Muslims, Jews unite for community service
June 30, 2004
Alicia McGee
Special to The Gazette

Rachel Golden/The Gazette

Farhaan Chaudhry (right) helps push an abandoned car to the main road for pickup by the county during the Muslim-Jewish Day of Friendship at the Menare Foundation's living history farm in Germantown Sunday.

Nearly 50 county residents of differing faiths volunteered their time to clean up a historic Underground Railroad stop in Germantown Sunday as part of the first Muslim-Jewish Day of Friendship.

Event organizers and friends Saqib Ali of North Potomac and Jeff Waldstreicher of Bethesda planned the project in an effort to create relationships between the Muslim and Jewish communities throughout Montgomery County.

Ali, a member of the Montgomery County Muslim Council, said he hopes Sunday's program will allow people to start lasting friendships and show the ability of these groups to come together for a common good.

Ali said the similarities between Muslims and Jews are far greater than their differences, yet the groups rarely come together.

"In Montgomery County, Muslims and Jews share the same neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds and workplaces," he said. "I believe that we can be a model showing that these two communities are eager to get along, in spite of world events. We want to show that we are friends and that we want to work together to improve our community."

Waldstreicher said he and Ali wanted to create an opportunity to introduce members of both groups in a way that would be most comfortable for those in attendance. Political discussions were discouraged.

"Saqib and I thought it would be more productive -- and more fun -- to have a less formal, less rigid event to introduce our two vibrant communities to each other," Waldstreicher said. "This is the first community service interfaith activity between Muslims and Jews that we know of in Montgomery County. It was truly an event without precedent."

The clean-up project was organized by the Montgomery County Muslim Council and congregations Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Bethesda Jewish Congregation and Fabrangen Cheder to help with yard work, organization and cleaning projects at the Button Farm on Black Rock Road. The 60-acre farm is being transformed into a living history farm by the Menare Foundation, a nonprofit organization that preserves and restores Underground Railroad safe houses and other historic African-American sites.

More than 100,000 slaves found freedom using the Underground Railroad, the term given to the routes that slaves took to gain freedom in the 1800s, and many free Americans helped the fugitives escape persecution before reaching freedom.

Anthony Cohen, historian and executive director of the Menare Foundation, said once the foundation receives its long-term lease for the property, training for teachers and at-risk youth will begin. Authentic period crafts, art and crops will be produced on the farm as well.

Cohen said organized groups of volunteers come to work at the farm two to three times a month.

Samantha Shofar, of Takoma Park, who is involved with a Jewish Sunday school action committee, said she learned of Saturday's unique opportunity from another committee member and was immediately interested in participating.

"Social action is very important to our school's ideals and a Muslim community connection is very important," she said. "We have been interested in doing something like this but hadn't been able to set up an opportunity."

Shofar's son Zev, 2, swept the farmhouse's front porch Sunday.

Like Shofar, 15-year-old Farhaan Chaudhry of Rockville said he came to volunteer his time at the farm because he wanted to help the community.

Chaudhry, who is Muslim, said most of his friends at Thomas S. Wootton High School are Jewish.

"It is important to make our relationship even stronger," he said. "That's why today is important."

Ali and Waldstreicher said the day's success ensures future joint events and celebrations with the Muslim and Jewish communities.

"Based on the feedback, turnout and level of enthusiasm we saw at Sunday's event, I believe we will continue to arrange opportunities in the future," Ali said.

Waldstreicher said a desire to plan future activities was "widely and enthusiastically" voiced at the event from both communities.

"Saqib and I are in the fortunate position where it will be hard not to follow this up due to its enormous success," he said.

Mumin Barre, a resident of Gaithersburg, said Sunday's event was important because it provided a positive look at the friendship possible between Muslims and Jews.

"So often, you hear about the negativity between these two groups," Barre said. "With the backdrop of what is happening in the Middle East, it is good to have this positive. I wish this could be multiplied everywhere."

Waldstreicher said world events have attempted to curse the "historically friendly relationship between Muslims and Jews" but that curses can be overcome.

"With good deeds and the spirit of togetherness, we can turn those curses into blessings," he said. "That's why we gathered on Sunday, and that's why it's important to continue to build the relationship between Montgomery County Muslims and Jews."