Face to faith
"Rabbi Stephen Howard is a brave man, and so are all the people in his synagogue," Imam Nyron Gonzales says. "I want you journalists to put this in your paper."
Rabbi Howard says he doesn't feel very brave, but the truth is that he is involved in something that is certainly unusual and, in the eyes of some members of his congregation, even dangerous.
Every Tuesday evening, at Southgate progressive synagogue in north London, a small group of Jews and Muslims gather together to learn about each other's faiths in an A-level religious studies course run by Rabbi Howard and Imam Gonzales of Wembley Islamic Cultural Centre.
Tonight, there are, unexpectedly, only Jewish students around the table, from two teenage girls to retired teacher Hilda Schindler. Ramadan is not yet ended, and the unpredictable timing of Eid (beginning for British Muslims when the Moon rises over Saudi Arabia) is just one more discovery for the Jews returning from their own Jewish New Year.
Southgate synagogue, which follows Liberal Judaism, has for some years offered adult education courses on Jewish faith and life. Last year, Rabbi Howard introduced GCSE religious studies in response to demands for a qualification. After that, A-level seemed the logical next step.
But the OCR syllabus requires students to take two complementary topics. "I assumed they'd go for Judaism and Jewish texts, or Judaism and religious ethics," Rabbi Howard says.
Instead, the unanimous answer came back: Islam. "The difficult interface for Jews at the moment is with Islam and it takes some courage, I suppose, to confront that," he says.
Through Finchley mosque, with which the synagogue already has links, he was put in touch with Wembley and Imam Gonzales. It is an enterprise that has required some soothing of nerves. Rabbi Howard says: "There was some suspicion that if we let Muslims in, we would have security problems and they'd possibly try to undermine the synagogue in some way. I just reassured them that wasn't going to happen.
"I did also check up the credentials of the imam with the Community Security Trust (a Jewish advisory service)," he admits. Such fears are, he says, "unfortunately a fact of Jewish life" in London.
Furthermore, it was felt necessary to set out two basic ground rules: no criticising each other's religion; and no trying to convert each other, on pain of expulsion. "We're learning about each other's faiths, not judging."
"How could we want to convert each other?" Imam Gonzales asks in the lesson. "Moses, your man of God, is our man of God. All your prophets are our prophets. In our minds, there is no conversion to be made."
The studies, at least in the first, AS year, do not involve direct comparison of the religions. The imam and the rabbi each teach half a lesson on their own faiths. Nevertheless, each week throws up contrasts and similarities, and themes from one half of the lesson inevitably find echoes in the other.
Tonight, Imam Gonzales is focusing on the oral tradition of Islam, and the way the word of God has been transmitted over 1,400 years from the prophet Mohammed to the present through generations of believers memorising and reciting the Qur'an.
By contrast, Rabbi Howard's subject, after the tea-break, is the way the teachings of the Torah have been adapted, developed, interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries. There are flashes of recognition as Imam Gonzales spots examples of Jewish law that are found in Islam. He cites from memory a reference in the Qur'an, leaving Rabbi Howard rifling through his papers for the matching reference. With the Torah, Talmud, and thousands of years of scholarship, it's hard to keep it all in your head, he apologises. But Judaism has survived, he suggests, by its adaptability.
Students talk of their surprise at finding so many similarities. Hilda Schindler talks of "a deep sense of recognition" in some lessons, but also of the breaking down of misconceptions. "Sometimes we have completely the wrong view and wrong impressions, which is probably overshadowed by the political situation," she says.
That euphemism, "the political situation", is as close as people come to talking about the recent terrible history of Arab-Israeli relations, or to the London bombings of July. But the context cannot be ignored. Barry Mathiason, 51, vice-chair of the congregation, talks obliquely of "the past few months" and says the A-level seemed "an ideal opportunity at a time of such trauma".
Miss Schindler says: "People say, how can you do this in the present situation? When (the course) first appeared in the local paper, somebody said to me perhaps it shouldn't have gone in until after the course was finished. Well, that's another two years. If we all think like that, nothing would ever be done and things would get worse and worse."
The younger students, Rachel (17) and Charlotte (16), enjoy living in a vibrant, multicultural city with its tapestry of faiths. But, as Rachel says: "One of my best friends is Muslim, but we don't really talk about religion to each other. So this is a chance to understand."
Imam Gonzales says: "Anything that will build bridges and understanding and foster good relationships, that's what we are about. We cannot use religion to divide people. We should use it as a tool to unite people and spread religiosity and good will."
The Wembley centre has also fostered inter-faith relationships. Imam Gonzales says reaction in his community has been positive to the initiative. Both faiths have, after all, been demonised, he says.
Rabbi Howard says one key to the course's success is that both groups feel grounded in their own faiths - indeed, the course helps them to a better understanding of their own faiths.
Imam Gonzales is also being brave, he adds. "We are both stepping over barriers that people wouldn't like us to step over."
Islamic Cultural Centre (Wembley): Tel: 020 8903 3760