This year the Jewish month of Av coincides with the Christian month of August, as well as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, pious Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to show their devotion to Allah. As darkness falls, they break their daylong fast with an evening meal called the Iftar. President Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar dinner at the White House. The dinner became an annual White House tradition under President Bill Clinton, was continued by President George W. Bush, and is now hosted by President Barack Obama.
This year’s White House Iftar meal was held on Wednesday, August 10. Approximately 120 guests were invited, including members of the diplomatic corps, the religious and grass-roots leadership of the American-Muslim community, prominent Muslim elected officials and members of the armed forces, and leaders of other faiths. Because of the proximity of Ramadan to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, also attending were Muslim Americans whose lives were touched by that tragedy: first responders, a woman who lost her brother and sister-in-law when the towers fell, and a mother who lost a son in Iraq. During the dinner, President Obama spoke about the meaning of Ramadan, the importance of diversity and religious freedom in the United States, and the effect of 9/11 and its aftermath on the Muslim-American community.Three Jews were also present at the Iftar dinner: Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Bahraini Ambassador Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, and Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Visotzky sat at President Obama’s table and brought the president up-to-date on JTS’s most recent and noted Jewish-Muslim dialogue programs, along with JTS’s other forms of Jewish-Muslim engagement, including 2010’s two-day workshop entitled “Judaism and Islam in America” (part two will take place in September 2011) and this past May’s “Our Better Angels,” a three-part program that anticipated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discussions on the themes of tragedy, mourning, and healing (www.jtsa.edu/OurBetterAngels). Rabbi Visotzky also shared with President Obama plans for the upcoming JTS academic colloquium with Georgetown University on “Oral Transmission of Sacred Texts in Judaism and Islam,” which will take place at Georgetown in late October 2011.
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