in Articles June 21, 2017

Rabbi Natan Levy Explains How Fasting for Ramadan Helped Him Appreciate Different Faiths

Featured image credit: BBC

London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Different faiths, backgrounds and nationalities are spread equally across the boroughs, giving the capital an identity like few others. Yet this diversity has the capacity to breed its own sense of division. People can become entrenched within their own communities, so while Londoners may live in close quarters, they sometimes fail to understand one another.

For Natan Levy, a Rabbi in Edgware, north London, this failure was cast in unflattering relief on a Friday in 2014. ‘It was the Shabbat before Ramadan, and we had invited over a friend of ours, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, to the Synagogue.’ It was an Orthodox service, so Levy’s guest sat in the women’s section. ‘To make a long story short, a young Jewish woman saw the Muslim woman with the hijab, basically screamed, and ran home to her mother, and the mother said to alert the synagogue security.’

This moment, Levy tells us, was the ‘catalyst’ that inspired him to observe the fast for Ramadan that year. He describes his decision at the time as being ‘fairly ad-hoc’, but he would soon notice the lasting effect of his gesture. ‘Even though diverse faith communities live side by side, we’re usually too busy to really appreciate each other’s faith and diversity. …but by having a Rabbi fast for Ramadan, a conversation could begin within my own Jewish community.  People came up to me that first week in the synagogue and asked:  What’s this Ramadan thing.’

‘That would spark a unique  opportunity to talk about other faiths, other traditions, and concerns that people had. This was the most important element, the questions people asked.’

At the time, Levy told the BBC that he was observing Ramadan as a way to create a ‘touchstone for conversation’ between the faiths. Three years later, he still stresses the importance of interfaith dialogue, even in a city as lauded for its openness as London. ‘Though we live in London, the opportunity to really engage with people of other faiths is lacking.’ Starting conversations with others, Levy explains, allows us ‘to go beyond just the interfaith platitudes. to explore the lived  joy in celebrating religion.’

‘Having people engage with each other breaks down stereotypes, allowing people to see each other as human beings before anything else.’ During Ramadan 2014, it was ‘incredible hospitality’ that let Rabbi Levy experience these connections most strongly.

‘I was invited to more Iftars than I could possibly attend – I actually gained weight during Ramadan. People invited me into their homes with their families. The Muslim community expressed this incredible level of hospitality, toward myself and my family. It was deeply touching.’

He also learned more about the lesser known aspects of Ramadan: ‘Ramadan brings a focus on poverty and injustice around the world. There’s a lot of engagement with people who won’t be able to break their fast, who are continuously hungry. That was something that I didn’t really appreciate – how Ramadan and tithing raise serious questions about how we create a more just society.’ The fast itself had its own impact on Levy: ‘I really appreciated another religion for the ritual. There’s a real richness there. The fasting together created a bond that went much deeper than words, which you don’t really think is a big deal unless you experience it yourself.’

The world is very different since the summer Rabbi Levy observed Ramadan. Over the past year, the stories dominating the news have been fraught with tension. It would seem that there’s never been a more crucial time to learn about the views of our neighbours. Given his experience in 2014, what advice would Rabbi Levy offer to help us be more open with one another?

‘Reach out to faith leaders in your local area. I’ve  found that if I call up any Imam in Edgware and say, “can I bring a few of my students or community [to visit]”, I’ve always gotten a “yes”. That’s a great way of engaging with another culture.’

‘Connect with London’s vibrant interfaith scene.  If you want to sit with scholars studying the  Torah alongside the Qu’ran, or watch or even perform in an interfaith drama session, you can find that in London. And the interfaith organisations, like Faiths Forum for London can help to connect you to all the vibrant inter-connectivity that makes this city so very special. Just drop us a line.’

in Articles June 21, 2017