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A Joint Celebration of Hanukkah and Hajj in a Maryland City

The winter Holiday Season is here. While much of the nation's attention is focused on the December 25th celebration of Christmas, other religions are observing holidays this month. December 15th was the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights… and Muslims are celebrating Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, beginning the last week of December.

Earlier this month, for the first time, members of Jewish and Muslim communities came together for a joint celebration of Hanukkah and Hajj, and maybe the start of a new tradition.

When Imam Yahya Hendi, the religious leader of the Islamic Society of Frederick, Maryland, recently called for a dialogue with local Jewish congregations, he received a mixed reaction. Andy Carpel, president of Beth Sholom, recalls that the board of Frederick's oldest synagogue initially turned him down. "Our Synagogue and Board of Trustees kind of split on it. But many of us felt like it was very un-Jewish not to answer and try to get together," he explains.

Carpel says he welcomed the opening of a dialogue with his Muslim neighbors. "In our community, especially in Frederick, I have a lot of people that I work with, sell to and buy from, doctors and such, who are Muslims, and they are wonderful people." He adds that in spite of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, he has always felt that Jews and Muslims share a common ground. "In many ways, they are just like us, you know. Jews, we consider ourselves (to be) somewhat outsiders, especially around Christmastime. Many of us are the children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves. And Muslims in this community, anyway, are in the same boat."

Although he knew many Muslims, Carpel said he didn't realize that there was a mosque in Frederick until a Beth Sholom women's group arranged a number of meetings between synagogue officials and Islamic society members.

Imam Hendi, who welcomed the group to his mosque, says those gatherings paved the way for something positive - and festive. "We said, 'Can we model something for our children?' So I suggested having a festival of Hajj and Hanukkah to bring our communities together. They accepted."

The Hanukkah-Hajj celebration took place a few days before Hanukkah. More than 100 people were invited to the event.

Members of Frederick's reform congregation, Kol Ami, joined Beth Sholom members at the celebration. Kol Ami Student Rabbi Dan Sikowitz kicked the festivities off with a traditional prayer. "It's a prayer that Jews say whenever we come together for a time, whether it is the first time, whether it is a time we have new people involved. It's to say, 'Thank you, God, for bringing us all together in health and that we are here in this place and we are enjoying each other.'"

Imam Hendi and Beth Sholom President Andy Carpel say food was a wonderful element that all the participants enjoyed. "The menu had Halal and kosher food," Hendi says, "chicken kabob, beef kabob, falafel, rice, hummus, grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice..." Carpel adds, "Everything was delicious. Everybody wanted to show off their cooking ability!"

Not only was there delicious food, Carpel says, but music, dancing and learning… as Jews and Muslims got to understand some aspects of each other's faith. Imam Hendi explained what the Hajj was, and a Muslim woman spoke to the group about her first Hajj. "It was beautiful," marvels Carpel. "I never realized that 4 million people can converge on a city and be happy at the same time!" A member of his congregation talked about what Hanukkah meant to her.

There were also smaller discussions going on. Rabbi Sikowitz and his wife were at a table with several Muslim men. "As I was telling them about Hanukkah, much of the history of it, they found it very fascinating. They really didn't know that," Sikowitz recalls. "Then, when the Imam was talking about Hajj, I had heard about this and I understood about the pilgrimage, but I had never seen pictures of it. It was never described with such emotion."

For Beth Sholom member Miriam Klements, watching the children was the highlight of the evening. "They all sat together at the tables and did some crafts together. When they got tired doing that, they started playing together. It was beautiful to see how naturally these children just wanted to play with each other and make friends with each other."

She says all the children had a chance to light the Hanukkah menorah, a special nine-branched candelabra. "We just gathered all of the children together and each one had the opportunity to light a candle for the menorah. This was the most beautiful symbolic thing of celebrating the holiday."

Beth Sholom President Carpel says participants hope the spirit of their gathering will touch the world far beyond Frederick, maybe even as far as the Middle East. "Here we are, 3000 miles (4800 kilometers) away, nobody in the Middle East is going to pay attention to what a bunch of Americans do, regardless of what their backgrounds are. I think if we just did this to try to solve the problems in the Middle East, then that probably would never happen. But peace and cooperation does start with people actually talking."

In spite of negative reaction to the event from some on both sides, Jewish and Muslim organizers say they believe they did the right thing. They have already started talking about another get-together in early spring, hoping to inspire other communities and forge a positive relationship between Jews and Muslims across the United States.