It all began during the summer of 2015, when a group of friends were looking for a location to break fast together for a few evenings during Ramadan. Because their mosque was a good half hour away, the group of Oak Park and River Forest (just west of Chicago) families belonging to the Muslim Leadership Academy Religious School of the Islamic Foundation were exploring the idea of another house of worship as a gathering place. Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion immediately volunteered to host and what followed was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the two faith communities.
A few months later, Oak Park Temple hosted over 150 Jews and Muslims at the first of many get-togethers entitled “An Evening of Tzedakah/Sadaqah.” This initial event set the model for a focus on socializing, study and service. That first evening, we started by breaking bread together. Guests were encouraged to sit with members of the other faith while we dined on a mutual favorite… pizza. Next, we separated into age groups to discuss the theme of the evening, Tzedakah and Sadaqah, which roughly means ‘charity’ in both Hebrew and Arabic. Adults, teens and middle schoolers studied and discussed texts from the Torah and Quran, and the young children read Jewish and Muslim books and decorated Tzedakah boxes. Finally, all ages gathered together again to assemble paper bag lunches to give out to those in need in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood.
In the two years since the inaugural Evening of Tzedakah/Sadaqah, we have gathered together four additional times. We’ve had samosas and lots of pizza, we’ve created welcome kits for newly arrived refugees and made care packages for the homeless, we’ve had meaningful discussions about welcoming the stranger and we’ve asked the question, “what does G-d want from us?”
In this time of ugly divisiveness, our evenings together have been full of peace and hope. Jews and Muslims have locked arms. Walls have come down. Meaningful friendships have formed. Looking back on that first Iftaar break fast during Ramadan, you could say it was all b’shert.
Annika Rothbaum is a Human Resources Consultant and an active community volunteer, currently serving as Chair of the Social Action Committee at Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion.She lives in Oak Park, IL with her husband and two children. You can learn more about the Tzedakah/Sadaqah gatherings from ABC Chicago's 2016 feature on the initiative.