When Ramadan gets under way this week, a group of Muslims in north London will gather for prayers not in a mosque, but a synagogue.
In a tale of interfaith tolerance for our times, the Finchley Reform Synagogue has been hosting local Bravanese people – members of an Islamic community from south-east Somalia – since their nearby community centre was burned down in an arson attack two years ago.
The cohabitation has broken down stereotypes on both side. “Now we really look forward to Ramadan,” said Jon Freedman, an outreach organiser at the synagogue. “It’s become another holiday on our community calendar.
“We hope they get their own centre soon,” Freedman added, “but it’s been a wonderful experience hosting them here.”
Friendships have developed over shared meals of gefilte fish and Bravanese donuts called kalamati, and the two communities recently held an interfaith sukkot festival at a local shopping mall.
The Bravanese community centre was gutted by fire on 5 June 2013, 10 days after the killing of fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Video footage showed a suspect lighting several fires within the building. Graffiti extolling the English Defence League was daubed on a nearby building.
“When the arson attack happened, there was a visceral response from the local Jewish community,” said Rabbi Miriam Berger. “It was hard not to think of Kristallnacht [when German Nazis attacked Jews and their property in 1938].”
For Somali community leader Abubakhar Ali, the response from the Jewish community was welcome, even if some of his fellows were uncertain about worshipping in a synagogue.
“Members of my community were a little concerned,” said Ali. “For many it was their first time ever in a synagogue.”
Soon, however, they were won over by the generosity and sincerity of their hosts.
There was some trepidation from the synagogue congregation about opening up to a group of Muslim strangers.
“But I remember having a very peaceful feeling that first evening of Ramadan prayers,” said Freedman, who was one of the volunteer hosts who bonded with the Bravanese over a series of impromptu iftars, the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily fast during Ramadan.
“We have received as much as we have given,” said Berger. In addition to escaping “the trap” of “perceived relationships between Jews and Muslims globally”, she said there was “something incredibly powerful about facilitating other people’s rituals”.
Negotiations with Barnet council for new premises for the Bravanese community are ongoing. Citizens UK and an active interfaith alliance that includes FRS are working with the Bravanese to ensure that the council lives up to its promise to provide a new community centre of the same standard as the one destroyed by arson.
While offering hospitality to the Bravanese is an expression of Jewish values, Rabbi Berger said: “It’s also a demonstration of how easy it is to have harmony between different cultures and faiths. We are discovering that we have more in common than we think.”