April 23, 2020

Religious Celebrations during the Pandemic:
A Universal Experience
by Rabbi Renee Bauer, JSS Community Chaplain

For many years before I joined the team at JSS I directed an interfaith social justice organization. In this position I had the privilege of reaching out and getting to know members of many faith communities in Madison. One way that I got to know members of the Islamic community was by joining a community iftar celebration every year. Iftar is the meal that ends the fast each evening during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. In Madison every Saturday evening of the month there are two community iftars, one for men and one for women.

At first when I went with kippah on, I was nervous that I would feel out of place, but the women welcomed me and even offered that I eat before they did (I always refused since I had not been fasting). Over the years I began to look forward to and genuinely enjoy the boisterous atmosphere of children playing, women praying, friends catching up with each other and everyone enjoying a delicious meal after a day without food. Each week women from a different ethnic group make the food for iftar, creating connection across difference through the food itself.

Ramadan has already begun in some countries, while in others it begins in coming days. This year, because of Covid 19, there will be no community iftars or communal evening prayers each night at the mosque. JSS staff member, Rihab Taha, told me how much she will miss these communal gatherings. She said she looks forward to them because it is the one time of year that all three local mosques, who have political differences, unite as one community. She says, “It is the time that we do not feel like a minority as a small Muslim community here.”

After having shed quite a number of tears at not being able to be with family and community for Passover this year, I have empathy for Rihab and her community. Jews who celebrated Passover and Christians who observed Easter just experienced how challenging and lonely celebrating a communal holiday in quarantine can be. Our recent experience gives us a unique opportunity this year to connect with our Muslim neighbors as they celebrate their holiest time of year separated from each other.

A universal Muslim ritual is to begin the iftar meal with dates. Dates are also a symbolic Jewish food. Dates are one of the seven species in the Torah and the source of the honey in the ‘milk and honey’ description of the holy land. The Qua’arn also places dates as central to the story of Jesus. The Islamic scripture describes Mary giving birth to Jesus under a date palm where she is told to eat the dates from the tree during her labor.

Each time I taste the sweetness of a date at the beginning of an Iftar, I smile about the similarities that bind us in a political world that often divides us. This year, may the universality of the global pandemic, allow us to feel new empathy for and bestow more blessings on all our neighbors.

Ramadan Mubarak.