American Jewish Committee Extends an Olive Branch
By Hailey Woldt
Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University
Umar Akbar Ahmed and Rabbi Gary
Rather than tensions between Muslims and Jews subsiding, the recent conflict in Gaza has shown us that they are only getting worse. But on a recent night in Washington , DC, Jews and Muslims came together for the first time for a different kind of exchange.
In the headquarters of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), one of the oldest and largest Jewish organizations in the United States, the Olive Branch hosted an unprecedented event that would bring Muslims and Jews together in the hope of building bridges.
The esteemed Rabbi Gary Greenebaum and Umar Akbar Ahmed were the guest speakers. The audience was made up of a diverse and influential group from the Washington, DC area, including World Bank staff, attorneys, NGOs and United States government staffers.
Due to high level of anti-Semitism the location of the AJC is kept on a need-to-know basis, with the exact address only distributed once an RSVP was accepted. It was a fitting location, one which showed how serious the Jewish community was in reaching out in friendship to their Muslim kin.
Rabbi Greenebaum, the US Director at the AJC, is a senior community leader and authority on religion, politics and international affairs. He has advised elected leaders on both sides of the aisle, in the U.S. and abroad, and held the position of Western Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee from 1990 to 2006.
Umar Akbar Ahmed, a recent graduate of The George Washington University Law School, has worked in the legal field in the private sector as well as with the United States Government. He has been actively involved in clarifying legal, cultural and religious misunderstandings among communities through intercultural and interfaith dialogue. He was a panelist at The International Conference on Faith and Service along side then Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the King of Jordan. Most recently Mr. Ahmed gave the keynote address at the Rabbi Herschel – Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Service at one of Manhattan’s largest churches, the Park Avenue Christian Church and Temple of Universal Judaism.
The event was held during Ramadan and before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year marked by a day of fasting. The talk focused on similarities between the faiths. New connections and friends were made by the evening's end. One Muslim attendee noted that the evening had been a highlight of her Ramadan, saying that she had known little about the Jewish religion before coming to the event, and was surprised by the many similarities between her faith and that of her Jewish colleagues. Similar comments were made by Jewish members of the audience about the Muslim faith. The event was a fitting example of the spirit of fellowship and outreach that characterizes Ramadan and Rosh Hashan. The Muslim attendees were truly welcomed and every effort was made to make them feel at home.
After highlighting similarities between the faiths and the need for understanding, dialogue and ultimately friendship between Muslims and Jews, Umar Akbar Ahmed called on the attendees to ponder the Hebrew words that were taught to him by his mentor and family friend, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sir Jonathan Sacks. The words were: “Tikun Olam", which mean "to heal a fractured world." He called on Jews and Muslims, and Christians to work together to heal our fractured world.
Ahmed ended by quoting an old Arab proverb which states, "What comes from the lips reaches the ears. What comes from the heart reaches the heart." All agreed that his words, those of Rabbi Greenebaum, and of the new friends made that night, had reached the heart. From the heart comes courage to work for positive change and peace, a gift that the AJC and the Olive Branch gave to its guests that night.
As the only Christian at the event that night and a frequent participant in interfaith events, I felt that this was an important step in interfaith dialogue. There is a dire need for understanding between Muslims and Jews and it is often overlooked in favor of tri-faith initiatives which are also important, but achieve different objectives. As the first Olive Branch summit and the only Muslim-Jewish interfaith organization in Washington, DC, this event was a huge success and should be encouraged across the nation and the world.