The idea seemed simple enough: invite a knowledgeable speaker to the synagogue who could offer the congregation a more in-depth understanding of Islam and the Muslim-American community.
But Rabbi Jim Egolf waded into a minefield when, on the advice of a local Muslim leader, he asked a representative of the Council on Islamic-American Relations to shed light on the faith at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne.
CAIR, one of the largest and most well-known Muslim advocacy groups, is considered taboo by nearly the entire Jewish organizational spectrum. Four years ago, former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak faced a barrage of criticism from Jews when he spoke at a CAIR event, an appearance that became an issue in his recent failed bid for the U.S. Senate.
The group has faced questions from the FBI about suspected ties to Hamas, the terror group.
The invitation from Beth David sparked a flood of complaints from Jewish organizations and congregants; eventually, the synagogue decided to replace the speaker for its Jan. 30 event. The rabbi said he wasn't afraid of courting controversy, but the brouhaha "was going to interfere with our stated objective, which was learning more about Islam."
The recent episode highlights both the interest level of many Jews to learn about Muslims in America and the delicate nature of such engagement.
A decade removed from the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the question of whether or not to view American-Muslim communities with suspicion or as potential allies is one that has divided Jews.
The vast majority arguably sits somewhere in the middle, though there's a dearth of reliable survey data on Jewish attitudes toward Muslims.
In many respects, an individual's view is shaped by how he or she interprets one of the most debated theological and political questions of our time: Is violence and terrorism somehow endemic to Islam, or does it represent a perversion of the faith?
Daisy Khan, a leading Muslim American who spoke at a Jan. 16 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Center City organized by the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, hit on the dichotomy within the Jewish community.
"Some of our strongest, staunchest opponents have been people who follow the Jewish faith," said Khan, referring to the controversy over a planned Muslim community center a few blocks from the former World Trade Center site. "However, we know that they only represent the minority. Our strongest allies during the crisis have been the rabbinical community and various Jewish organizations."
For Rabbi George Stern, who directs the interfaith group, it's imperative for Jews to engage Muslims because Jews once faced a very similar situation, struggling to gain acceptance by widespread society and facing a good amount of suspicion, even prejudice.
"We look forward to the day when Muslims are fully accepted as Americans. They haven't gotten to that point yet," said the Mount Airy resident, who pushed to have Kahn come to Philadelphia for the MLK event.
A Mixed Bag
But synagogues like Beth David looking to educate members about Islam or even develop a relationship with a nearby mosque face considerable obstacles, ranging from a backlash from Jews concerned about the links between Islam and terrorist attacks to simply not knowing who to contact, or how to determine who's an acceptable representative of Islam and who isn't.
Despite the challenges cited, there are examples to be had of Muslim-Jewish cooperation in the region. At the University of Pennsylvania, members of Hillel have maintained close ties to leaders of the Muslim Students Association. The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia has also created a program that brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim teens together for social-service projects.
But advocates of engagement agree that outreach at the congregational level holds the most promise — and faces the most peril. For Germantown Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue in Mount Airy, an effort to delve into Islam and get to know Muslim neighbors has had mixed results.
According to Rabbi Adam Zeff, the congregational conversation on Islam began five years ago, with a screening of the documentary film Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West. (Director Raphael Shore's films on the subject, which highlight the threat posed by radical Islam, have been shown widely in Jewish venues.)
Zeff said that the film sparked heated debate, and eventually led the synagogue to invite a local imam to teach a course on Islam. (For a textbook, they used Reuven Firestone's An Introduction to Islam for Jews.) Although the course proved popular, Zeff said that the synagogue hasn't been successful in forging any kind of lasting relationship with the imam, members of his mosque or any others in the area.
Germantown Jewish Centre's choir performed at the MLK event honoring Khan. The Shalom Center, also in Mount Airy, honored Khan as part of the program.
There's a certain amount of suspicion on the Muslim side as well, according to Zeff, who spent years working as an anthropologist in India and developed close ties to Muslim communities there.
Jews can tend to be fearful, he said, and view Muslims and Islam as a monolith, failing to recognize the diversity that exits within the faith.
"There are many different sides to Islam. I am not willing to write off everyone because there are people who have done terrible things in the name of Islam," he continued. "We need a lot more understanding and exchange, but people are fearful."
In terms of forging connections within Philadelphia's Muslim community, Zeff said that part of the problem is that "we don't know who to call."
There's no shortage of individual Jews and Jewish groups that consider such outreach to be a dangerous exercise in political correctness.
Lower Merion resident Lori Averick embodies this perspective.
"I think the Jewish community is sleeping through the real issues and very concerned about not offending anybody," she said. "The Torah teaches us that when you are faced with an enemy who is trying to kill you, you rise and defend yourself. I believe danger is imminent, and that the time for sitting and dialoguing has passed."
Craig Snider, who heads the conservative David Horowitz Philadelphia Freedom Center, argues that while nonviolent Muslims vastly outnumber radicals in the world, Islam and the Koran's teachings are inherently violent, and irreconcilably opposed to the West and democracy. (Snider sits on the board of the Jewish Publishing Group, which oversees the Jewish Exponent.)
"It's pretty obvious that the Islamic community has a problem," Snider said, noting that U.S. citizens have been involved in a string of high-profile global terrorist attacks, from the 2008 coordinated shootings and bombings in Mumbai to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.
On the whole, synagogues and rabbis should be wary of engaging with Muslims, he said, charging that moderate-sounding Muslims often deliberately obscure their own beliefs.
Snider, along with others on the right, often cite the Islamic concept of Taqiyya, or hiding one's faith.
Historically, the idea of hiding one's faith in order to avert danger has been invoked largely by Shi'ite Muslims, who would take on the customs of the Sunni majority in order to ensure their safety, explained Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee's Division on Middle East and International Terrorism.
Yet Snider and others assert that Muslims today are evoking Taqiyya to sound moderate when they actually hold more extremist views.
Barsky — not one to play down the threat posed by extremism — dismisses that position as a misreading of Islam.
The Issue of Islamists
But that doesn't necessarily make pursuing dialogue any easier.
According to Barsky, the AJC's Philadelphia chapter — which has conducted broad outreach in the African-American and evangelical Christian communities — hasn't been able to find an acceptable partner in the local Muslim community.
CAIR is among the groups deemed off-limits.
"In some cases, there are extremist statements that people have made; in others, it's extremist ties that they have," said Barsky. "It's a challenging area of trying to be able reach out to people. It's also challenging because of Israel and how many in the Muslim community view Israel."
Daniel Pipes, executive director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based, conservative think tank, said that, in principle, Jewish-Muslim dialogue isn't a bad idea.
"Judaism and Islam are much more similar religions than Judaism and Christianity on a variety of levels," Pipes said, adding that the problem is that many, if not most, Muslim leaders in the United States tend to be Islamists — individuals who treat Islam not only as a religion, but as a political system.
Experts disagree sharply over who is an Islamist, and so it's next to impossible for a synagogue or lay leader to make that distinction, he said. Still, Pipes rejects the notion that there are no moderate Muslims.
"There are indeed some truly moderate Muslims, as shown by the fact they have suffered for their views," he said. "There is a real war of ideas taking place within the Muslim world."
Nationally, it's been the Reform movement that has led the way — and drawn the most fire — for calling on Jews to engage. In 2007, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the movement's leader, sparked controversy by addressing the Islamic Society of North America, which is also considered a problematic body by many Jewish groups.
The emphasis of the Reform movement is partially what led Egolf to suggest the Beth David program.
Know Your Neighbors?
Meanwhile, on the same day last month, on the other side of the Schuylkill River, another Reform synagogue hosted an event called "Getting to Know Your Muslim Neighbors."
The program at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, which was actually sponsored by the Montgomery County Advisory Council to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, featured a keynote address by Adnan Zulfiqar, a Pakistani-American doctoral student at Penn who has taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and serves on the steering committee of the Jewish-Muslim Emerging Leaders Retreat, an annual summer gathering organized by the RRC.
The program didn't generate the same kind of controversy as did the event held earlier in the day in Gladwyne. In an interview, Zulfiqar took pains to distance himself and many of his Muslim friends from CAIR.
Around 70 people attended, mostly Jews and Christians, according to event organizers.
Rabbi Lawrence Sernovitz, who helped organize the gathering, said the local Muslim community is much less organized than the Jewish community, and it was difficult to know whom to invite in order to increase the turnout.
Zulfiqar, a self-described liberal Muslim, told the audience that the version of Islam that seeks to dominate other faiths and gain control politically is a fundamental misreading of the religion — one rejected by a majority of Muslims.
"We are at the forefront of crafting a new identity," the 32-year-old lawyer and scholar said, referring to American Muslims.
While most of the presentation focused on nonpolitical issues, during the question-and-answer session that followed, Steve Feldman of the Zionist Organization of America pressed Zulfiqar on comments he had made seven years ago in The Daily Pennsylvanian that were critical of Israel's security barrier.
Zulfiqar replied that he still believes the barrier provides an obstacle to long-term peace, but stressed that he condemns Palestinian terrorism.
Shortly afterward, Feldman charged that Zulfiqar was whitewashing Islam.
Feldman left the event, saying it wasn't worth sticking around until the end.
When asked the problem, he replied that there was "a lot wrong" with the speaker.
But most of the congregants interviewed said the program represented a good first step.
"It comes down to basic human dignity," said synagogue member Cindy Singer. "To not understand breeds fear."