Sacred Spaces.

Should Jews share their Sacred Spaces?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious, as shuls are specifically for Jewish prayer.

InterfaithBut let’s not forget we are living in Australia, where interfaith harmony and multiculturalism are the order of the day.

Jews traditionally have been reluctant to share their places of worship with the general public, often because, having experienced antisemitism they feel safer among fellow Jews.  However, this understandable reaction to years of persecution might be taken the wrong way by outsiders – as a sign of our exclusivity, of thinking we are better than others, a ‘chosen people”.

So what must Jews do to demonstrate they are caring sharing Aussies?  Some Jewish groups, especially the Progressive ones, have been very active in the interfaith movement. We have the Muslim Jewish Christian Association, while groups like B’nai Brith go out of their way to welcome the ‘other’.

Yet we’ve stopped short of sharing our places of worship. The nearest we got was when Temple Beth Israel held a Sacred Concert, and without  forewarning, invited radical Muslims to participate.  Predictably, their invitees took full advantage, reciting the Islamic call to prayer, plus a Koranic verse about Muslim men deflowering virgins in paradise – not a good look for an egalitarian community!

The Muslim group, IREA – part of an international dawah (converting non Muslims to Islam) organization – was triumphant about its successful incursion into a Jewish sacred space.  On its Facebook page there was a photo of Waseem Razvi and three colleagues en route to TBI for the concert, captioned “Dae’es [i.e. missionaries] from IREA heading for interfaith event at a SYNAGOGUE”

They wrote:

Firstly we thank Allah swt for giving us the opportunity to represent Islam in a country like Australia where there are only 2% muslims. Secondly we thank and appreciate the invitation from Cantor Michael Laloum and his initiative to work with Muslim Community. We also would like to thank Rabbi Gersh [Lazarow] and the Jewish Temple Beth Israel for their warm welcome. We hope & pray the doors of communication and mutual understanding are always open in order to achieve & fulfil the purpose of our lives i.e. to be obedient to the One & Only Lord Allah swt. As Allah swt says in the Quran ‘Say: O people of the Book (Jews & Christians)! Let us come to Common Terms as between us & you…..’ {AL Quran 3:64}

The organisers should have been shamefaced at not checking the background of their Muslim participants, yet apparently no apology was forthcoming.  It was truly a Malcolm Turnbull moment, when he invited a Muslim to attend a government hosted dinner, only to discover that the guy was a radical who once called AIDS a divine punishment for gays:.

Mr Turnbull said his department would not have invited Sheik Shady Al-Suleiman to an Iftar dinner at Kirribilli House to mark Ramadan if he was aware of the offensive comments he made about homosexuals.

“I do regret his invitation. He was invited in an official capacity as president of the Imam Council and the guest list was assembled by my department…If I had been aware he had made those remarks about homosexuals and gay people, he would not have been invited.”

Online videos also show Sheik Shady saying women would be “hung by their breasts in hell” and women should not even look at men.

The Australian-born Sheik has also previously called on God to help “destroy the enemies of Islam” and for adulterers to be stoned to death.

Mr Turnbull condemned the sheik’s remarks.

“I condemn remarks of that kind. They have no place in Australian law or Australian culture.”

Yet maybe Jews do need to reach out more.  Certainly Rabbi Fred Morgan thinks so.  In an address to the Council of Christians and Jews (Vic) in 2009 he berated the mainstream Jewish community for retaining “a ghetto mentality”, concerned only “about anti-Semitism, the integrity of the land of Israel and the inviolability of the State of Israel – all matters bearing on security and safety for Jews in Australia, Israel and world-wide.” and “never having moved beyond seeking security through interfaith engagement…” He cited the Gaza conflict, where “because some from the Christian and Muslim communities who are active in interfaith work were one-sidedly critical of Israel, the AJN published letters and articles questioning the value of interfaith dialogue”.  Morgan concluded that this attitude revealed “the insularity of the Jewish world”.

So should we come out of the ghetto and shed our insularity, in the interests of participating fully in our multicultural society?  I was pondering this question after reading an article in The Age: Light and Colour frame Glenn Murcutt’s Newport mosque project

“Touch the ground lightly” is the maxim made famous by Glenn Murcutt, Australia’s most internationally renowned architect. Yet what’s perhaps most extraordinary about the Pritzker-prizewinning architect’s largest project, is the way light touches the ground.

Ninety-six hand-painted gold lanterns encrust the roof of the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport. Fitted into each lantern is a different coloured glass that filters light into the mosque through triangular shaped skylights. As the sun moves through the day, the lanterns illuminate a different colour. In the morning yellow streams in representing paradise. Through the middle of the day blues (symbolising sky) and greens (nature) filter in. In the afternoon the lanterns draw in red (blood for strength).

A new exhibition at the NGV, Architecture of Faith, highlights how this 10-year work-in-progress…provides a contemporary interpretation of Islamic architecture.

“It’s been a work of great patience and collaboration funded and built by the community,” says curator Ewan McEoin.

… Raw concrete walls eight metres high envelop and ground the site while a glass facade allows the public to see right through the building, including the 1200sqm prayer room.

This is “no cut and paste of Ottoman and Arabic influenced mosques”, says Hakan Elevli, the Melbourne designer helping Murcutt realise his vision.

Elevli explains the local community’s brief: “We want to design the first true Australian mosque for non Muslims, for new Australian Muslims. We want to create something that’s inclusive – something that’s going to be transparent.”

Next to the mosque are a community centre, library for Islamic studies and a cafe and restaurant. All are designed to encourage the broad public. “That’s what we want to reinforce, that people are always welcome.”

“It sets a new precedent for a mosque,” says McEoin. “If all mosques were like this would they be more accepted by the community? “[It’s] an obvious question that comes out of the exhibition.”

This is an architecture designed to combat fear and suspicion. “Isis is not Islam,” says Elevli. “It misrepresents us. We want to change the perception [of Islam] through architecture.”

At a presentation to fellow Pritzker laureates at the UN in New York in April this year Murcutt became emotional reflecting on the effect this project had on his life: “Over the last 10 years, it has been an extraordinary enlightenment for me,” he said.

“I’m putting forward the idea that, we can in a society that is anti-Islam, we can produce some work that actually can bring Islam back into our community and becomes an addition to the culture.

“Our country has the most wonderful culture that has been added to year after year by the migration of people. It is an amazing place and Islam can be another added aspect to our culture.

As Jews, we are aware there is a level of antisemitism within the Australian community, just as there is anti-Islam feeling.  Their solution is to build a uniquely Aussie mosque and community facilities open to all Aussies.  Elevi claims this architecture is designed to combat fear and suspicion. and change the perception of Islam.

So does our Jewish community need to emulate this example of creating a shul that’s inclusive and transparent, incorporating a community centre, library for Jewish studies and a cafe and restaurant, in order “encourage the broad public” and reinforce the message “that people are always welcome.”

Just imagine the possibilities; people from all backgrounds sitting down to chicken soup and latkes, or maybe falafel in pita, with Hebrew and Israeli music in the background, then popping over to the Jewish library to find out more about our unique culture spanning over 3,000 years, maybe listening to a talk about Jewish festivals or Israeli technology.

It sounds amazing. Could it work to change the perception of Jews as being aloof and stiff-necked? What do readers think?

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