By Kevin Walters
Groups stand together for religious freedom as they exchange visits in Murfreesboro, Nashville
They held hands. They shared a meal. They laughed and joked.
And for a few hours Sunday in Nashville, more than 200 members of the Temple Congregation Ohabai Sholom and members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro shed the perception that Jews and Muslims — locked in decades of bitter strife — can only be enemies.
Yet it was outrage that drew the groups together.
After hearing the heated public opposition to the Murfreesboro mosque, Temple Rabbi Mark Schiftan reached out to ICM Imam Ossama Bahloul and organized a trip late last year to see the mosque and learn more about Islam.
On Sunday, Bahloul and three busloads of ICM members returned the favor, giving Schiftan and Bahloul a chance to field questions from each other’s congregations about faith, Scriptures and the future for each religion.
“We went because the level of xenophobia against the Muslim community, particularly in Murfreesboro, was so high in terms of religious intolerance (and) bigotry,” Schiftan said. “We went really on the grounds of another minority community of faith, to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in the affirmation of the protection of First Amendment rights.”
Could visits by members of one synagogue and one mosque break years of opposition? Bahloul thinks so, and he said the visits’ importance could bring greater acceptance later.
“I think it’s really big. I think that the Jewish and Muslim community getting together is an essential issue in this time,” Bahloul said. “We are trying to achieve peace.”
Temple members smiled, joked and greeted the ICM members who walked through the house of worship, some holding hands with Temple members, while others smiled or took cellphone photos and videos. The visit gave Temple members an opportunity to show off the Temple’s art and artifacts, including a portion of stained glass recovered from the Temple’s former Vine Street location that had been kept in a TGIFriday’s restaurant until it was reclaimed and a Torah recovered from a burned German synagogue.
There was optimism that Sunday’s lesson could resonate beyond Nashville.
“I think it’s fantastic that the Temple and the mosque are opening up a dialogue,” said Temple member Anne Ginsberg. “I think that not understanding leads to fear, and understanding leads to acceptance.”
Vanderbilt University graduate student Wadud Hassan, a member of the Islamic Center of Nashville, came to show solidarity for the Murfreesboro mosque and says long-range change can come.
“I think on the surface level it seems like it’s great (public relations),” Hassan said. “The deeper message is actually what is having an impact all over the world. American Jews and American Muslims are setting a precedent.”