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The following essay has  appeared (somewhat edited)  in Torah at the Center, a publication of the Union for Reform Judaism  and its  Religious Action Center.   The issue, intended for Rabbis and synagogue educators, was on the subject of teaching about Islam. August 2008?

Sh’ma, Yisrael: Start by Listening

By Dr. Edward and Eunice Ordman, Volunteer Leaders, Temple Israel, Memphis

 As an interfaith couple, we began our interfaith dialogue work many years ago with our synagogue and our church, Balmoral Presbyterian Church. After September 11, 2001 we were motivated to learn about and dialogue with our Muslim neighbors. We firmly believe that we simply cannot afford to treat our Muslim neighbors in the US as strangers. In this article, we share some of the approaches which have helped us succeed. In our experience, the way to begin a dialogue is by listening. 

 Get informed

There are many places to learn about Muslims and their religion. In addition to the URJ’s excellent Children of Abraham course and half-hour video, below are just a few of our suggestions. 


There is a good directory of Muslim communities online at www.islamicfinder.org. The service with a sermon and social visiting is probably about 1:00 or 1:15 PM on Friday. When you visit, you should expect that there will be separate places for men and for women, and if you haven’t called in advance, stand at the door until someone tells you where to come in. Dress modestly (long trousers or skirts, sleeves, head scarf for women, shoes you can easily remove. Head coverings for men are optional, and a kippah is acceptable). Muslims usually sit on the floor, and kneel (forehead to floor) during prayers; every mosque we’ve been to keeps a supply of folding chairs and is happy to have visitors ask for one and sit in it when the Muslims are praying. Much of the service is in Arabic, but the prayers are much briefer than a Jewish or Christian service while the sermon is longer. In some mosques the sermon is all or partially in English. During the Arabic prayers, you may sit and read the Koran. Listen. Ask a few polite questions; if you come back you can ask more questions. A few Muslims may express an interest in visiting a class or service at the synagogue.

 Extend an invitation

After we visited services at the mosque, we socialized, got acquainted with people and asked for their names and email addresses. Then we hosted get-togethers for Muslims, Jews and Christians. We asked everyone to sign a guest book and wear name tags. Since many Muslims observe some measure of dietary laws, it was necessary to omit alcohol and meat; we found that vegetarian Mediterranean or Indian food is a good option.  
After an initial success, more people were interested in attending the next one. Some Muslim women approached Eunice and asked for a party for women only. They could hardly wait to talk with each other about the problems they were having as Muslims in America or when visiting family in Israel. They felt that the Jewish women were helpful to them and were particularly interested in talking to one woman who practices mediation.

 Why it matters

Many Jewish-Muslim interfaith efforts may prefer to avoid the issue of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but it has been a big part of our successful interfaith discussions in Memphis. In summer 2007 we took a trip to Israel and the West Bank with Interfaith Peace Builders, a group with Quaker and Fellowship of Reconciliation sponsorship. The goal was not to see the main Jewish sites, but to visit nonviolent peace activists on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Recently in Memphis, there was a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Jewish counter demonstrators arrived and an altercation developed. Jews, Christians, and Muslims in our interfaith group were extremely helpful in trying to control this delicate situation and ultimately a message of nonviolence was affirmed.

Further information about our trip to Israel/Palestine and Eunice's one-page summary of  “A Common Word between Us and You”  are at  www.ordman.net/Islam.

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