Muslims, Jews Eat in ‘Shelter of Peace’

Mark Kelsey

A Jewish prayerbook lies atop a dinner table at Harvard Hillel during the annual Sukkat Salaam interfaith dinner Monday evening.

Growing up in Pakistan, Rabeea Ahmed ’14 never had the opportunity to sit in a sukkah.

“Back in Pakistan, there’s not a huge Jewish population. I didn’t know any Jews in Pakistan,” Ahmed said.

Coming to Harvard, Ahmed wanted to take part in interfaith events–starting with Sukkat Salaam.

Sukkat Salaam is Harvard Hillel’s annual interfaith dinner to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. It builds on the Jewish idea of Sukkat Shalom, a shelter of peace, and combines it with the word for peace in Arabic.

“It’s been an event where members of the Jewish community and Muslim community have gotten to learn from each other,” said David F. Sackstein ’14, vice president of community relations for the student steering committee of Harvard Hillel. But in the past, he said, it hasn’t been the best venue for addressing substantive issues, although the program included singing and cultural presentations.

This year, the program included readings from the Koran and Psalm 104, encouraging attendees to grapple with the texts.

“It’s kind of a pilot program, I’d say, in terms of having it be dialogue based,” said Nima Y. Hassan ’14, director of external relations for the Harvard Islamic Society and co-coordinator for the event along with Sackstein.

“The real purpose of this event is to dispel stereotypes through casual interactions. We don’t really care what people talk about as long as they’re talking,” Sackstein said. “This vision of ours, we wanted the focus of this evening to be on good food and good company, and less on the distraction of performances.”

Fifty students and community members drifted in and out of the Sukkah as Jonah C. Steinberg, director of Harvard Hillel, and Nuri Friedlander, Harvard’s Muslim Chaplain, gave a presentation to kick off the event.

“We started out with just two snippets of text, one from your tradition and one from my tradition,” Steinberg said. “This is what you get when you put two people in a room together who love their textual traditions.”

The chaplains read excerpts from their religious texts in Arabic and Hebrew after students read them aloud verse by verse.

Steinberg and Friedlander included questions for attendees to discuss.

At one table, Raya S. Dreben ’49, a board member of Harvard Hillel and associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, discussed the passages with two Jewish and two Muslim students.

“Well when you sing to the lord you’re affirming, and so you won’t be sinful,” she said of the Psalm passage.

Jeremy S. Cushman ’12 commented that he thought it was about the coming of the Messiah.

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