Making Cheese for Peace

Laurence Rosenbaum serving his Kosher-Halal cheese at the interfaith meeting at the Islamic Center of Morris County in Rockaway, NJ (Photo by   Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Lawrence Rosenbaum serving his Kosher-Halal cheese at the interfaith meeting at the Islamic Center of Morris County in Rockaway, New Jersey (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Lawrence Rosenbaum has always been interested in interfaith relations. When he was a freshman, he left his hometown of Albany, New York, to live with a family in Germany who manufactured cheeses. Many years later he returned to Albany with a business plan to produce gourmet feta cheese. But his wife insisted that the cheese be kosher. So he stumbled on an ingenious plan that would not only satisfy his wife, but also fulfill his desire to promote an interfaith project that could be commercially viable.

“Since the manufacturing of kosher and halal are the same and being that there are as many Muslims as stars in the sky and sand on the beach and while the Jewish market is bit more limited…I decided to do this as a Jewish-Muslim project,” said Rosenbaum, one of the speakers at a recent gathering initiated by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting racial harmony and strengthening interfaith relations around the world.

Calling his project “Cheese for Peace,” Rosenbaum connected with an imam from Syracuse University who introduced him to Reyad Mahmoud, a Palestinian food scientist, who became his consultant and technical advisor. Together they came up with a proposal to manufacture three types of kosher-halal Mediterranean cheese, that could be enjoyed with bread, salads and olive oil.

(Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Rosenbaum’s presentation on Nov. 5 at the Islamic Center of Morris County (ICMC) in Rockaway, New Jersey, was a curtain raiser for the 7th Annual Weekend of Twinning (Nov. 14-16), an FFEU event designed to strengthen relations between Jews and Muslims in synagogues, mosques and among youth groups. According to Walter Ruby, Muslim-Jewish program director of FFEU, more than 200 Muslim-Jewish events are planned this November and December in the U.S., Europe, South America and Africa.

“Rosenbaum Cheese Company has become a role model of a business operation between a Jew and a Muslim,” said Ruby.

Early this year, FFEU formed the New Jersey Jewish-Muslim Solidarity Committee to build relationships and dispel misconceptions between the two faiths.

“When there are hate crimes or discriminations, we want to be there for each other,” said Ruby. “Early this year ICMC was having some issues with the zoning board and we were happy to come and show our support for this wonderful mosque.”

After this brief introduction, the program paused for the mosque’s evening prayers while attendees sampled Rosenbaum’s cheeses alongside bagels and coffee.

Stuart Lefkowitz from the White Meadow Temple in Rockaway, New Jersey, said he appreciated the opportunity to see how Muslims worshipped.

Breaking for prayer at the Islamic Center of Morris County (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Breaking for prayer at the Islamic Center of Morris County (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

“This is the first time I have been in a Muslim center,” said Lefkowitz. “I see it shares traditions with the Jewish community in terms of women seated separately. It’s interesting to see these similarities as we all come from the same beginnings.”

The speakers sat on a dais in the prayer hall and included Adel AlMorsi, imam of ICMC; Rabbi Debra Smith, spiritual leader of congregation Or Ha Lev in Mt. Arlington, New Jersey, and Dr. Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president and founder of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. They had come together to discuss the “Concept of Peace in Two Traditions.” About 65 members of both congregations listened to an opening prayer given by Smith.

“May the eternal one bless all those gathered here tonight to share in holy conversation. May we continue to walk together on the path towards Salaam and Shalom.”

Chaudry began by commenting on the strained relations between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East. He explained that this program was intended not to debate the conflict but to elucidate on the two faiths whose histories go back thousands of years, much longer than the conflict in the Middle East. Both the rabbi and Chaudry alternated presentations, distributed sheets with quotations from religious texts about peace, and took questions from the audience.

They began by stressing that both religions professed and believed in peace. But Chaudry said that this statement can sometimes cause a disconnect with non-Muslims, especially when speaking about the term “jihad.” Chaudry explained that jihad has three meanings, one of which is to defend oneself when attacked but not to perpetrate an attack. The current violence generated by extremists under the banner of jihad has cast a negative light on the whole community and this has angered many Muslims.

“The truth is Muslims do speak out,” said Chaudry. “Unfortunately they don’t have a big enough megaphone to be heard. There are 126 scholars and leaders of the Muslim community who have written a letter to the head of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), saying that their teachings are inconsistent with Islam and their claim for a Caliphate has no basis in the Quran or teachings of Mohammed.”

The speakers then discussed problematic texts that propose violence in both the Torah and Quran. Chaudry said the media, especially Fox News, was guilty of quoting passages, often out of context, that have created negative stereotypes about Islam. Smith said controversial texts should be interpreted carefully.

“We need to look at the content in terms of the period in history that the text was written,” said Smith. “History has moved forward and we have to move with it otherwise we remain in the past.”

Left to right: Rabbi Debra Smith, Dr. Mohammad Ali Chaudry and Imam Adel AlMorsi  (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Left to right: Rabbi Debra Smith, Dr. Mohammad Ali Chaudry and Imam Adel AlMorsi (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

She added that education was the key to ensuring people avoid misrepresentation.

“In our little community we have tried to get to know each other – break bread together and study together,” said Smith. “It is my responsibility to learn. If I don’t know what jihad is how can I respond to my friends who say all Muslims are jihadists?”

FFEU’s Ruby believes that discussions like this can reduce Islamophobia and anti-Semitism around the world.

“I am so happy to see so many people attending,” said Ruby. “These people have formed relationships which did not exist five or six years ago. We can’t solve the problem in the Middle East but we can locally build relationships. My dream is to create a global movement of cooperation, then in five to 10 years it can begin to have an impact, I think, in the Holy Land.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*