Muslims break their Ramadan fast with Jewish neighbours in a north London synagogue

By Liz Harris
There’s heavy security at the gate of the Edgware and Hendon Reform synagogue this evening, as it hosts its first ever iftar - the meal with which Muslims break their fast at sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. The Community Security Trust policing the event, asks for our names to check against the guest list.
We’re not on the guest list, but a Twitter conversation between myself and synagogue’s Rabbi Debbie Long-Somers does the trick. We’re in. Once inside, I bump into Debbie herself. She tells me 20 to 30 people have arrived so far, but they’re expecting around 100. She’s too busy to talk right now but promises me an interview later on.
We make our way to the sanctuary – equivalent to the nave in a church – where the congregation sit and prayers take place. At the entrance, a woman is giving out yarmulkes, the Jewish head covering for men, from a basket. My partner takes one, but as a woman I don’t have to cover my head. Everyone keeps their shoes on as well. This comes as a surprise to me, as I’m used to covering my head and removing my shoes in mosques and Sikh gurdwaras.
Plump juicy dates are being handed out, to mark the end of the fast. They’re not a random choice of snack – dates are mandatory for ending one’s fast according to the Sunnah – the traditions and practices of the Prophet.
The sanctuary falls silent as the Muslim call to prayer, the adhan, echoes around the hall summoning the faithful to worship. The adhan is called five times a day, from the first prayer at sunrise (fajr) to the last prayer at night (isha’a). This one is for the penultimate prayer of the day, the maghrib, which means “sunset” in Arabic. I’ve heard this exquisite, undulating chant in countries throughout the Muslim world – but it’s not what you’d expect to hear in a synagogue, which makes it all the more stirring.
The Muslims are assembled at one end of the sanctuary. They stand, heads bowed, then bow, then kneel, their foreheads touching the ground. The Jewish congregation watches in respectful silence.
Prayer ends and people begin filing out to the room next door, where a Jewish feast awaits.
I stand behind a trestle table at one end of the room, bearing a couple of jugs of water and some kosher pizza slices. A man asks me for a jug of water, which I give him. Suddenly, everyone is asking me for water. I have a new job function, it seems.

19:00 I manage to escape waitress duty and spot the man who recited the adhan at one of the tables, so I head over to say hello.

Ali Amla,44, is the Youth and Partnerships director of Solutions not Sides, an education charity which connects Palestinian and Israeli peace builders with young people in the UK to help them understand the situation between Israel and Palestine.

It’s an evening of firsts for Ali.

“It’s the first time in my life that I’ve led prayer on Jumah (Friday), in a congregation, in a synagogue” he tells me.

Ali says he isn’t a faith leader and has only led prayers at home before.

“I thought there were only a couple of people behind me, then I turned round and there were quite a few people there. I wasn’t something I thought I’d be doing when I woke up this morning!”

I ask him how he thinks these types of initiatives help interfaith relations at the current time.

“Breaking bread together really allows us to humanise one another. It allows us to get to know one another at a time when interfaith relations are really being stretched and challenged, it’s an opportunity to really foster friendship.”

19:10 Mustafa Field, director of Faiths Forum for London, is addressing the room. He explains that Ramadan is a chance for Muslims to pause in their busy lives. It’s a time when many give to charity, as fasting brings awareness of those in need.

It’s also a time for rebuilding connections: “Especially at a time like this, it’s really important that we listen to each other and try to understand each other better”.

He says: “Iftar is a time of reconciliation when our hearts are open, and in many of our traditions when we break bread, we talk to one another. This is an opportunity to extend our hand in friendship”.

19:15 I haven’t eaten anything yet, so find an empty seat on one of the tables and help myself to some delicious, moist salmon and potato salad.

I start talking to the woman next to me and ask her about the food, assuming she’s Jewish.

She laughs and tells me “I’m not Jewish, I’m Uyghur.”

There are only around 500 Uyghurs in the UK, but several have come this evening. I’m curious at what brought them here, so we go and sit in the sanctuary where she tells me why.

Maira Aisaeva, 40, is Chair of the UK Uyghur Community.

She says the Jewish community have historically been “very supportive” to the Uyghurs.

She talks to me about the situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang – or as she would call it, East Turkestan. She says the Chinese government forbids Uyghurs from fasting during Ramadhan and that this ban is enforced by surveillance.

She tells me about concentration camps, and how Uyghur women are pressured to marry Chinese men.

“It’s been clearly seen that the Chinese government has been committing genocide against the Uyghurs. They’re trying to erase our identity, culture, even our food.”

“That’s why the Jewish community have been supportive because they understand. They’ve gone through all this.”

19:20 I head back to the dining room after this sobering conversation and bump into Rabbi Debbie, who has time to sit down for a  few minutes.

I ask her why she decided to host the synagogue’s first iftar.

“Rabbi Natan Levy from the Faiths Forum for London messaged me and said ‘hey! Do you fancy hosting an iftar?’ And I immediately said, ‘yes, let’s do that!’ and then spent three days thinking no one’s going to come, the security’s going to be a nightmare, how do we do this?

“And we’ve been completely bowled over by how many people wanted to come and have this moment of friendship. It’s been very heart-warming.”

Years of interfaith work with the Muslim community meant that relationships were already strong. She tells me about her links with Nisa Nashim, a Jewish – Muslim Women’s Network.

“We had a WhatsApp group which had become quite a dormant group for a couple of years with Covid and everything else going on.

Then on 8 October, the Muslim women reached out to us and it came back to life. I put the invite on there and a lot of them have come.”

19:30 People are beginning to drift away and it’s time for us to leave too. At the gate we bid farewell to the security team, who are noticeably more relaxed after the evening’s success.


Join our Newsletter