Imam Omar Suleiman addresses the dinner crowd at Casablanca Restaurant in Metairie.
The joke is supposed to start "Four rabbis and two imams walk into a restaurant," but last night it wasn't a laughing matter at all. It was, in fact, a serious effort on the part of many in the New Orleans community to foster trust and understanding between two divergent faith groups. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a non-profit organization founded in New York by rap mogul Russell Simmons, Rabbi Marc Schneier and the late impressario Joseph Papp, organized the day-long activity between (Orthodox Jewish) Congregation Beth Israel and the Abu Bakr Al Siddique Mosque This so-called "twining" process began two years ago with Schneier's The New York Synagogue and the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque and has since grown into 50 such pairings last year across the nation with 100 this year. Rabbi Uri Topolosky and Imam Omar Suleiman have varying opinions on a number of matters, but they did away with criticism and dissent yesterday and, along with fellow congregants, picked up paint brushes and helped rehab a home in the Upper Ninth Ward area. That work, sponsored by the Saint Bernard Project, was intended to have both groups of Jews and Muslims work together on a project of lasting significance. After they cleaned up from the back-breaking work, everyone gathered at Casablanca Restaurant in Metairie, a kosher Morrocan restaurant, to enjoy a festive meal and to enjoy fellowship with one another. Both Schneier and his "twin" partner, Imam Muhummad Shamsi Ali, were in attendance at the dinner and each had time to discuss the various forms of religious observant foods allowed or prohibited in each religion. In Jewish circles the concept is called kosher or kashrut, while for Muslims the term is called halal. Members of each group asked questions of each other's spiritual leaders in order to gain insight. Also in attendance were Beth Israel administrative director Rabbi David Posternock and Rabbi Robert Loewy, the spiritual leader of Gates of Prayer Synagogue, where Beth Israel is presently meeting. All in all it was a great first start for two religious groups who have been largely distrustful and suspicious of each other. While Imam Suleiman and Rabbi Topolosky still have a major philosophical rift on a number of other topics, rebuilding New Orleans is a primary focus for both of them. This first "twining" was tentative, but wildly satisfactory in that a mechanism has been put into place for common values and to foster future connections between the two groups. It is, perhaps, God's will that the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding will bring these two Abrahamic faith groups closer.