6 July 2011
The Forum's Secretary, Heather Fletcher, gave a presentation to a group of about 70 Jewish pensioners about how she became involved with the Forum.
Firstly, let me introduce myself-I was born in the 1960’s and like many people born and bred in Britain, I am product of diverse cultures. I am what is known as an Anglo Irish Jew! My late mother was English; her ancestors originated from Lithuania and settled in Manchester in 1877. My father, Dr. Neville Fletcher is from Dublin but his parents originated from Austria and Poland-so I am a real mixture!
As I grew up I learnt most of my Jewish religious education from my Faith Primary School, namely King David School and all my friends there were not surprisingly- Jewish. At 11 years old I went to Manchester High School for Girls and apart from my closest friend, Irene, all my friends were Christian and also Man City supporters! In the eighties I studied Law at the University of Birmingham where all my friends were white, Anglo Saxon Protestants!
I met my first Asian friend, Huma, in 1992, when she was the Trainee at the Solicitor’s office where I worked on Cheetham Hill. I discovered that she was a MUSLIM and she was the 1st Muslim I had ever spoken to! We immediately became close friends as well as work colleagues. In our lunch hours, instead of discussing work, we would often discuss the Jewish and Muslim religions and note that in many ways they were so similar in practice, especially regarding dietary laws and circumcision. When Huma married, I attended her Islamic wedding ceremony and when my mother passed away she attended my mother’s funeral and House of Mourning. In this way we learned about each other’s customs in a practical way and furthermore, we were united in both happiness and grief. Almost twenty years later, Huma is still a very close friend of mine.
So, in the first 31 years of my life I had made friends with Jewish people, Christians and a Muslim and I had learnt 2 things- 1) you can not live an insular life in today’s modern and diverse society if you wish to progress 2) basically, in the words of my Irish Dad-“all people are the same, but a bit different”
In 2003 I moved into a brand new apartment block in the Sedgley Park area of Manchester. Iraqi Muslims had built the apartments and the new residents included English and Irish Jews, Iraqi Muslims, English Protestants, Irish Catholics and even a Chinese Christian! We all got on well together from the start (apart from two Jewish families!!) I was happy to tell people that I now lived in a Multi Cultural block of flats which was a microcosm of our wider society!
In August 2004 I saw an advertisement at the back of the Jewish Telegraph, relating to the 1st meeting of the Muslim Jewish Forum at the Town Hall, hosted by the then Deputy Lord Mayor, Cllr Afzal Khan and Henry Guterman. I knew of Cllr Khan as he was known to me as the “man across the road who used to be a Policeman”- he worked as a Solicitor at another Cheetham Hill Solicitor’s office when I was a Solicitor on the opposite side of Cheetham Hill Road in the 1990’s. Sometimes, I sent him affidavits to swear and we were rivals in the area for divorce work! However, I had never met him. I had never met Henry Guterman either but I had read lots about him and knew that he was a BIG MACHER and Community Activist. I wanted to go along because I was now much more aware about Inter Faith relations since I lived in my Multi Cultural block of flats but didn’t want to go alone so I managed to persuade my friend Martyn to go along with me. Around 120 people attended that first meeting and I remember thinking that many people who attended were broad minded and forward thinking and that there was a very positive, warm atmosphere in the room.
After that I went to another smaller meeting in November 2004. At the beginning of 2005, I went along with Martyn to a Mosque in Levenshulme-that was my 1st ever visit to a Mosque-when we heard that the men and women did not sit together that reminded us of our Shul! A couple of weeks later there was another meeting at the Manchester Jewish Museum when around 25 Muslims attended. By March 2005, I had decided that I wanted to become involved in Inter faith work as I found it very interesting and I thought it would be beneficial to broaden my horizons further and make new friends from another faith so from 2005 onwards Huma was no longer my only Muslim friend!
I used to ring up Henry to ask him about meetings. In JUNE 2005, the MUSLIM JEWISH FORUM OF GREATER MANCHESTER was incorporated. The memorandum and articles were drafted by Mohammed Amin, our Treasurer, and David Berkley QC. Cllr Afzal Khan and Henry Guterman, as they were the Co Founders were appointed were joint Co-Chairs. The two had been friends for some time and had considered the idea of founding a Muslim Jewish Forum since 2000. In June 2005, Henry and Amin approached me and stated that as Cllr Khan was now Lord Mayor, he was unable to be the Secretary for the next twelve months, as he would be too busy, so they wondered if I would take on the role. I replied “Ok, I don’t mind doing this job for 12 months then Afzal can take over again”. It is now some six years later I am still the Secretary of the Forum! I love being the Secretary-I enjoy taking minutes and I particularly like organizing Events and doing Press releases.
So what is the PURPOSE of the MJ FORUM-our articles state that our purpose is to “PROMOTE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL TIES BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND JEWISH PEOPLE LIVING IN GREATER MANCHESTER”- It is our aim to become acquainted with each other’s customs and faiths and become friends-WE DO NOT TRY to convert each other-we celebrate our similarities and respect our differences.
WHAT SORT OF EVENTS HAVE WE HELD? We hold, on average ten Events each year. Some are regular annual Events such as the Inter faith picnic in Heaton Park each July, a highly successful Women’s’ Event each March and an annual Eid party. We also hold an annual Lawyers and Accountants’ Event-with this we have had many interesting topics on Muslim and Jewish perspectives on Divorce, Marriage, Inheritance, Business Ethics, Finance, the role of Religious courts, Domestic Violence and most recently- Post Mortems. In almost all these topics we have found enormous similarities between the Muslim and Jewish perspectives. We also held an Inter Faith youth football competition at Maccabi in Henry’s memory-he passed away in May 2007 and Jonny Wineberg was then appointed Co Chair and he makes a very good foil for Cllr Afzal Khan.
My two favourite Events have been the Chanucah, Eid and Xmas party held at Jackson’s Row in December 2008, attended by over 200 people, Christians, Muslims and Jewish people and last year’s Event held at the Jewish Museum-70 Righteous Muslims who saved Jews in the 2nd World War.
We have also been on overseas trips to Krakow and Auschwitz in 2009 and Granada and Cordoba in 2010. On these overseas trips we visit places of Muslim and Jewish interest such as the Alhambra in Granada, the Mosquita and old Synagogue in Cordoba. Some of us got on so well together on these two holidays that we decided to go on a private trip to Marrakech in May this year! In Marrakech we also saw the old synagogue, cemetery dating back to 1557 and the Koutoubia Mosque. Next year we hope to run a trip to Jerusalem for Purim in March 2012.
WHAT THE FORUM DOES NOT DO-discuss Israel (although we did have a Gaza Listening Event) the reason for this is that we are not a political entity and we wish to concentrate on what unites us rather than what divides us. Further we are the MJ FORUM of GREATER MANCHESTER and we wish to concentrate on how we can improve relations between Muslims and Jewish people in our culturally diverse city-we can do something about our situation here in Manchester but not about what is going on 3,000 miles away.
HAVE WE COME FAR SINCE AUGUST 2004? - YES, we now have 450 people on Data Base and if you type in the word MUSLIM JEWISH on GOOGLE we are the 2nd most popular entry in the WORLD! Our WEBSITE gets 150 hits a month!
THE FUTURE? - To get even more people interested in joining our Forum. The more people who join us and come along to our Events, the more people will realise that we are so similar in many ways. It is being ignorant about other people and their culture which causes fear and intolerance. It is bonding together which assists social harmony and peaceful co-existence.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS-On a personal note, the Muslim Jewish Forum has completely enriched my life by giving me some wonderful experiences with my Muslim friends both here and in the overseas trips. It has improved my knowledge on all faith matters and cultures and even made me understand my own faith better! Furthermore, it has provided me with several close, genuine, long standing friends and being Secretary is such a worthwhile and rewarding job and it has vastly widened my horizons. On a WIDER perspective I hope that the work the MJ FORUM has carried out these past six or seven years has to some degree brought our two communities closer together and made us realise that through our similarities we can be very powerful ALLIES, especially when practices which are central to our faiths such as Shechita, Halal and Circumcision are attacked. We can also join together when our peoples are the targets of illogical hatred, anti Semitism and Islamophobia from the BNP or EDL.
I hope that the MUSLIM JEWISH FORUM OF GREATER MANCHESTER will continue working together connecting communities for a very long time to come.
Heather D. Fletcher © 2011
(c) The Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester is a company limited by guarantee. Registered in England. Company No. 5480738. Registered Office: c/o Linder Myers Solicitors, Phoenix House, 45 Cross Street, Manchester, M2 4JF