The dozen or so children and teenagers dug into mounds of yellow rice, and scooped heaps of creamy hummus, and devoured doughy, nut-filled katayef as the sun disappeared over the horizon. But faith, not food, proved to be their uniter, even as some like Shayan Raza took their first sips of water after a daylong fast.
They came, these Jewish and Christian and Muslim teens and parents, to extend a mutual gesture of peace. They came even as, half a world away, strife roiled the lands considered by their faiths to be holy.
Around the table Sunday, the teenagers found common ground not only in their frustration, but also their faith in the Abrahamic religions. They weighed the similarities between Ramadan and Passover, between kosher and halal food, between the Jewish and Muslim calendars. They marveled at the significance of the moon to both religions. They considered the importance of Abraham to their scriptures.
“When you see the news, you see all the horrible stuff that's going on,” Raza, a 13-year-old, said after breaking his nearly 17-hour fast. “But you come here, and kind of see a different outlook.”
The youths had gathered at the Palestinian Cultural Center for Peace in Allston for an interfaith iftar, a traditional breaking of the fast that takes place nightly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Many were part of the interfaith leadership community Kids4Peace Boston.
They met at a time when airstrikes continued to rain down on the Gaza Strip, leaving at least 175 dead over the course of a weeklong offensive. They dined together as rocket fire continued pouring into Israel, causing at least one serious injury and leaving multiple Israeli soldiers wounded.
Of the violence, Shoshana Boardman, 15, said: “I don’t think it’s going to achieve anything. The situation in Israel and Palestine is really depressing.”
The interfaith group’s members have multiple opportunities every year to learn about different religions and their customs. But this weekend gathering felt different. “Every time you do something like this, you learn more,” said 14-year-old Yosef Ellis-Rech. “There’s a lot of similarities between Judaism and Islam.”
Suha Abu Amara, a Kids4Peace parent who organized the dinner, said an interfaith iftar had been in the works for months, but the most recent conflict made it all the more urgent.
“It just feels so right, right now,” said Abu Amara, a research fellow studying cell biology at Harvard Medical School. “This iftar gets triple meaning tonight because we’re kind of proving to the world there are ways to get together. We’re kind of evidence that it is possible.”
Days earlier in Jerusalem, members of the same organization had departed bomb shelters and trudged through war-rattled villages to attend an interfaith iftar there. Some were afraid to leave their homes.
“I was pretty sure they were going to cancel it,” said Lindsay Miller, a board member of Kids4Peace Boston. “They had it. Amazingly, a dozen or so families did it together. To me, what it’s saying is that it’s hope. It’s . . . harder to throw rocks at Jacob if you know Jacob. It’s harder to throw rocks at Ishmael if you know Ishmael.”
Keeping their Middle Eastern counterparts in mind, the kids in Allston carried a message: forging peace starts with getting to know one another.
“For me, this is really important because I see a lot of Jewish people posting anti-Gaza messages on Facebook,” Ellis-Rech said. “Because I have all of these people here who see Gaza and the West Bank as their homeland, that means a kid I know is going to be in danger of the tanks or blockades, and that pains my heart. I see myself being much more considerate because I can actually put a face behind the victims.”
Abu Amara, a Muslim born in Israel, said traditions such as Ramadan present opportunities to educate people on religious customs in a festive way. Her son, Jacob, played a beat on an Arab drum Sunday, leading a parade of chanting children carrying paper lanterns, to showcase a Middle Eastern ritual meant to wake people up for the fast — before the days of alarm clocks.
The conflict is personal for Abu Amara, who said she has four sisters, a brother, and nieces and nephews living in Israel. Her husband, she said, has family in East Jerusalem, which is majority Arab. Hearing the rocket sirens and watching TV coverage of the conflict gives her chills. She said the timing of Sunday’s iftar gave it a special meaning.
“Every big thing starts with a small thing,” Abu Amara said. “This might be our tiny contribution to the world. We can do it. We can live together. And actually, it’s better this way.”Faiz Siddiqui can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.