Ramadan and Jews

As we mark the new moon of Tammuz this weekend, the Muslim community begins the month of Ramadan.
I spent much of last week following the third unit of a residential course for faith leaders in interfaith understanding. It was a rich and wonderful experience, organised by Cambridge Coexist, a title to which my computing skills cannot do justice because the ‘C’ represents the crescent moon of Islam, the ‘X’ Judaism’s Magen David, and the ‘E’ the form of the cross. Old friendships among us were deepened, new friendships made.
I asked one of my new friends, Remona Aly, what Ramadan meant to her. She sent me the following inspiring response:
     For me, Ramadan is a time for spiritual renewal, self-discipline, sincere gratitude and focused introspection. In one of my favourite verses in the Quran, Allah tells His servants: “I am closer to you than your jugular vein”. Just as God is intimately close to each one of us, Ramadan is an invitation and a beautiful reminder to me to draw closer to my Creator whose mercy envelops me like a warm embrace. 
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year, entails fasting daily from dawn until dusk. Especially when it falls over mid-summer, and particularly for Muslims living in latitudes far from the equator, this cannot be easy. As one of the participants on our course acknowledged, its challenges include struggling with feeling ‘hungry, thirsty and irritable’.
But, as on the Jewish fasts, fasting itself is not the whole and sole purpose. Ramadan, traditionally understood as the month when God’s revelation of the Quran commenced, is a time for intense prayer, deep study of its sacred text, and generosity in giving. My friend Shezad has often told me how warm-hearted crowds gather at the Mosque before and after the Iftar meal with which each day’s fast concludes, to pray and study together far into, and especially in the last ten days of the month, right through, the night. His words have always communicated to me a joyful and wonderful sense of spiritual community.
It would be foolish to deny that relations between the West and Islam contain painful difficulties and challenging concerns, in both directions. For Jews and Muslims especially, there often lies between us the unaddressed shadow of the politics of the Middle East. But if one googles ‘Ramadan and Jews’ one finds numerous U-Tube videos of Jews and Muslims celebrating the Iftar meal together, across the world.
My perception is that there exists a deep and widespread admiration for a community which adheres to the discipline demanded by Ramadan. Such commitment enables it to have an important counter-cultural voice amidst the individualistic ethos of societies where those very individuals often feel lonely and unhappy in the pursuit of happiness and self-fulfilment.
There is no such thing as a serious religious life, or spiritual path, without discipline. Judaism too makes its demands on us in how we pray, study, eat, conduct our personal and work lives, give charity, commit ourselves to our community and dedicate ourselves to fostering an inclusive society founded on justice, compassion, human dignity, freedom and peace.
Ramadan therefore offers an opportunity for us, Jews and Muslims, to test out what might lie beyond fear and mistrust so that we can begin to find in each other a fellowship of culture and values, and share, in Remona Aly’s words, ‘a beautiful reminder’ of our longing to be servants of God within the embrace of God’s compassion.

Brother and keeper

We will pray in our communities this Shabbat for the three kidnapped boys Ya’akov Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. I’m sure many of us are already doing so.
Our prayers must go out in circles around them too. First of all these circles must include their parents and families. “This is a very difficult time for us, but we feel the nation’s embrace and the strength of your thoughts and prayers I hope are reaching Gilad’, said his mother on Israeli television. There can be no greater nightmare for a parent than what is happening to her.
Our prayers should also include the brave Israeli-Arab teenager who posted on Facebook: ‘I call for the return of the abducted teens. This is not the way to reach peace.’ Following death threats he added: ‘I’m afraid to go to school’. We should pray too for the Israeli Arab boy who subsequently posted a picture of himself holding an Israeli flag with the words “Bring Back Our Boys”. “I am against kidnappings, and there are a lot of Israeli-Arabs who support Israel and the peace process,” he said. They are surely very far from alone, and give us faith that in spite of everything there exists a basic solidarity for the sake of the values of life and family.
We should pray too for all the soldiers, police and civilians involved in the vast search operations for the boys and that they should be successful in two ways. First of all, may the boys be found alive and safe and soon. Secondly, may as little harm and violence as possible ensue from the search operations themselves. Tragically, it is almost always the case that violence leads to more violence, anger to more anger. However bleak we may feel, we must pray that the ultimate end of these operations will not be even more hatred and resentment, but greater understanding. Such a thought may seem foolish and naïve, but we must on no account relinquish it from our prayers, hopes and goals and it must govern our words and actions.
The vast cruelties of the politics of the Middle East have become even more frightening with the unfolding of this week’s events in Iraq. One fears for Israel; one fears simply for people, human beings, parents, children, Jewish, Arab, whoever they may be, who want to do what people want to do: love their family and get on with making a living. Only when we remember that we are all people, someone’s child, someone’s sister, someone’s parent, will there be less hatred and more humanity and understanding. Only when we stand up for that humanity, whoever’s it is, will we bring safety and peace nearer.
That is why I was so moved to read about the prayers shared by Jewish and Muslim leaders from the Etzion block this Tuesday: “Our hearts are torn at this moment, and my heart goes out the mothers of these children,” said Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Hawa. “There is a wall between our two nations, and we hope to remove the wall separating the hearts of humans … we pray that God return these youngsters to their mothers as soon as possible, God willing,” he added, speaking in Arabic. (Times of Israel – click here for the full article)
Israel has called the search for our three boys ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper’. That is exactly what it is, because every Israeli, and many beyond, feel that these boys could be their children, their brothers. But the name also reminds us that both ‘brother’ and ‘keeper’ have the widest possible of meanings in the Bible, because we are all God’s children and one another’s keepers and protectors, whoever we may be.
May the boys be brought safely home. May the anguish of these dreadful events awaken our hearts to what truly matters in the world.


I looked down at the prayer book. Something had suddenly felt different; the melody had unexpectedly changed, alerting me to the fact that the words were no longer following the beaten path of this section of the service, familiar to me since my teens.
I found the place. Yes, here we were, in the middle of the blessing to which the rabbis gave the name ge’ulah, ‘redemption’, which links the Shema meditation on the oneness of God to the beginning of the daily Amidah prayer. But this version was decidedly different; something definitely didn’t feel quite right.
It was a Monday morning and we were gathered in the small synagogue of Lochem, in the east of Holland. Jews had first been recorded here in the fourteenth century, but continuous settlement dated only from the beginning of the eighteenth. The synagogue was dedicated on the 20th October 1865. In many of the small towns of the Twente region, and all over Holland, such synagogues still stand, gracious in their Dutch brickwork, the former homes of communities which loved and cherished them. Before the war there had been two kosher butchers in Lochem and at least five kosher bakeries.
Outside on the wall were plaques with names; I counted more than eighty. The family name Fortuin appeared nine times, as did Vries; the name Heilbron was recorded eight times, Roos and Wijler five times each. These must have been grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters, little children. Between the four columns into which the list was subdivided was a dedication, beneath the heading 1940 – 1945.
I looked down at the prayer book and carefully followed the unfamiliar words:
In recent generations your enemies caused a great blow to fall upon your people, such as had never before been seen in the world. Yet, amidst the darkness of the years of the Holocaust, your people Israel survived, a very few, a remnant of a remnant, wretched and traumatised. To them you gave strength and they built new lives…
That new life was right here, in this singing which echoed off the stone walls and the beautiful geometric patterns of the ceiling and came back to encircle us from every side. What singing that was! And this was just an ordinary Monday morning, just a simple day in the liturgy like every other workaday Monday. Yet it was not an ordinary Monday. The community had gathered here, travelling from different towns in ones and twos, some from as far as a hundred kilometres away, to pray, to study, to express together their abiding love of this beautiful, painful, haunting heritage which would not left them alone but drew them back in spite of everything with immeasurable grace and power to dedicate themselves to it more deeply.
There was not a person here who did not have a story: ‘My mother was hidden in forty-seven different homes’. ‘They were going to pull that house down, when they found that it was full of hiding places…’
The melody changed again, to the music of the Hatikvah. I looked back down at the words:
You have drawn back together those who were scattered among the nations, and re-gathered from the four corners of the earth those who were dispersed, and the children have returned to their borders.
Not just in Israel, but across Holland, across Europe, people are returning to rediscover the borders, fields and rifts and rivers of their heritage and faith, and the music of their spirit.


Today, on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, we honour the memory of all who contributed to the success of one of the most ambitious and courageous military operations ever mounted.

We are humbled and awed by the bravery of all who fought to bring freedom back to Europe. Though liberation came too late for many millions, the news of the Allied landings brought hope even to the concentration camps, to Jews in hiding across Europe and to all the countries who had suffered Nazi oppression for years.
We reflect with deep appreciation on the truth that tens of thousands gave their lives in the battle for Normandy and in the subsequent fighting, so that our parents, we and our children could enjoy the freedoms we so often take for granted.

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