For 26 days now, Mansur Ghani has woken up at 4:30am to eat before the sunrise. For the last three of those days, Nick Titelbaum, a self-described “not very observant” Reform Jew, has joined him.
The two friends, both freshmen at Yale, were among dozens of people at an “iftar” break-fast dinner at Yale’s Slifka Center Sunday night. At a time when a national dialogue about the construction of a mosque can be framed in terms of distrust and religious segmentation, this meal, sponsored by Jews and Muslims at Yale (an organization nicknamed “JAM”), drew Muslims, Jews, and Mormons from the community to share both in the nightly celebration of Ramadan and in a discussion about the traditions of fasting in all three faiths.
Ghani and Titelbaum munched on dates as they explained their joint celebration of the Ramadan holiday. The religious tradition consists of fasting between sunrise and sunset for one lunar month as well as being self-disciplined and restrained in other aspects of life. At night the community gathers to eat together at iftar.
“I’m taking an introductory Arabic course, and some of the students in my class invited me to iftar last week,” Titelbaum said. “I kept going, and three days ago, I decided to try fasting for myself. It’s given me great respect for people who do this for a whole month.”
For Ghani, friends like Titelbaum have made the adjustment to college life easier and given him students to share his experience with during his first Ramadan away from home.
As they spoke, other Muslims filed up the stairs for their evening prayer and rolled out their mats. Just ten minutes before, in that same sanctuary, Orthodox Jews had finished their own prayers.
The smooth exchange of space between headscarves and yarmulkes was exactly what Faisal Hamid and Sam Greenberg, the leaders of JAM, an organization that was founded in the aftermath of 9/11 to encourage conversations between Jews and Muslims, had hoped to achieve. They asked all of the attendees to sit with someone new and unfamiliar at dinner to keep the dialogue going.
“These informal conversations are so important to us,” Greenberg, 18, said as he began eating. “There are some issues that divide the Muslim and Jewish communities around the world. We want to use our strong core of people to address these issues in a meaningful and productive way.”
The room filled with conversation and the scrapes of forks against plates. Three speakers, representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon communities, spoke about the role of fasting in each of their faiths. There were murmurs of appreciation when the vice-president of the Latter-Day Saints Student Association explained that Mormons donated the money that they would have spent on their two skipped meals as part of their monthly fasting.
Sabir Abdussabur, a 16-year-old Amistad Academy student who is the president of the Masjid Al-Islam Youth Council, was invited to the event with his family. To him, Ramadan means “being more spiritual, keeping up with more religious texts,” he began. “And minimal computer use.”
A teenager cutting down on his computer use? Yes, to emphasize self-control. But even for this self-titled “Facebook addict,” the computer loss wasn’t the hardest part of his adjustment: It was missing out on the food at Amistad’s back-to-school cookout this fall.
At the end of dinner, Omer Bajwa, the coordinator for Muslim life at Yale, acknowledged the dedication that he has seen from students in the face of some of these challenges, and then paused. With a slight grin on his face, he announced that last night was day 26 out of 30.
“And you,” he told the hushed audience, “are now in the home stretch.”