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Shepherding harmony between Jews, Muslims

Religious conflict might get all the press, but Lockport resident Enid Bloch figures it's not the prevailing norm among Western New Yorkers.

The longtime photographer and academic is setting out to show the more compatible sides of Judaism and Islam.

Bloch has launched a new online family magazine aimed at promoting "friendship and understanding" between area Muslims and Jews.

The first edition of "Jewish Muslim Friendship in Western New York" was published earlier this month at jewish-muslim-friendship-wny.org.

The magazine has no affiliation with any other group, no subscription fee and no advertising. And Bloch has pledged "no discord" within the pages of the magazine, which includes in its first issue a story about a local organization that assists refugee immigrants; a recap of a local interfaith event known as the "Tent of Abraham"; a story about the co-sponsorship of a film showing by both Muslim and Jewish students at the University at Buffalo; a remembrance of Cantor Susan Wehle, who died in the crash of Flight 3407; a historical examination of a golden age of Muslim and Jewish philosophy in the 12th century; as well as book reviews, poetry, photographs and recipes.

The new magazine joins www.wnymuslims.org -- a website devoted to the Muslim community of Western New York -- as recent online ventures aimed at offering a less-heated exploration of local faith and culture.

Bloch wants to build a readership through area synagogues and mosques. She hopes to knock down mistrust between Jews and Muslims that has developed in this country due to clashes in the Middle East.

"I hope to change the mood and for people to have a happy and hopeful feeling, realizing that we don't have to stay stuck in a hopeless sense of conflict," said Bloch, an adjunct professor at UB and photographer for UB and for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. "The much truer situation is that many, many people have a sincere interest in each other's lives and culture."

Bloch, who serves as editor, assembled an advisory board of area Muslims and Jews to assist with the venture.

She plans to publish three times a year.

Gunilla Kester, a local poet and classical guitar instructor, signed on to the advisory board as a way to continue the interfaith work of Wehle, former cantor at Temple Beth Am whose interfaith work was widely admired by area Muslims.

"We are trying to fill some very big shoes in the community and this is one way we can actually do something," said Kester.

Kester, who is Jewish, noted that she is an immigrant from Sweden who has experienced firsthand the kind of xenophobia that many Muslims in this country face.

"If I don't participate and try to break down some of these barriers, who's going to do it?" she said.

Advisory board member Hodan S. Isse, a visiting assistant professor of finance and managerial economics at UB, acknowledged that there was a level of fear, politicization and miscommunication in the community.

"But I've come to the conclusion it's an active minority of people that is trying to divide us," said Isse. "I always feel like there is more commonality than there is difference."

Isse, a Muslim who was born in Somalia, said she has friends from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Judaism.

"We enjoy each other. I don't think your faith should determine your friendships," she said.

Bloch, who is Jewish and part of Congregation Havurah, developed a deep appreciation for Muslims since teaching about Islam years ago at UB.

She recalled being politely informed by a young Muslim woman in one of her classes that she didn't know what she was talking about when it came to Islam.

Bloch realized then that she really didn't know the religion well, so she began to learn more through the student's family.

"They taught me a lot about how they themselves lived as a Muslim family here in America," said Bloch.

Bloch has since been involved in interfaith activities for several years. She came up with the idea for the magazine in the wake of recent controversy over a local "twinning effort" in which Muslims visit area synagogues and Jews visit mosques.

The effort suffered a setback this year when two area rabbis backed away amid accusations from a Boston-based group that twinning across the country was being promoted by radical Muslim groups.

Organizers denied the charge and continued the twinning in a scaled-back form.

Bloch supports the twinning and its organizers, Dr. Othman Shibly and Dr. Robert Stall, and she said it was "unfortunate that they have been met with resistance."

But she sought to create a new interfaith vehicle as a fresh start and a "clear road ahead."

"This will be a clear voice of people who really do care about reaching out to each other. I honestly believe there are far more of us than the few people who are bigoted or simply fearful," she said.

jtokasz@buffnews.com