By Maayan Hoffman
Two women – one Sephardic Jewish, one Egyptian Muslim – sat together, sharing a dish of Arabic fattoush salad. They laughed together, excited by the discovery that despite their different religions they have much in common, including their favorite foods.
It sounds like a scene out of a fairy tale, given the recent unrest on and around the Temple Mount and the gruesome terror attack that struck a West Bank town over Shabbat. But according to those who spearheaded the first-ever Shabbat Salaam in San Francisco, this connection was neither contrived nor isolated.
More than 65 Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists came together on Friday night, July 21, for a pop-up dinner experience at which attendees dined and conversed about the parallels that exist between all Abrahamic faiths, specifically Judaism and Islam.
“People were reminded they are far more similar than different,” said Mohammad Modarres, who planned the evening on behalf of Interfaith Ventures, in partnership with OneTable’s Bay area hub manager Analucia Lopezrevoredo. He said Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews attended, as well as Shia and Sunni Muslims.
The event began at 7 p.m. with a social hour and finger foods – Turkish dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), finger potato knishes, khraime (Moroccan salmon) – and drinks, which prepared attendees to ask questions about faith, community and all things humanity, according to Modarres.
OneTable’s Al Rosenberg, director of communications, said the organization decided to financially back Shabbat Salaam because OneTable saw the event as both “strategic and intentional,” and aligned with its mission of presenting Shabbat as a “beautiful, purposeful and intentional practice that can benefit everyone and can bring peace and rest.”
Rosenberg said, “We want [Shabbat meal] hosts to feel comfortable celebrating Shabbat with whoever – and to feel empowered to bring a little bit of their culture to their friends and community.”
This was the first time OneTable partnered directly with a non-Jewish organization.
Opening remarks were followed by a three-course meal, curated by a local Sephardic-Jewish chef. The highlight of the meal was the main course, Persian choresht e-sabzi (herb stew) and Lebanese kousa mahshi (stuffed squash), made with the first-ever Glatt kosher and halal “interfaith meat.”
“It was the very best meat – black belly lamb, grass fed, free range,” said Modarres, who worked for more than a year to make such a ritual slaughter take place. “It was a logistics nightmare.”
Modarres said the lamb was slaughtered the Monday before the event at an Oregon farm owned by a devout Christian. The first lamb they slaughtered did not turn out to meet Glatt standards and so it was distributed to people in need. The second one hit the mark.
“There we were, three farmers, me, the rabbi-shochet (ritual slaughterer) and the Muslim slaughterer. And the rabbi checks the animal. And when he tells us it passes as Glatt kosher, we were excited knowing that we had created interfaith meat and we all high-five each other,” Modarres said.
Aside from the meat, each dish – from tahini to challah to baklava – was steeped in tradition. The chef came out to explain each course and its significance to her and her family as Jewish, American, Iranian, Israeli Jews – as humans. The Interfaith Ventures website refers to how Muslim and Jewish food roots tango with one another for a multitude of reasons, including economic trade, environmental sacristy and social mobility, and these intertwined histories shape the cultural foods of today. Participants paid $45 per person.
Jewish ritual and Muslim culture was also factored into the experience. Lopezrevoredo, who worked directly with Modarres on the dinner since February 2017, provided ritual cards that explained candle lighting, Kiddush and the blessing over bread. She invited participants to join her in these rituals before the meal. After dinner, participants enjoyed a Muslim-led Sufi performance.
Lopezrevoredo, who grew up in an interfaith family, got involved because she was struck by the growth of Islamophobia since 9/11. During the last presidential election, she felt that those fears became more covert and “because of my personal convictions, history and relations with people that are part of the Islamic faith, I just cannot stand for it.”
Modarres grew up on an “interfaith street” in New Jersey, with Jewish, Christian and Buddhist neighbors, among others. As he grew older he realized that writing cards to Jewish friends on Yom Kippur and Chanukah, or sharing Ramadan dinner with a pastor’s son and daughter, was not commonplace. The negative experiences his family faced after 9/11, which he, too, felt came to the forefront during the last election “left a sour taste in my mouth.”
“You can either pick up a pitch fork and be angry or you can try to create a narrative and space for people to realize their similarities and how they outweigh any differences,” said Modarres.
Modarres and Lopezrevoredo were brought together by a mutual colleague and friend and then they started planning.
OneTable’s Rosenberg said the organization braced for backlash.
“Anytime you try to bring peace, there are people who want to fight that for some reason,” said Rosenberg.
But in the end, there wasn’t any push back. Rather, participants left the meal with ideas of local volunteer opportunities they could do with their new friends. And Rosenberg said she sees Shabbat Salaam as a prototype that could be replicated in other cities. There is already a Shabbat Salaam planned for Los Angeles and discussions are underway about dinners in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and Colorado.
“It really came together,” said Modarres. “I don’t know how else to describe it, except there were Higher Powers that really wanted this.”