The imam of the biggest mosque in New England, preaching at the region’s largest Reform synagogue Friday night, urged a diverse crowd of nearly 1,000 to get to know one another better across religious difference, and to have the courage to forgive one another for past mistakes.
Imam William Suhaib Webb, guest speaker at Temple Israel’s annual Shabbat Tzedek (Sabbath of Justice), honoring the life and vision of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., alluded to past tensions between Muslims and Jews in the city, and to the work thatMuslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders have done in the last two years to forge new relationships.
“We have to be able to take each other as brothers and sisters,” Webb said in his sermon. “We have to learn to forgive each other, and we have to learn to not believe the things we are told about each other before we sit and face each other, and get to know each other, and hug each other, and love each other, and cry together, and share together.”
Webb is the first imam to formally speak at Temple Israel, which was founded in 1854 and has a long tradition of social justice work. His appearance offered fresh evidence of strengthening ties between Jews and Muslims in Boston. Relations between the communities sometimes broke down in the last decade during the construction of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, which critics charged was backed by extremists.
“I look at this as an initial opportunity that opens the doors to further exploration, that points toward deeper understanding, trust, and relationship,” Rabbi Ronne Friedman, Temple Israel’s senior rabbi, said in an interview after the service.
Webb said the communities need to begin to build “a relationship based on, ‘Hey, I know these people.’ ”
More generally, the Shabbat service testified to the reinvigorated efforts among some of the city’s most prominent clergy to build stronger interfaith relationships.
The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, who offered a prayer at the service, said that over the last 15 to 20 years, the city has seen great collaboration between Christians and Jews.
“What’s historic about this is it signals a new era in terms of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim communities” working together, she said. “Clearly, we have the right people, here at the right time, and a great sense of collaboration.”
Bonds among many of Boston’s religious leaders grew stronger in the days and weeks after the Marathon bombings. Clergy worked together on interfaith prayer services and efforts to help victims and the larger community recover; Temple Israel opened its sanctuary to the Back Bay’s Trinity Church when Copley Square was closed after the attacks.
When Webb and his mosque came under fire from critics who accused the imam and his congregation of promoting Islamist extremism, a number of Jewish and Christian clergy, including Friedman, offered support.
But even before the bombings, a group of interreligious clergy had begun meeting monthly to get to know one another better. The Rev. Burns Stanfield, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, said the more informal group “gives us a community of connectedness for the times that it is needed.”
A key figure in these talks is Webb, an Oklahoma native and convert to Islam who is an advanced Islamic scholar with a keen interest in building interfaith relationships. He became leader of Boston’s largest mosque in late 2011.
Together with Yusufi Vali, who served as a community organizer for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization before he became the mosque’s executive director, Webb has offered Christian and Jewish leaders an access point to Boston’s Muslim community.
“We see with Imam Webb and Yusufi’s presence over the last two years at the mosque a real attempt and desire to engage significantly, not only to build, but also to connect,” Friedman said. “They are really interested in creating an authentic . . . progressive tradition of American Islam. That really means connecting to other faith groups in the community and to other civic organizations and institutions in the community.”
The Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, rector of Trinity Church, said that in crisis moments — the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, or the Marathon bombings, for example — “many of us do the right thing.
“But to work at this ongoing relationship-building, and in this case, to have that wonderful Jewish community listen to the imam respectfully speak in their holy place — that is a really big deal,” he said.
“When the imam, the major leader of the Muslim community, steps into the pulpit of, of all things, the key temple of the city, that is a momentous moment.”
The synagogue’s annual Shabbat Tzedek is an important service on its calendar. A prominent African-American minister is typically invited to speak, and a diverse group of clergy and members of the Boston community attend.
The vast sanctuary was packed Friday night, and the congregation was extraordinarily diverse: There were men in yarmulkes, women wearing headscarves, some in suits and dresses, and others in jeans. The Boston Children’s Chorus sang U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” later joining the Temple Israel Youth Choir in Shir Shalom (A Song for Peace).
Rabbi Matthew V. Soffer of Temple Israel, who specializes in work with people in their 20s and 30s, said he and Vali are planning an occasion that would bring together younger adults in their respective congregations.
“We have both anticipated that this is not going to be a one-off gathering,” Soffer said. “The point of this is to really build a bridge and kick off something that is going to be lasting and enduring.”
Sogol Javaheri of the Fenway, who attended with her 14-month-old daughter, Mariam, called the service beautiful.
“I think we need to embrace and encourage it, so it can grow,” she said of the new dynamic among the religious communities. “It’s up to us to make it happen.”