On one of Nashville’s darkest days, a light shone in the sanctuary of West End Synagogue. As the city was still reeling from the murder of six people at Nashville’s Covenant School a day earlier, Jewish congregants, community leaders, and members of the Islamic Center of Nashville joined together to pray, to learn, and to break bread. The event had been planned for months. It was the second time Jews and Muslims would gather during Ramadan to share an Iftar, the main meal during the fasting day. But when the day finally came, it was a celebration against the backdrop of a city in pain. Rabbi Joshua Kullock, of West End Synagogue, said, “Coming after a very difficult day, an event like this won’t solve all the problems, but it is a step in the right direction.”
After the Jewish evening prayers, Kullock was joined by Imam Ossama Bahloul, of the Islamic Center, for discussion and to answer questions about the two faith traditions. “It is useful always for people to sit together,” said Bahloul, “We are all part of the human family, and each life deserves dignity, safety, and protection.”
Both Kullock and Bahloul grew up outside the United States; Kullock in Argentina and Bahloul in Egypt. Bahloul said the proliferation of gun violence is something he did not experience in his home country. “I grew up in a village. I don’t remember anything like this. We didn’t have security measures in the schools,” he said.
A question was raised about the growing antisemitism both locally and around the world. Kullock said understanding the differences and building relationships between people will help. “We need to be exposed to each other’s customs not to convince, but to learn to work together to make the world a better place.” Bahloul said the Covid19 pandemic showed the importance of building community. “No one can be well until all of us are well. Antisemitism and Islamophobia, can be fought when we send a clear message that we won’t tolerate aggression from anyone, against any religion or no religion.” Kullock offered public thanks for the support of the Muslim community in the face of recent antisemitic incidents in Nashville.
Other questions addressed some of the specific differences between the two religions and religious texts, levels of observance, and general faith-based values. There was also discussion around the importance of the Temple Mount, and Jerusalem as a holy city for both faiths.
After the discussion, the Muslim friends broke their fast with a light snack, said their evening prayers, and everyone met in the synagogue social hall for dinner. Each table was filled with a combination of people from both communities, as everyone enjoyed the festive meal and the opportunity for more intimate conversation. Some folks were old friends finally meeting in person after the last few years of separation. Others were meeting for the first time. Kullock said, “We in America, as Muslims and Jews, can be part of the solution. We can agree to disagree without cancelling one another.”
As the stars lit up the night sky, people lingered, chatting about religion and politics, March madness, and sharing feelings of pain and sadness about the still-fresh tragedy. It could have been anywhere, on any occasion when friends gather. It was in Nashville, on the rare occurrence when Ramadan coincides with the beginning of Passover. Finally, people began to leave, and the air was filled with blessings of Ramadan Mubarak and Happy Pesach.