An American-Israeli rabbi and an African-American Muslim imam were like fish out of water during a special trip to a Hindu ashram in India.
Like a reality TV show, two people from two different communities were recently thrown together in a challenging environment. Pesach Stadlin, an Israeli-based rabbi in his 30s, and Abdullah Faaruuq, a 71-year-old American-based imam, became roommates for a month at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India.
The two became fast friends, bonding over the cultural differences in their new temporary home and documenting their experiences on Facebook and Instagram.
Born Jeremy David Stadlin in Philadelphia, the young rabbi traveled through several dozen countries around the globe before settling in Israel where we was ordained by the late Rabbi Sholom Brodt of Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo in Jerusalem. He chronicled his journeys and lessons learned in his 2016 book Sustainable Bliss.
Faaruuq was born Jeconiah Barrow to a Jamaican immigrant mother in the rough streets of Boston. Growing up in the civil rights era, he gravitated to Islam, eventually becoming active at the Mosque for the Praising of Allah in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood that he has led for the past 20 years.
Their similarities include having been born and raised in the United States, having musical backgrounds, and both being monotheists who had never before visited the mostly Hindu country of India.
They spoke to The Jerusalem Post
via phone from Ahmedabad.
“This is neutral ground,” stated Faaruuq, noting that although there is a strong Muslim minority, the history of the region is far from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The two bonded over their newfound challenges, such as shopping for kosher and halal food or attempting to walk across a busy street. “There are very few traffic lights and people drive fast,” noted Stadlin. “You have to edge your body into traffic, and the cars hopefully see you and slow down or go around you. Otherwise you end up standing on the side of the road for 20 minutes waiting for your lucky break.”
Their daily duties included teaching about their respective religions in various locations, such as at a leprosy camp, a school for the blind, a Zoroastrian temple, a Sufi mosque and the city’s only remaining synagogue.
Stadlin noted the novelty of leading Hebrew songs for people who told him they had never met a Jew before and asked, “What is a Jew?”
“Every day at the ashram and all of its centers throughout India they have interfaith prayer services, where they recite the Shema Yisrael,” Stadlin explained, “We showed up at a school and as soon as we walked in the door they happened to be in the middle of reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer.” He related that the students and teachers were excited to have a rabbi explain the further depth of the centerpiece prayer in Jewish liturgy.
Faaruuq and Stadlin were chosen for the unique mission by a group calling itself Children of Abraham, in conjunction with Manav Sadhna, a non-profit organization based at the ashram. Founded in 1951 as the Sabarmati Ashram, the site is where the Indian leader Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi studied and from where he led the famous Salt March, also known as the March to Dandi, in 1930.
It was a Jewish friend from Boston, Jerry Katz, who led Faaruuq to the project. The two would often share a falafel together as a local kosher restaurant. Katz explained that he was given a donation to fund a special interfaith project and he was looking for a Jewish and a Muslim volunteer to participate. Stadlin was recruited by Katz’s cousin Tobie Weisman, who was a long-time friend of the Rabbi Brodt, Stadlin’s mentor.
“This experience has been so rich,” Faaruuq said. “I’m not saying it’s going to solve the problems of the world, but certainly it is a glowing example of what’s possible in humanity,” he stated.
Both described seeing Hindu and Muslim children living side-by-side in abject poverty without complaint.
“I’ll be 72 in a few months, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’m not a baby. I’ve had all kinds of experiences, and I’ve been to several countries, but this is different. I want you to tell the world, they’re doing something different over here and we don’t know what it might blossom into.”
Although Faaruuq’s Roxbury neighborhood has been described as rough, he said it’s nothing compared to the urban villages of Ahmedabad. “Too many of the people in the United States have no understanding of what’s going on over on the other side of the world,” he said. “They laugh and joke, drink Pepsi and eat popcorn. But if they were to just come here and live, and not just as tourists, they would have a different view of life and be appreciative of America.”
Stadlin echoed the sentiment, noting that the two had been sent on various teaching assignments throughout the city, but didn’t have any standard tourist experiences such as dining at restaurants. “This is the first time for both of us in India. We got off the plane and had to go food shopping,” he said. “We are immersed in the society, basking in both the blessing and beauty, as well as some of the very harsh realities and challenges that this community is facing.”
The two also visited the only synagogue in town, where Stadlin led Torah study sessions. Built in 1934, the once thriving Magen Abraham Synagogue today only has Shabbat and holiday services. But the still-active community of about 150 Indian Jews keeps the community alive.
The odd couple roaming through the urban blight of India was a novelty to locals who, according to the pair, have accepted them with warm smiles and open arms. Stadlin noted that “Friendships between Muslims and Jews happens all the time back in Jerusalem. It just doesn’t make the cover of the newspaper.”
“Energy flows were attention goes,” he said, adding the hope that their trips will create positive repercussions for their respective communities upon their return.
“It’s the possibility of a Jew and a Muslim working together for a common cause. We’re just two people meeting each other as humans,” Faaruuq stated. “A spark in a new direction will turn into a bigger light.”
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