Jewish and Muslim students said Tuesday’s interfaith iftar dinner should serve as a positive example for cross-cultural relations on campus and throughout the world.
The meal, which traditionally ends daily fasts during the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan, drew about 300 Muslim students and at least 100 Jewish students, as well as several faculty members, ambassadors and former students, to the Marvin Center Grand Ballroom Tuesday night. Organizers said they expected such numbers and were pleased by the turnout.
“I’m terribly moved. Frankly, I almost cried, I was so touched by the group and good feeling in the room,” said GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who thought of the idea for the dinner and suggested it in September. “I can’t imagine how it could have been better.”
Most students said Muslim-Jewish relations on campus have been peaceful, but the event was a way to bring the two communities closer.
“The road to peace may be treacherous and difficult, but all journeys must start somewhere. Perhaps we can embark on that path tonight,” said Mohamed Omeish, GW’s Muslim chaplain.
Speakers at the event discussed similarities between Islam and Judaism, noting that fasting is an important ritual in both religions.
“The real benefit of (Ramadan) is to come (from God),” said Faisal Matadar, a recent GW graduate and former Muslim Student Association president. Matadar said that fasting is unlike other obligations of Islam, such as prayer, and”only God will know if you’re fasting . and only he will give the reward for it.”
Junior Gabriel Gershowitz said fasting is “spiritual elevation through physical abstention” for Jews, who fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and five other times during the year.
Trachtenberg also spoke about peace in the Middle East and how students are positive role models.
“(The group) should serve as inspiration to adults in all their homelands as well as in America,” Trachtenberg said.
After the speeches, attendees ate dates donated by the Saudi Arabian embassy to break the fast. Muslims then went to separate rooms to pray, removing their shoes and facing their holiest city, Mecca.
Jewish guests performed a ritual hand washing before the meal after the Muslims prayed.
Three ambassadors, who were invited by Trachtenberg, also attended the iftar dinner.
“The expression ‘breaking bread’. is the best way we can hope for change,” said Hatem Atallah, ambassador to Tunisia. “The changes can only come from younger generations – people that are really reaching out to each other.”
Other ambassadors and embassy representatives in attendance were Bangladeshi ambassador Syed H. Ahmad, Filipino ambassador Albert F. Del Rosario and Brett Schor, officer of public affairs and education for the Israeli embassy.
Dinner consisted of traditional Middle Eastern fare, including separate dishes of chicken prepared according to dietary standards for the two religions. Guests also enjoyed hummus, pita bread, a rice and grape leaf dish and baklava.
Men and women sat at different tables during the meal, which is traditional “for reasons of modesty,” said junior Amna Arshad, MSA president.
Ushers seated people as they entered the room, making sure members of each faith sat at each table.
“Everyone was mingling,” Arshad said.
Junior Ben Levy, Jewish Student Association vice president for religious life, said that although there have been verbal arguments and “friction” at events sponsored by the groups in the past, the iftar dinner was one of the first joint events, and it worked out well.
“This event really helped to bring the groups together (in a way) that shouldn’t involve anything that there could be controversy over,” he said. Levy also noted that the iftar dinner had “more cultural value” and “interaction.”
He also said he would like to see a strictly social event with Jews and Muslims in the future.
Ayesha Mian, a first-year medical student, said she has attended all of MSA’s iftars this year, which are sponsored daily throughout the month of Ramadan and are held in the basement of Western Presbyterian Church on Virginia Avenue.
“You see more diversity here,” Mian said. “It’s a very positive atmosphere.”
Students and organizers said they hope this iftar dinner bodes well for future relations.
“Yes, there is mistrust on both sides. Yes, there is misunderstanding. but, as people of good will, we can overcome these unfortunate realities,” Omeish said.