“Alaikum salaam,” third- and fourth-graders practice answering in response to the Arabic greeting, “Salaam alaikum.” Not the first scene most people would associate with Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Not a standard lesson in most Jewish religious schools either. But interfaith work has always been important to Hill Havurah, the neighborhood’s 20-year-old Jewish congregation. And Jewish-Muslim dialogue, in particular, has been a goal of the congregation’s first rabbi, on the job now for 18 months. “Jewish-Muslim MLK Day Celebration on the Hill” is already a tradition, and it was standing-room-only for the all-age, multi-congregation program on Jan. 14.
Hill Havurah has long-standing social justice and community service committees, explains Rachel Usdan, who planned the MLK Day celebration together with Rabbi Hannah Spiro and another congregation member, Rachel Breitman. The congregation is also an acting member of the Good Neighbors of Capitol Hill Refugee Resettlement program, working with faith groups on the Hill to assist newly arrived refugees.
“Rabbi Hannah has helped our congregation’s passion in these areas to flourish,” Usdan says. “She has spearheaded events like the MLK Day celebration and included us in … another group called Jews and Muslims Acting Together (JAM-AT) and the annual Greater Washington Summit of Imams, Rabbis, and Community Leaders that took place in December.”
After years of lay leadership, Hill Havurah hired Rabbi Hannah as its first cleric in July 2016. She says that interfaith relationship building has been important to her since high school, when her father, Dan Spiro, helped start the Jewish Islamic Dialogue Society of the DC area. “It turns out it’s an important value for the Hill Havurah as well. Hill Havurah has been involved with Capitol Hill Group Ministry for a long time, and one of our favorite things about sharing space with neighborhood churches has always been building our relationships with the wonderful congregations that dwell within them.”
Hill Havurah is also developing a “beautiful relationship with Mount Moriah Baptist Church, our neighbor down East Capitol Street,” Rabbi Hannah adds. Past programs included a musical gathering and a vigil for victims of gun violence in Ward 6. “In just a few weeks we’ll be coming together for a text study on the Book of Esther in honor of both Purim and Black History Month.”
Inspiration and Collaboration
The MLK Day celebration included presentations from Jews and Muslims involved in non-violent conflict resolution efforts: Mehreen Farooq of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE); Rabia Chaudry of the Safe Nation Collaborative and “Adnan’s Story”; Aaronehreen Shneyer of Heartbeat, a nonprofit using music to empower Israeli and Palestinian youth to transform conflict; and Brett Parson with the Special Liaison Branch of the Metropolitan Police Department and one of the few Jewish officers on the force.
The day included programs for students from pre-K to high school and finished with a sandwich-making project. Many participants singled out the hands-on activity as important for building relationships. Others cited the importance of simply gathering. Mitch Malasky, relatively new to Hill Havurah, thought it was important to “bring people together and build understanding – meet and know people, learn faces and names, not just nameless other.” Jameel Montgomery, of Masjid Muhammad, said the event reminded him of the teaching that God created us “in nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” Remarked Inshirah Aleem, with the youth weekend program at Masjid Muhammad, “We can get discouraged, but I truly believe people coming together shows our hearts are one. Seeing a room full of different people together inspires me.”
Shneyer says, “It’s moving to see communities coming together, to see the enthusiasm and how natural it is.”
In addition to general inspiration, some new collaborations were sparked. Hill Havurah member Lisa Raymond says her 13-year-old son talked to Shneyer about using music in his upcoming bar mitzvah project. Farah Shakour-Bridges, of Masjid Muhammad, and Isaac Adleberg, third-grade teacher for Hill Havurah, spoke of doing more joint work and possibly exchanging teachers.
Division and Unity
“There is so much we have in common,” Rabbi Hannah says, “but much more exciting to me is what we have to learn from each other and how much more effectively we can repair the world when we’re doing it as partners and as friends.”
Shneyer adds that gatherings like the MLK Day celebration help strengthen people “to continue this work, so that voices of unity and respect become louder than those of division and hatred.”
Farooq, who works to avoid conflict as near as Montgomery County and as distant as Bangladesh, described some of the violence and oppression behind the poems of Punjabi sufi Baba Bulleh Shah. She asked the audience to remember that his poems, with their powerful messages of love, have endured since the 18th century and inspired new generations, while voices of hate and ugliness have been forgotten.
Virginia Avniel Spatz can be found most often these days at www.weluvbooks.org, with her Jewish writing at www.songeveryday.org.