At a wonderful luncheon at Ouisie’s Table on January 8, the Anti-Defamation League presented Shariq Abdul Ghani and me with the Milton Popkin Award recognizing our work in Jewish-Muslim relations. The stated purpose of this award is to honor “individuals and institutions for their exemplary service in furthering ADL’s mission to fight anti-Semitism, bigotry and racism, promote respect and advocate for a safe and secure Israel.” The recognition was humbling, and it was an honor to receive it, but it was equally rewarding to look back and see the fruits of our collective vision.
Shariq and I met eleven years ago on an interfaith trip to the Balkans. We were the only non-Christian leaders on this unique immersive experience. Each of us had been invited on this learning excursion because of our passions for interfaith work and our reputations in facilitating multi-faith engagement. During that ten-day excursion, we instantly became friends, and it was not long before we started dreaming of ways to bring our communities together to overcome the stereotypes which divide us.
By the time we returned to Houston, each of us were convinced that the only way to move from fear to trust was to see each other as people – people who share the same concerns regarding the health, education and welfare of our families; people who work hard to make a living; people who root for the Astros and the Texans even though we may pray in different houses of worship. Our intense experiences together in the Balkans inspired us to try to replicate what we had shared with our communities. We had prayed together every day and shared every meal together for over a week, why not try to do the same on a larger scale?
One day in mid-October of 2010, as Shariq and I were enjoying a wonderful Pakistani lunch at a local restaurant, Shariq asked, “What do Jews do for Christmas?” I responded, “We usually go out for Chinese food and a movie.” And Shariq said, “That’s pretty much what Muslims do, too. Let’s do it together.”
This year marked the tenth anniversary of the Muslim-Jewish Christmas, and as we look back, we can see that this annual gathering has been instrumental in so much more than creating friendly interactions between our faiths at Christmas time. Our efforts have developed networks of trust and engagement in an ever-broadening web of Jewish-Muslim interactions. We support each other when our communities are threatened, and we work together to defend the rights of all people through newly established groups like the Salam/Shalom Sisterhood and the Muslim-Jewish Advocacy Counsel of the AJC. Ten years later, after our first event (which brought together a small group of Muslims and Jews) our vision has expanded, and we are working with AJC to expand the Muslim-Jewish Christmas to a dozen cities in 2020.
I am proud of what we have accomplished in ten years; I am honored to share this recognition with Shariq; and I feel blessed by the HCRJ community which has not only supported these efforts from the start but has become collectively associated with building bridges of trust and understanding across communities of faith.