When Craig Seligman, a member of Temple Sinai Atlanta, invited Akbar Kassam, a Shia Ismaili Muslim, on a trip to Israel with his congregation, Akbar couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Craig, who was not only Akbar’s business partner, but also a close friend, would be celebrating his son’s bar mitzvah on the trip - the traditional ceremony where a 13-year-old Jewish boy becomes a man. Craig could hardly imagine marking such an important family milestone without Akbar’s presence, and so, Akbar and his wife Farzana embarked on a journey that would blossom into new friendships and allow them the opportunity to further open their eyes to a faith different from their own.
Rabbi Bradley Levenberg of Temple Sinai Atlanta, who traveled to Israel with the congregation, recalls the trip with fondness. “It was very lovely. We all became friends there,” he says. “We so enjoyed traveling together, that when we came back, we had a few times where we got to see each other, and we thought, we should really get our communities together.”
These meetings led Akbar and his friends from Temple Sinai to create a platform this past fall, a series of three interfaith dialogue events, that would give members of both communities the opportunity to come together to discover commonalities and forge new friendships amongst their different faiths. Rabbi Brad would describe this platform as a ‘marriage’ of two congregations—the Ismaili community and Temple Sinai Atlanta—and what he hoped would lead to a lifetime partnership of the faiths. “We like each other,” Rabbi Brad beamed when recalling his trip and subsequent meetings with Akbar again, “...our communities would LOVE each other.”
The series of interfaith dialogue events began in October with a unique program at Maggiano’s Little Italy. This first meeting was designed to provide a neutral setting for participants to meet and aimed to set the groundwork for the two other programs which would take place at Temple Sinai and the Ismaili Jamatkhana in the weeks to come. Twenty-five Ismailis, along with twenty-five members of the Jewish faith, were assigned to tables and given prompts to ‘break the ice’ and stimulate conversation among strangers who would soon come to be friends. “We wanted to put together a time where we could start on a first date...getting to know each other,” explains Rabbi Brad as he details the first event.
Two weeks later, the members of Temple Sinai Atlanta graciously invited the Ismaili community members to their ‘home’ for a delicious meal, engaging dialogue, and a tour of the synagogue. This time, participants were assigned to tables with individuals different than those at the first event, encouraging them to develop new relationships. Discussion prompts led to lively conversations centered on favorite books and movies that represented each participant’s faith and the opportunity to share their favorite religious holidays and traditions. Rabbi Brad led an informative Q&A session which allowed Ismaili participants to learn more about important rituals and practices of the Jewish faith. The visit concluded with a tour of the Temple Sinai facility.
The two events culminated in a final interactive dialogue on November 5, 2017. Rabbi Brad describes this event as a ‘third date.’ “We are now dining in each other’s homes and really turning these acquaintanceships into friendships,” he remarks. This time, the Ismaili community was given the opportunity to welcome guests into their ‘home’ by inviting Temple Sinai members to the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Norcross, GA, for a Mediterranean lunch, learning and continued dialogue, and a tour of the facility. Participants each brought with them an item that held significant spiritual meaning to them and were asked to share their items with those seated at their tables.
Shyna Salim, who attended all three interfaith events, brought her tasbih and quickly learned she wasn’t the only one. “It was heartening to know that there were at least three other Ismailis at my table who brought tasbihs with them and had a special connection with it. Some used it for gaining strength, some used it for peace and calm, and others for an opportunity to remember Allah or Muhammad or Ali,” she explains. “For me, a tasbih is always a symbol of closeness to my Murshid, and knowing that I have his hand on my head wherever I might be physically or spiritually in my life. We explained the purpose of the tasbihs to those at our table.”
Shyna also recollected the item that Rabbi Brad had brought with him. “It was the broken glass from his wedding, from the Jewish ritual of smashing glasses by the bride and groom. Rabbi Brad explained how this ritual is meant to ward off any evil energies from the auspicious occasion,” describes Shyna. “Drawing parallels, we explained to them the ritual in traditional Indian-Pakistani weddings, where a clay vessel, a “sapathiya,” is smashed by the bride and groom after the ‘Pithi’ ceremony or upon entering the groom’s home after the ‘Nikah’ is performed.” Other items of significance included copies of the Torah and Qur’an, prayer cards, and objects that various Jewish members had kept since their own bar/bat mitzvahs. The discussions concluded with a Q&A session and a guided tour of the facility.
Shyna was grateful for the opportunity and hopes other Ismailis can participate in similar events to build bridges within the community at large. “This was my first interaction with the Jewish community in a manner that explained to me their beliefs and their customs. Throughout these events, I came to a realization that no matter how the world sees various world religions, at the crux of it all, we are driven by similar principles and similar values. We all looked different, but we really were so similar.”
Rabbi Brad echoed Shyna’s sentiments. “The experience for me has been phenomenal, absolutely, phenomenal!” he exclaims. “I never could have imagined this was going to go off as meaningful as it has. I didn’t anticipate hearing from the Jamatkhana how moving it was to their hearts or how many members of Temple Sinai would email me saying thank you and that this is exactly what they needed. I underestimated how much people would feel that they needed to create a different narrative, a narrative that’s not based on xenophobia but based on really wanting to build bridges.”
Rabbi Brad hopes participants will continue to connect and engage with each other following the conclusion of the interfaith dialogue series. He challenges participants to invite one another into their own homes for lunch or dinner.
“I think it takes courage to say yes to an invitation like this. It takes character to continue beyond. And the same courage that you need to muster up to have this first conversation, my hope is that it continues to feed us and inspire us for a long time to come,” says Rabbi Brad. He adds, “I don’t want this to be the end of anything. I want this to be the story we tell about how our communities first got to know each other. And at our 25th, 35th, and our 50th sort of ‘wedding anniversaries’ of our communities, that we continue to speak about this for years to come.”