By Yingxu Jane Hao
This year on the eve of Hanukkah, Oak Park Temple in the western suburbs hosted an intersection of three major Abrahamic religious traditions.
Families from the Muslim Leadership Academy of the Islamic Foundation Mosque joined families from the Religious School of Oak Park Temple on Saturday, Dec. 5. for an evening of “Tzedakah and Sadaqah,” learning, sharing and making lunches for a Christian charity program in the East Garfield Park community.
“We already have so many differences, but we want people to learn from each other about how we are similar, how our traditions teach the same values,” said Amy Kaufman, an organizer and active member of the synagogue.
The relationship started after the synagogue volunteered to offer its hall for Muslim families living in Oak Park to break fast during the month of Ramadan this summer, according to Nausheen Akhter, a cardiologist at Northwestern University and a teacher at the Muslim Leadership Academy. Since the Hebrew word “tzedakah” and the Arabic word “sadaqah” for “charity” are similar, Akhter explained, a night of helping the poor and learning traditions and scriptures about charity seemed a good way to get the two communities together.
The gathering of 115 adults and kids started with an ice-breaking pizza dinner and a “Religion101” dialogue.
“What’s the name of your God?” asked a Jewish child.
“Allah. ‘A’ means ‘the’, ‘llah’ means ‘God.’ No gender, not plural,” answered Ayesha Akhtar, a mother of two, at the same table. “Just like you believe in only one God. We also believe in one God.”
Coming with her 11- and 13-year-old sons, Akhtar said the opportunity to mingle with people of another religion is especially important for youth.
“I want them to be comfortable with who they are, but also comfortable with their neighbors, to know their neighbors, and be kind to their neighbors,” said Akhtar. “I don’t want religion to define who they are. After all, we are all Americans.”
After the dinner, attendees were divided into three groups. Kids under 10 listened to tzedakah and sadaqah stories and painted charity boxes. Teens from 11 to 15 discussed the idea and traditions of tzedakah and sadaqah. Adults were led by Rabbi Max Weiss of Oak Park Temple and Omer Mozaffer, principal of Muslim Leadership Academy, in learning scriptures and parables about tzedakah and sadaqah in the Torah and Quran.
“I don’t want religion to define who they are. After all, we are all Americans.”
– Ayesha Akhtar, a Muslim mother of two
“It’s very interesting to listen to the teachings from a knowledgeable person from another religion,” said Faaiza Mahoud, a Muslim, after the discussion. “This makes you appreciate and respect people of different faith.”
Noor-Fatima Asad, 12, described her experience as “popping the bubble around me and go out of it.” Asad’s mother Farah Noor Cheema brought her here with the hope that such experience can make her tolerant toward other faith groups.
Later, all the families reconvened to make peanut butter and jam sandwiches for the Rev. Vinson’s Outreach Mission, which delivers meals to the indigent in the city.
Annika Rothbaum, the social action chair of the synagogue, said the tzedakah idea of helping the needy resonates at this time of year in all Abrahamic traditions.
“I made 10 sandwiches!” said Eve, Annika’s 9-year-old daughter. “It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. And I thought it would be really fun.”
Eve showed the Medill Reports her tzedakah box. On the top she drew an orange cat with its mouth wide open. Eve said she would “feed the kitty every day and buy food with the money and donate it to the food pantry.”
According to Kaufman, the event, while planned in September, is “even more valuable and informative” in the wake of the Paris attacks and the California shooting.
“In every group there’s a variety of people,” said synagogue member Joan Kohnke. “Even though bad things are happening in other parts of the world, we’re counteracting those with good things.”
Kohnke described the event as “an appetizer,” and said she expects future activities to help synagogue members interact with and learn more about the Muslim community. Her wish is likely to come true next spring, when the Muslim community planned to invite their Jewish friends to the Mosque for a similar event, according to Akhtar.
“Our religion has been used to separate and shield each other, but it really doesn’t need to be that way,” said Akhtar.
“When communities come to each other, break down walls and stereotypes, and focus on what we have in common, how we can learn from each other and grow together,” she said, “we will not be afraid of each other.”