“Why are you here?” It’s a question that I get often from the participants at the annual Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC). First of all, I’m neither a Muslim or Jewish. I was raised Catholic and currently consider myself a secular humanist. My religious identity, or lack of a religious identity, is not the determining factor of my participation. Upon reflection, what inspires me about the MJC, is the international community of volunteers and participants who choose to gather and engage in dialogue and creation. There are two stories from each of my MJC experiences that are indicative of why I go and why it’s important.
Last year during the interfaith Shabbat service, which happens on the Friday evening of the conference, the community was asked to walk on stage and light the Shabbos candles. The auditorium had been set up and partitioned depending on the needs of certain observant participants. There was a partition set up for the men who chose to pray with men and a partition set up for the women who chose to pray only with women. The vast majority of the participants and staff sat in the mixed section. At the beginning of the service I had noticed that their was one Israeli orthodox woman who was sitting by herself. As I walked up the stairs to light the candles, I looked again, and she was no longer sitting alone, she was sitting with a Pakistani muslim woman wearing hijab.
As co chair of the Arts and Culture committee this year, we asked our participants to bring objects that remind them of home and/or connects them to their religious identity. They were asked to share a story about the object. We had two participants this year from South Africa, one Jewish and one Muslim. The Muslim participant went first. He brought a scarf that he carries with him at all times. Several years ago he got into an argument with his mother. Seeking a place of refuge and comfort he ran to the mosque only to find that the mosque was locked. In that moment, he remembered he had his scarf. He laid it down facing mecca and started to pray. The Jewish participant brought the tefillin that he was given on his bar mitzvah. He doesn’t wear them anymore and yet travels with them. He keeps them close just in case he will need them again. In this simple exercise I immediately became connected to two distinct and yet parallel stories about religious identity amongst the backdrop of the political, racial and cultural landscape that is South Africa.
There are intersections and interruptions that happen because of the Muslim Jewish Conference. This is par for the course when you have over 100 participants from 30 plus countries represented. Your views, opinions, beliefs, assumptions are all challenged.
The past two conferences have ended the same. Gaggles of participants lying in a hotel lobby, telling stories, playing music, hugging each other, and speaking loudly. No one wants to go home. They stay up all night long, a vigil of possibility. The hope that to spite difference, we can still come together, eat together, speak together, create together and love together. So when asked again by a participant, “Why are you here?” My new answer is - there's no where else I would rather be.