By Stacey Dresner
WESTERN MASS. – Last spring, Rabbi Devorah Jacobson said she wanted to do “one small thing” to combat the Islamophobia she saw after the last election, including President Donald Trump’s travel ban and many of his anti-Muslim statements.
So Jacobson, the director of spiritual life at JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow, developed “Islam for Jews and Other Interested Learners,” an introduction to Islam class.
Nineteen Jewish adults learners from around the Pioneer Valley attended her first series of classes on Islam.
“They all had a deep interest in learning more about Islam, that was the common denominator,” Jacobson said. “I think the other common denominator was what sparked me, which came soon after Donald Trump’s election, and the threats and policies he was proposing, the Islamophobia, and what I call “The Teachings of Contempt” that he espouses toward Muslims and refugees,” she explained.
Sue Polansky of Longmeadow, a leader in the Jewish community and current National Zionist Affairs Team Leader for Hadassah, was a student in last spring’s class.
“Despite my many trips to Israel, and all my volunteering to benefit Israel and Zionism, I never really learned much at all about Islam,” she explained. “As an American citizen with Muslim neighbors, it was time to remedy that. Thanks to Rabbi Jacobson’s excellent course, my education has begun.”
On April 3, Jacobson will begin to teach another six-session of the Islam for Jews course. Already, 17 people have signed up for the new class, set to run on Tuesday evenings at the Jewish Community of Amherst until May 15, but she expects more to sign up before the first class if the interest from her last group of students is any indication.
“I think it has been an eye-opening experience for many people, including myself. It’s been a real journey.”
In developing the class, Jacobson spent months doing research about Islam, including meeting with local Muslim community leaders.
“I began reaching out to meet some of the Muslim leaders and teachers in this community,” she recalled. “Friends helped put me in touch with a variety of people and I met with them one on one, told then about my intentions with the class and asked them for their help.”
In the end, eight speakers came to the classes, including Mehlaqua Samdani, executive director of Critical Connections, a non-profit that offers opportunities for dialogue related to Muslim communities; Naz Mohamed, one of the founders of the Hampshire Mosque in Amherst, and Dr. Mohammad Hazratzi of Holyoke.
“It was an opportunity for students to learn in a variety of ways, including from Muslim leaders in this local area who were happy to come and happy to share and speak on different topics and address students’ questions. And students felt free to ask all kinds of questions,” she said.
Each class began an introduction by Jacobson concerning a topic related to Islam, and then a 30-minute video presentation of the “Great Courses” classes on Islam, led by Professor John Esposito, a leading scholar on Islam from Georgetown University.
The topics included “The Five Pillars of Islam,” “Mohammed: Prophet and Statesman,” and “The Qu’ranic Worldview,” “Paths to God: Sharia and Suffism (or “law and mysticism,” Jacobson explained.)
Other classes looked at “Women and Change in Islam,” and “Islam and the West.”
During the very last session, the class held a pre-Ramadan feast.
“Ramadan is a month of fasting where Muslims fast from sunup to sundown,” she explained. “Class members prepared traditional dishes served at Iftar, which is the “break the fast” meal each night after the fast.”
This included food from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, “because Islam is a global religion and Muslims live all over the world.”
The class then went to the Islamic Society of West Springfield, where they heard teachings on subjects including prayer, marriage traditions, burial rituals from Mohammad Bajwa, president, and Imam Wissam Abdul-Baki. The class then joined the mosque for its sundown prayer service.
Jacobson hopes that the next series of classes will include the same chance to learn from the local Muslim community. All of her speakers are already lined up, including a new speaker, a 22-year-old student at Smith College who hails from Pakistan, who will speak about her being a young Hijab-wearing Muslim woman living in the West.
This time around, Jacobson will also include classes about the relationship between Islam and the Jews.
“Yes, we explored stereotypes and misunderstandings, but the main discovery for the Jewish participants was learning about the commonalities and how there are so many similarities between Judaism and Islam. I think they were blown away.” Those similarities, she said, include “Shahada”, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, that talks about the recognition of One God – also recognized by Judaism.
“There is the Sadaqua, which sounds similar to Tzedakah, which has to do with obligatory alms giving, to ensure that we look put of the poor and needy in our midst,” Jacobson said. “There’s the shared tradition of fasting in both religions. The traditions of law — both are religions heavily based on law – the sharia and the hakacha. Prayer — Jews traditionally pray three times a day; Muslims pray five times a day. I could go on and on.”
Jacobson, Mehlqua Samdani and Ronda Jackowitz are working together on an interfaith mission to Israel this October for both Jews and Muslims, with a dual narrative and guides who will be knowledgable about both Jewish and Muslim sites. Already 15 people have signed up for the trip.
“We are very much hopeful this will happen, as a kind of next step after the class,” Jacobson said.
Already, the class has resulted in building bridges between the two faiths.
Through her connections with Hadassah, Sue Polansky arranged for Dr. Hazratzi, one of the class’s guest speakers, to visit the Hadassah Medical Center campus at Ein Keren during a hajj to Jerusalem. When he returned, he spoke at a reunion of the class members in Setember.
This is just the kind of community-building Jacobson was hoping for.
“For me, especially now, we need to build bonds of friendship with people who live in our communities who we may not know very well,” she said. “We need to deepen our understanding of each other and build bonds of goodwill and friendship.”
CAP: Rabbi Devorah Jacobson