Multi-Faith Iftar Returns to Unitarian Church in Sag Harbor

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Congregants helping themselves to a wide array of food during a celebration and potluck dinner held as part of the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork. Michael Heller photo

Fizzah Idrees is a working mother of two, with a successful career as a physician’s assistant at East End Cardiology, who was born and raised in the United States. In other words, she is an average American.

She is also Muslim, and for some people, that last identifier is at odds with the rest of her story.

“Sometimes people think I’m the exception to the rule; they think most Muslim women aren’t like me,” Ms. Idrees said in an interview earlier this month. “But I think if you talk to any Muslim girl in my age group on Long Island, we all have very similar experiences. Tons of us are professionals, and we wear head scarves. I don’t think I’m the exception.”

Ms. Idrees wants to change the many perceptions of Muslims that she says are out of step with reality. That can be difficult to do on the East End, where the Muslim community is small, and the nearest mosque is in Shirley.

But for the past few years, during the holy month of Ramadan, there has been a small but successful effort on the East End to connect Muslims and people of other faiths in a way that fosters greater cohesion and understanding. On Sunday, May 26, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Fork in Sag Harbor will host its fourth annual Multi-faith Iftar potluck dinner at 7 p.m. “Iftar” is the Arabic word for the breaking of the fast that occurs each night during Ramadan. It is meant to be a joyous time to share a communal meal after a long day of fasting (The meal is served once the sun goes down).

The Multi-faith Iftar was started four years ago by Sag Harbor resident Ken Dorph, a financial consultant who, over the years, has traveled frequently to Middle Eastern countries and speaks fluent Arabic. He was inspired to start the gathering when, in 2016, he was speaking with Mohammed Nabil Nawwar, the former squash coach at the Southampton Youth Services. Mr. Nawwar was telling Mr. Dorph that he was breaking his fast every night by himself, as the rest of his family was still in his native Egypt. The Iftar is supposed to be a communal event, almost like a nightly Thanksgiving, so Mr. Dorph decided to put together the dinner so Mr. Nawwar would not be alone.

While providing a friend with a sense of community and camaraderie was the initial impetus, Mr. Dorph said he was also motivated to reach out to other Muslims in the area, to bring them together with other members of the faith communities, in an effort to break down barriers.

“One of the reasons we started this is because there is this casual and subconscious racism against Muslims that I see here constantly,” Mr. Dorph said. “People that I otherwise respect, who are leaders in the community, on their Facebook page will put something outrageous and ignorant about one quarter of the world’s population. Our media has been so hostile to Muslims, especially since 2001, and it’s really important that people do something to overcome that.”

Ken Dorph speaking at a past Iftar at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork. Michael Heller photo

Mr. Dorph gave credit to Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson of the UUCSF for suggesting that the potluck dinner be held at the Meetinghouse back in 2016. He added that other faith leaders in the community were eager to be part of the gathering as well. Rabbi Dan Geffen of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor and Reverend Karen Campbell of the Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor have been part of the multi-faith gathering since its inception, and Mr. Dorph said that several other local faith leaders were invited to attend this year as well.

For Rabbi Geffen, being part of the gathering has been an enriching experience, one that has taken on even more significance hate-motivated attacks on houses of worship have increasingly been in the news.

“When [Ken Dorph] first proposed the idea, it seemed like a really great way to support our local Muslim community,” he said. “It is also an excellent opportunity for my community to learn more about the beautiful religious traditions of Islam. Given everything that has gone on in the last year, with attacks on synagogues, mosques and churches, it seems all the more essential to find opportunities for our individual faith communities to come together and to demonstrate that love and connection will always triumph over hatred and division.”

Sag Harbor Temple Adas Israel Rabbi Daniel Geffen speaking at a past Iftar. Michael Heller photo

For Mr. Dorph, Ms. Idrees, Rabbi Geffen and other involved in the multi-faith gathering, the message is simple — people have far more in common than they may assume.

“I always say that most Americans don’t know another Muslim, and once they’ve met another Muslim, it really changes their perception,” Ms. Idrees said. “It just humanizes the whole thing. It makes people feel more comfortable with being like, maybe what I see on TV isn’t reality.”

Meeting and interacting with people on a human level is the key to fostering greater understanding, Ms. Idrees said. She knows what it’s like to feel harsh stares when she’s out in public wearing hijab; when people assume she’s being forced to wear it instead of recognizing that it is her choice. She wishes people knew that Islam is not as radically different in theory and practice from other religions and faiths as people think it is.

“Our religion is similar to Christianity,” she said. “We share a lot of the same concepts.”

Rabbi Geffen backs up that sentiment.

“I try to preach to anyone who will listen that there is far more that connects us together than separates us,” he said. “Certainly, it would be naïve to act as if there are no significant differences between our religions, and even in matters of both domestic and international politics, that cause some friction from time to time. But in the long run, I believe Judaism, and all faith traditions, preach love and respect for all of God’s creation.”

For Mr. Dorph, it is particularly important to show that love and respect toward Muslims, precisely because the predominant attitude toward Muslims in recent years has been the polar opposite.

“For me, one of the greatest quotes is: ‘When fear strikes, we stand on the side of love,’” Mr. Dorph said. “That always moves me because that’s how I live my life. It’s much more useful to reach out and learn.”

Ms. Idrees appreciates that approach to life, particularly as a Muslim woman and mother living in an area that, geographically, isolates her from most other people who share her faith.

“It’s just a very welcoming and comforting place to be,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to go somewhere so far and out of my community to feel like I’m at home.”

In a time when attitudes and attacks on people of Muslim faith are “constantly disheartening,” as Ms. Idrees puts it, she said it’s nice to see people pushing back against that. And she is glad her son and daughter can be part of it as well. Ms. Idrees was born and raised in upstate New York, by parents who emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in the 1970s, but she said she did not experience anything like the Multi-faith Iftar when she was growing up.

“It’s important for my kids too to see other people embracing Muslims,” she said. “In my parent’s generation, they felt like they needed to just stick with their community, and work hard. They didn’t feel comfortable hanging out with their neighbors, and partly because they had a language issue. But for us, we are culturally American and we grew up here, but it’s still a thing for them to feel welcome despite what they might hear on TV.”

The organizers of the Multi-faith Iftar stress that anyone is welcome, even people who do not align themselves with a certain faith or religion. And aside from the spiritual and philosophical reasons for attending, there is another motivator, of course: the food. Ms. Idrees is bringing a homemade chicken biryani, a traditional Pakistani/Indian dish, and she said people who contribute to the potluck dinner each year take pride in making their best Middle Eastern recipes. She is not alone in that opinion.

“In a time that has seen far too much bloodshed, violence and pain, it is heartening and inspiring to know that, together, we will never give in to hate,” Rabbi Geffen said. “And not to be flippant, but the food is amazing!”

The Multi-faith Iftar will be held on Sunday, May 26, at 7 p.m. Everyone is welcome and asked to bring a dish that is shareable and does not include pork or alcohol products. Visit uucsf.org for more.

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