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Personal ties emphasized at Virginia interfaith dinner
Washington Jewish Week / February 9, 2011

By Larry Luxner

On the night of Feb. 3, 1943, as the warship USAT Dorchester, struck by a Nazi torpedo, slowly sank off the coast of Greenland, four army chaplains — a rabbi, a Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers — gave up their life jackets so that four soldiers’ lives could be saved.

“The four of them clasped hands together and stood on the deck of the ship as it sank,” said Rosalind Gold, rabbi emeritus of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation. “It’s so important that when we talk about peace, that we not do it only as a political statement. It’s so much more meaningful if it’s done out of a deeply rooted religious faith as these four men did.”

Last Thursday, exactly 68 years after the Dorchester’s sinking, some 125 Muslims, Christians and Jews gathered at a Virginia mosque to enjoy traditional Arab food and discuss how to bring peace to a Middle East in turmoil.

The unusual dinner event, held in recognition of World Interfaith Week, took place at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), a mega-mosque in eastern Loudoun County that serves more than 5,000 families.

Gold was one of two rabbis to speak at ADAMS; the other was Michael Holzman, also of NVHC. In addition, the dinner featured short speeches by Father C. Donald Howard, pastor at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Sterling, Va.; Rev. Reginald Early of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Hamilton, Va.; Egyptian journalist and broadcaster Aziz Fahmy, and Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, national director for the Islamic Society of North America’s Office for Interfatih and Community Alliances.

“I cannot stand here and talk about peace without mentioning what’s happening in Egypt. It’s quite appropriate because so much of our sacred texts deal with Egypt, and our desire to get away from the Pharaoh,” said Holzman, a Miami-born Reform rabbi who became spiritual leader of NVHC seven months ago.

“For sure, ancient Egypt is not modern Egypt. But the idea is that people need to get away from abuse of power and create a different kind of society,” he suggested. “No line appears in the Torah more often than the one that says, ‘remember, you were once a slave in Egypt.’”

As attendees feasted on grilled chicken, rice, roasted vegetables and pita bread, half a world away in Cairo, some 100,000 protesters crowded Tahrir Square, demanding the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

“I don’t think you can confuse interfaith dialogue with the current mess in the Middle East. That’s geopolitics,” said Holzman, 37. “But when common people spend time learning about each other and reduce ignorance, that’s the only thing that can make any change possible. Legal treaties are not going to make things happen.”

Several years ago, Holzman’s congregation made headlines around the world — including Saudi Arabia — when, under Gold’s leadership, the synagogue opened its doors to area Muslims who didn’t have a place to pray for Ramadan.

Mohamed Magid, the imam at ADAMS, noted the groundbreaking alliance and during his opening invocation made a point of thanking his Jewish friends at NVHC for their welcoming attitude towards northern Virginia’s rapidly growing Muslim community.

“Islam is a religion of peace, but unless people see more of our work, it will remain only a slogan. That’s why I wish journalists and cameramen here will see this dialogue and share it with the world,” said Magid, a native of Sudan. “Your presence here today is a testament to our commitment to peace and dialogue.”

Last year, the imam traveled to Auschwitz and Dachau as part of an eight-member delegation co-sponsored by a German think tank and the New Jersey-based Center for Interreligious Understanding. He later produced an online video that uses Islamic texts to discredit the kind of Holocaust denial that has become so prevalent throughout the Arab world.

Syeed, another Muslim leader, said local interfaith efforts at ADAMS and other Islamic centers are very much in tune with what’s happening nationally.

“Today’s celebration is to strengthen our faith in the fact that what we’re doing at the grass-roots level has inspired our people from coast to coast,” he said. “There are lots of similar projects being duplicated everywhere, and we are watching them with great admiration and gratitude to our creator, God Almighty,”

Syeed said this new attitude was very much in evidence last year, “when a misguided pastor in Florida decided he wanted to make a bonfire of our Holy Quran. Our Jewish and Christian partners — people of different faiths — came forward and united to express their resentment and to deplore this kind of behavior.”

One of those Christian partners, Father Howard, said that in the 40 years since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church decided that it would befriend the world and that there were no more enemies.

“Part of talking means you have to learn to listen to the other side — to their fears, their hopes and their suffering,” Howard said. “Dialogue leads to hospitality, and to what we’re doing here tonight.”

“You can have all the documents in the world, but don’t trust documents,” warned the priest. “All peacemaking is local.”

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