CHICAGO: For the past 20 years, Marc Schneier, an American rabbi, has been building “bridges of understanding” between Jews and Muslims, an activity that has recently become the latest focus in interfaith dialogue.
He has carried out this vital work through his organization, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Schneier, who has established strong ties with like-minded people in the Arab Gulf, is now trying to educate people about the meaning and importance of Ramadan.
He is doing this by hosting a special TV series, entitled “30 Faces of Islam for the 30 Days,” on the Jewish Broadcasting Service (JBS) and the foundation’s social media.
The new series highlights the positive impact of Muslims globally by featuring a Muslim luminary in politics, religion, arts and culture and sports.
The objective is to educate the Jewish community and the public about Islam and the significance of Ramadan.
“There is a lot of ignorance about Ramadan during this sacred and holy season for Muslims. There is little understanding on the different traditions, rituals and precepts of Ramadan,” Schneier said in an interview with Arab News via video call.
“So, we decided to reach out to our global network.
“Muslim luminaries from politics, media, entertainment and culture teach and sensitize us to this important and sacred season for our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Schneier’s message is reaching a large audience. A non-profit educational channel, JBS is America’s largest Jewish TV network, broadcasting to more than 49 million cable subscribers.
He said the “30 Faces of Islam for the 30 Days” program is being produced with the goal of reaching not just the Jewish community but the foundation’s diverse network.
“Each episode begins with me introducing our special guests, each of whom has recorded a video for us,” Schneier said.
“In the video they have been asked to share with us Ramadan and its traditions, particularly in addressing a non-Muslim community, and the interfaith message they can share during this holy season.”
One of the participants, Sheikh Musa Drammeh, chairman of the Islamic Cultural Center of North America, praised Schneier’s effort, saying it would promote understanding and resolve differences between the two communities.
“We are grateful because the unfortunate coronavirus situation has brought Ramadan to its original concept, which is to focus on humanity, togetherness, neighborliness, injustice and oppressiveness,” Drammeh said in one of the “30 Faces of Islam for the 30 Days” video messages.
“It allows us to look from within and look inward, to correct our shortcomings, and advise our families to do the same.
“So, I am sending this message of peace, this message of greetings, to all of you, especially to the family of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.”
The New York rabbi said his efforts are focused on building bridges between the Muslim and Jewish communities in the Arab countries in the Gulf, particularly in the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
“This is my passion to find the path to narrow the gap that divides the chasm between 1.6 billion Muslims and 16 million Jews,” Schneier said.
“We have become extraordinarily successful. Muslim-Jewish relations have become very chic. It is very much in vogue now.
“The number of organizations, particularly in the Jewish community, who have brought this field into their spectrum and are looking to us as a resource.”
The foundation was originally launched in 1989 to build bridges between the Jewish and African American communities, but it expanded to strengthen relations with Muslims in 2003.
Schneier said improving relations between Jews and Muslims was not an easy goal to pursue.
“I remember when I was practically lynched for even venturing into the Muslim world,” Schneier said, adding that such an idea was “impossible” to pursue decades ago in the Jewish community.
“Things were in such a bad state between Muslims and Jews,” he said.
Schneier said he was familiar with that struggle from his days of launching a drive in the 1980s to build bridges between Jewish Americans and the African American community.
Appointed a “special adviser” to the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, he said he has forged good relations with leaders of many of the Islamic world’s major powers, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Morocco, Palestine and Qatar.
Schneier was the first rabbi to lead a Jewish congregational mission to an Arab Gulf country when he brought members of the Hampton Synagogue to Bahrain in 2018.
“Muslims and Jews have a common faith and a common fate,” he told Arab News, “and our single destiny must strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and caring for each other.”
To this end, he said, 20 of the “30 Faces of Islam for the 30 Days” video messages have been recorded and are being broadcast.
That said, based on his experience of the series, what do Jews and Muslims want to know about each other?
“I think Muslims want to know what we have in common,” Schneier said.
“Both Jews and Muslims recognize it is human nature to change human actions and how we need to go through a process of growth, spiritually, socially, culturally.
“We need to continue to expand our sympathies and our interests.
“And we Jews go through the same process during our High Holy Day season in terms of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which are typically in the early fall.”
He added: “There is so much commonality but there is also so much ignorance on both sides without understanding each other.”
Schneier has been appointed to the steering committee of Saudi Arabia’s World Conference on Dialogue.
He also serves on the executive steering committee of the Multi-Religious Campaign Against Anti-Muslim Bigotry in the US.
Schneier founded The Hampton Synagogue in 1990, creating a Jewish presence in the affluent Long Island area.
Prior to starting the synagogue, the Hamptons was devoid of opportunities for Jewish life.
Today, however, it boasts one of the largest philanthropic memberships in the country, hosting international and national politicians and celebrities.
The synagogue is the only traditional Orthodox synagogue in the US which has its services televised nationally.
Schneier has pioneered programs and discussions among Jews and Muslims to remind them that they have more that unites them than what divides them.
He has achieved this through his work in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Palestine, Singapore, throughout Europe, South America and the southern hemisphere.
“I would like Muslims and Jews to recognize, coronavirus or no coronavirus, we are all in this together,” said Rabbi Schneier, adding: “Ramadan Mubarak.”