaith dialogue the mosque seeks to promote. “I believe that the Seder’s message is a message for all humanity,” he said. “As Muslims, we commemorate when God freed the children of Israel from Pharaoh –the Seder is a way for us to appreciate the Jewish community.” Two years ago, after Iran held a conference denying the Holocaust, it was Imam Magid who organized an event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where Muslim leaders honored the memory of Jews murdered by the Nazis.

The seder’s Jewish organizers were long-time activists for Israeli-Palestinian peace committed to security for Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem based on the 1967 borders. The Muslim guests included Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR (the Council on American–Islamic Relations), the largest Muslim organization in the U.S.; Hassan Al-Ibrahim, Vice-Chairman of the – Muslim Public Affairs Council; Omar Ashraf, Chair of the ADAMS Board; Ashraf Nubani, a Virginia-based attorney; and several African-American Muslims.

This was Nihad Awad’s second seder—in 2007 he attended one organized by the same group held at a private home in Washington, D.C. He remembers being “pleasantly surprised to meet American Jews who strongly believe and are attached to their faith, but also recognize Palestinian suffering.” Now, two years later, after dialoguing with a small group of Jewish activists and deep personal reflection, Awad says he has come to understand the Jewish narrative, and that listening to it does not invalidate his own. “In fact, as a Muslim leader in the United States, it is my responsibility to understand the Jewish narrative and discuss it with my community.”

Jews at the seder were impressed that Awad was trying to “break down his absolutes” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like some of them had done. Attorney Steve Silverberg explained what it had been like for him over 30 years ago. “Because of my deep emotional connection to Israel and the Jewish people, it was very difficult for me to accept the fact that the creation of Israel had displaced another people.”

Judith Lelchook, a social worker and doctoral student in health policy at the University of Maryland, was one of the Jews who engaged in the dialogue with Nihad Awad. Judith’s brother David was among the 43 Israeli civilians killed in the 2006 war with Hezbollah. He was a citrus farmer on Kibbutz Saar in northern Israel when a Hezbollah missile killed him. “David would have wanted me to be at this seder,” said Lelchook, “celebrating with Palestinians and Muslims dialoguing for peace.”

Ashraf Nubani, a Virginia-based lawyer and a Palestinian activist with an Islamic orientation, came to the Seder directly from Dulles Airport after spending a week at a conference in Khartoum organized by Sudanese students. “My wife was surprised when she picked me up from the airport and I told her we weren’t going home—we were going to a Passover Seder!”

Nubani explained how important it was for him to attend the Seder. “I wanted to show my Jewish-American friends that while we still might differ on a solution to the Israel-Palestine question, we could still sit down at the seder and talk about justice and peace.”

Andrea Barron directs seminars on the Arab-Israeli conflict for university students and teaches history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She organized the first annual Jewish-Arab-Muslim Passover Seder at the Columbia@Crossroads Baptist Church in Falls Church, Virginia in 2002.

9 thoughts on “Jews and Muslims Make Passover History at a Virginia Mosque

  1. There is no way words in paragraphs can convey the full impact–intellectual and emotion–of att now many years–even before david’s death- and I am involved differently each time. I know I am fortunate to have a place to feel the curiosity, dissonance and eventually relief of both Jews and Muslims who come together skeptically and leave…hopeful. The article is a good indicator that there is something to which we can look forward and actively aspire.

  2. Small steps, human exchange, shared experience all crack-open barriers, and may over time, and repeated overtures chip away at very real and heart-felt impressions. If this dialogue can grow and more people share in the experience perhaps the grim realities on the ground can be lessened and people of good will prevail.

  3. I want to thank Andrea for organizing another very successfull interfaith Seder between Muslims, Christians and Jews. This the fourth such Seder I attended. I found the atmosphere to informal and relaxed even as people spoke candidly about sensitive issues. I was inspired by a sense of hopefulness for improved relations between our communities and a future of peace.

  4. I was glad to be invited to the seder. It was a memorable evening because we engaged in honest sharing of our views and experiences.

    The Israel-Palestine conflict is incredibly complicated, but there is a way forward if we will explore it. It is profoundly tragic that so many people on both sides engage in one form of self-deception or another while perpetuating the conflict with actions, words etc. We have to face our fears and talk to everyone who has a different point of view, but seeks the best for their people. We should not automatically hold someone’s past against them. Be willing to hear people out.

    Israeli novelist AB Yeshoshua said at Sixth & I last night that Israel needs us to be engaged. Israel needs us to raise our voices. He strongly re-affirmed the relationship between Israel and the diaspora. I do believe that Israel’s policies affect Jews around the world. I want what is best for Israel. At the same time, it is important to me that Israel reach a point where it can exist there in a condition of mutual respect with all the neighbors. Much is demanded of both sides in order to attain this state of affairs, but it is in the interest of all who seek a positive future.

    I want to collaborate with anyone in the DC area interested in supporting a future for Israel and Palestine. Their fates are entwined.

    It didn’t hurt the Seder that the food was delicious!

  5. As a parent of elementary-aged children, it gives me hope for their future to see real friendships blossom with events like this. Thank you!

  6. Let’s no lose our heads people. It was just a seder.

    I’d be more impressed if you had had a non scripted meal event.

  7. Submitted on 2009/04/24 at 12:23am
    My wife and I attended the interfaith Seder at the ADAMS Center and were particularly moved by the discussion on what is justice? Based on my many years advocating for justice for low and moderate income and minority neighborhoods, affordable housing and Middle East peace, I have realized that we instinctively revert to our “tribalism” whenever we feel threatened. Justice is exactly the opposite instinct, which we mostly have to learn by often bad experiences and learning the lessons of history in order to not to repeat them: we must see and respect the “other” as we see and respect ourselves and our “tribe” be it family, religion, ethnicity or nationalism. As the doctor from Gaza who lost three lovely teenage daughters in the recent Gazan war said at the Peace Cafe last Monday: Peace can only be achieved and endure between Israelis and Palestinians when both sides treat each other with mutual respect and equality. This is what we must all strive for as peacemakers in the Holy Land.

  8. Salaam, Shalom, PEACE,

    I am honored to work with Andrea on this effort and this is the 6th Interfaith Seder My family and I have attended and I always feel more hopeful of learning from one another and that by respectful dialogue and discussion we can move one step closer to achieving a more Peaceful and Loving World. There are many Interfaith gatherings and events happening around the DC Area and Country and we need to harness this momentum and help resonate the PEACE, LOVE, RESPECT, and HARMONY that Our Creator wants us to promote.

    Shalom, Salaam, PEACE!

  9. This is great! Though it wont solve everything I think the symbolism is not something that should be discounted. Jews and Muslims have a lot in common, through history they had a shared destiny, it is only recently where political issues have arisen.

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