549 Worcester Street (Rt 9)
Natick MA 01760
HistoryThe Muslim-Jewish Dialogue of Greater Boston was formed in 2002 when Larry Lowenthal, the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Boston Chapter, contacted Mahmud Jafri, then president of the Islamic Masumeen Center of New England, a Shi'ite organization in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. As a founder and lifetime trustee, Jafri explains that the Masumeen Center included interfaith outreach in its mission from the time it started in 1995. When approached by Lowenthal, the members of the Masumeen Center agreed to begin a dialogue, but with great apprehension. Many of them were Pakistani and Iranian immigrants who had never met a Jewish person outside of academic and professional interactions. They decided that, for the sake of their children, it was essential to start building relationships. The initial goals of the group were to develop trust and get to know each other. In accordance with their philosophy that constructive dialogue must be based on trust, the participants addressed those foundational goals for several years before tackling specific issues.
Srtructure and LeadershipTwo co-chairs and a steering committee, which is comprised of around twenty members, lead the group. Selection is based on a mixture of volunteerism and nomination; as a result, the size of the committee and lengths of terms vary according to the commitment each member is able to make. It has been difficult to maintain a balance of Muslims and Jews on the committee because the Muslim community is smaller, the number of interfaith groups is increasing, and the Muslim members are in highest demand. A Muslim co-chair (currently Mahmud Jafri) and a Jewish co-chair (currently Gary Jacobsen) work together to oversee the steering committee. The earliest members decided that the group should not affiliate with any organization, because individuals come from institutions that have different agendas. To maintain this separation, the steering committee meets in private homes. This achieves the additional purpose of supporting the development of authentic and personal relationships.
DemographicsMembership is open to clergy and lay people. Though members range from devout to casual and conservative to liberal, a commitment to their faith tradition is required. Within each faith, members come from different traditions, including Sunni and Shia and a range of Jewish members from Conservative to Reform traditions.
Activities and EventsThe group meets four to six times per year to discuss various topics. One thing Jafri values most is the ripple effect that the meetings have. Participants report back to their faith communities in an effort to disprove any false or narrow stereotypes that are held as a result of inaccurate media representation, lack of personal experience, or other causes. Because of the personal connections that are made, Muslims can tell their community, "it's not just what Al Jazeera says" about Jews that matters. One example of an issue that came up in a meeting revolved around a misunderstanding of the Muslim concept called taqiyya, which is often translated as dissimulation. Taqiyya provides a justification for Muslims to conceal their faith if it is necessary for self-protection. In a meeting, Jewish members expressed that many Jews regard taqiyya as a way of infiltrating other faiths for immoral reasons. Once discussed, the Jewish members understood its true purpose and shared that there is a similar concept in Judaism. The co-chairs are often invited to give presentations about the dialogue group at public events. Jafri and Lowenthal spoke at a Brandeis in a 2005 conference for U.S. journalists who primarily cover religion. In 2004, Jafri and another member were invited to participate as fellows in the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life, held that year in Jerusalem. Members are also asked to provide educational talks about their faith tradition. Jafri has been asked to speak in several Jewish temples, including the temples in Framingham and Canton. Additionally, Jafri and Lowenthal participate in an interfaith radio program on WRKO called Talking Religion.
Involvment with the Dispute Over the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural CenterWhen the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) began construction on a large mosque and cultural center in 2004, accusations surfaced in the community regarding funding sources and details of the real estate transaction. Early in the building process, the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue of Greater Boston arranged a breakfast meeting with several Jewish groups and two ISB representatives for the purpose of sharing information about the project. Jafri and Lowenthal also addressed the topic in their public speaking engagements. In the group's dialogue meetings, the Jewish community educated the Muslim participants about The David Project, a conservative Jewish group that initiated a lawsuit because of their concerns about the land deal between the Boston Redevelopment Agency and the Islamic Society of Boston. The dialogue helped Muslim participants to understand the specific players and the range of Jewish responses to the situation. The mosque dispute was also the subject of the group's meeting in January 2006, which drew a diverse group of fifty participants who represented a variety of opinions and religious identities. Speakers included Salma Kazmi, co-chair of the Center for Jewish-Muslim Relations, and Anwar Kazmi. According to an article in The Boston Globe, Jafri said it was "the most polarized issue the group has taken on." He was determined, however, to find common ground. "We decided to go back to our communities and tell people this is not an issue of Muslim versus Jew," he said. "We are telling people, 'Don't let this venom and fire spread to our communities."
Date Center Founded