This year the Jewish month of Av coincides with the Christian month of August, as well as with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, pious Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to show their devotion to Allah. As darkness falls, Muslims break their daylong fast with a meal called the Iftar (related to the Hebrew term haftarah, which refers to the reading of passages from one of the biblical books of the prophets during Jewish religious services). President Thomas Jefferson hosted an Iftar dinner in his day. It became a White House custom under President Bill Clinton, was continued under George W. Bush, and is now hosted by President Barack Obama.
The White House Iftar dinner this Ramadan was held on Wednesday, August 10. About 120 guests were invited from among the diplomatic corps, prominent members of the American Muslim community, and Muslims who work in the U.S. government and armed forces. Because of the proximity of this year's Ramadan to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there were also Muslim Americans at the Iftar dinner who had some connection to that tragedy, including first responders and a woman who lost her brother and sister-in-law when the towers fell. President Obama spoke movingly about the meaning of Ramadan, the importance of diversity and religious freedom in this country, and the Muslim-American community's participation in the suffering of and response to 9/11 and its aftermath.
There were also three Jews in attendance at the Iftar dinner: Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Bahraini Ambassador Ms. Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo (Bahrain's ambassador to the United States is indeed a Jewish woman), and JTS professor Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky. Professor Visotzky was delighted to have been seated at President Obama's table, where he took the opportunity to tell the President about JTS's Jewish-Muslim dialogue programs and engagement, including "Judaism and Islam in America." Part one of this landmark two-day conference was held at JTS last year. The second "Judaism and Islam in America" conference, organized by Professor Visotzky, will take place at Hartford Seminary in September and include several presentations by JTS faculty.
President Obama also learned about JTS's "Our Better Angels" programs, which anticipated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discussions on the themes of tragedy, mourning, and healing. At the urging of Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, Visotzky also shared with President Obama plans for JTS's academic colloquium on "Oral Transmission of Sacred Texts in Judaism and Islam," coming up in October at Georgetown University. The President acknowledged the essential work that JTS is doing with the American Muslim community.
Since 1938, the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS has maintained an innovative interfaith and intergroup relations program, and Rabbi Visotzky, its director, is a prominent figure in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relationships around the globe. "9/11 made me more determined than ever to engage actively in Jewish-Muslim dialogue," Visotzky has said.