Jews and Muslims mingled in Palo Alto Sunday evening and talked with one another about their faiths in a first-of-its kind "Halaqa-Seder."
A crowd of about 100 professionals, seated at small tables that were equally divided between members of the two religions, shared dinner and discussed re-enactments of Muslim and Jewish perspectives on the story of Moses, who was revered in both traditions.
The "Halaqa-Seder" -- a nod to the Islamic tradition of gathering to learn about theology and the Jewish Passover observance beginning Friday, April 3 -- was jointly organized by two interfaith-minded organizations, the San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley.
"When we started out we didn't know what we'd find out or where it would lead, but basically we wanted to open the door," said Diane Fisher, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley.
Maha Elgenaidi, founder and president of the 22-year-old Islamic Networks Group, said her organization expanded into interfaith work a few years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in response to many queries and invitations from churches and synagogues.
Interest in Sunday's Halaqa-Seder was so great that the event had to be moved from a private home in Los Altos Hills to a larger venue at the Mitchell Park Community Center on Middlefield Road.
Volunteer readers presented brief re-enactments of both Jewish and Muslim versions of Moses' story as well as Muslim and Jewish women's roles in the story. Participants were then asked to discuss their reactions with their table companions.
Questions and comments from both sides were plentiful, ranging from the nature and relative authority of various religious texts to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to the segregation of the sexes in mosques and synagogues to issues posed by radical fundamentalism.
A Jewish participant, who asked not to be named, explained that Jews are encouraged to continually re-interpret, challenge and discuss the meaning of the Torah and other texts.
"This is the way you're supposed to learn it deeply," she said.
Seated across the table, Atherton physician Isha Abdullah described her recent pilgrimage to Mecca, a once-in-a-lifetime obligation of every Muslim who is capable of making the journey.
Discussions were so intense that Ameena Jandali of the Islamic Networks Group had trouble interrupting with a microphone to announce dinner, a buffet that included halal and kosher dishes. No alcohol was served.
Islamic scholar Ali Ataie and Los Gatos Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper recited blessings over the food in Arabic and Hebrew.
The Halaqa-Seder also concluded with a Hebrew blessing and a Muslim call to prayer.
Farid Senzai, who teaches Middle East politics at Santa Clara University, said, "I learned a lot about Judaism just in the short period we were here."
Senzai said many of his students are "absolutely shocked to find out that Islam speaks so highly of Jesus or Moses, and the similarities that exist among these faiths."
Jewish participant Robert Chaykin, who is a member of the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission, said, "I was very surprised at how many references there are in the Quran and Hadith (collected sayings of the prophet Muhammad) to Jewish figures," adding that he'd like to learn more through critical study of the Islamic texts as he has done continually with the Torah.
"Our purpose is to build relationships across faith, ethnic and cultural barriers that others might see, and strengthen them," Fisher said. "We also just want to enjoy each other's culture and faith."