Jews and Muslims see the US as a place to make peace

In the US the two religious groups, historically at odds, find new opportunities for dialogue and understanding.

Muslims and Jews, a tiny slice of the US population, are looking for new ways to get along that could set a worldwide example for two ancient but often alienated faiths, religious leaders and experts say.

"I've encountered (among Muslims) a more centrist, a more moderate voice that is looking to the Jewish community to help project that voice ... to the greater world," says Rabbi Marc Schneier of New York, speaking of a national summit of imams and rabbis he helped organize earlier this year.

He also cited a recent incident in a New York subway "where four young Jews were being verbally and physically assaulted on a train for wishing the passengers a happy Hanukkah, and the only individual to come to their rescue was a young Muslim man," Hassan Askari, of Bangladeshi heritage, who was also beaten.

"That is a very, very powerful example" of what can happen. The challenge is to try to strengthen Jewish-Muslim cooperation and have it serve as a paradigm for communities around the world," added Schneier, who founded the New York Synagogue in Manhattan and also the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

On another front, leaders of the Islamic Society of North America and the Union for Reform Judaism, representing respectively the largest US Islamic organization and the largest organized Jewish segment in the country, have agreed on a tutorial for dialogue.

"We need to get the truth about each other from one another," says Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic group.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Reform group told his followers the two religions share "ancient monotheistic faiths, cultural similarities and, as minority religions in North America, experiences with assimilation and discrimination."

In a country of 315 million, Muslims number about 2.4 million, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, which also found them to be mostly middle-class members of mainstream society. Others believe the figure is several million higher, and no estimates are available on how many practice the faith.

There are perhaps 6 million Jews in the United States, only about a third of them affiliated with a congregation. Of those who do attend synagogue, 38 percent are Reform, 33 percent Conservative and 22 percent Orthodox, according to one survey.

Zahid Bukhari, director of the American Muslim Studies Program at Georgetown University, says Muslim-Jewish dialogue "is a new beginning."

One difference in the US, he says, is that in places like Europe "within each country you will find a concentration of Muslims from a certain country," such as Algerians and Moroccans in France or South Asians in England.

"In America we have Muslims from 80 different countries. They are younger, they are more educated, more professional, more integrated into society and they feel more comfortable. And the host society here is different," he says.

But he says what's happening is a "model which I hope we could duplicate" globally.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, author of the newly published "You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right," says one thing that sets the US situation apart is that no one speaks for all Jews or Muslims, and this allows for openness.

"Even religious Muslims and religious Jews are more integrated into the fabric of general American society than in other countries like Britain and France. It is possible to be deeply and visibly religious and still participate in the public culture – that's not true everywhere," he says.

Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, says there is a real effort at the local effort by mosques to develop joint activities with synagogues, and it goes down to the individual level as well.

"Muslims in this country have it much better off than elsewhere in the world," he says. "The Muslim community in the United States will in fact have a tremendous impact on Muslims elsewhere because they are able to debate and influence each other."

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