Nuggets From Mohammad Modarres's Call
Posted by Sally Mahe on Oct 24, 2020
Mohammad Modarres is founder of “Interfaith Meat.” It’s Halal, Kosher, and sustainably sourced to boot. The seeds were planted in 2001, when his family moved to suburban New Jersey. In the house to the left lived a Chinese pastor. To the right, secular Jews. Across the street, an Orthodox rabbi. Next door, Sunni Muslim doctors. “We would exchange holiday cards,” Modarres recalls. “And we would make home-cooked meals for each other during Ramadan.” Then came 9/11 and anti-Muslim bigotry. After the 2016 US elections, bigotry erupted again. Modarres responded by holding his first “Shabbat Salaam” dinner to convene Muslim and Jewish friends. The two-in-one Interfaith Meat honoring both religious laws has since evolved into Abe’s Eats, a company that uses well-sourced foods as a medium to foster cultural understanding. His goal is simply “to build a longer table, not a taller fence.”
Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...
- I was first inspired to do the first Shabbat Salaam dinner after the 2016 Presidential election. I wanted to bring together two communities that each had a small voice because collectively they could have a larger voice. This also became a learning opportunity to delve into the dietary laws of both communities. "I felt that this was an opportunity for me to bring not only people together, but also their dietary laws and I went down this journey of creating what I then called Interfaith Meat. ... Because if I was going to host a dinner interfaith gathering, I wanted to make sure that there wouldn't be a point of separation, including what they're eating." We took on the complicated process of meat production (that followed the both Kosher and Halal rules) to say that if these complicated procedures like these can be accommodated, what else can be done in the name of bridge-building.
- I think whenever you're going down the road of changing something that has been around for quite some time -- in this case, for a very, very long time -- you're going to get resistance. I realized that for the most part people want change but people don't necessarily want to go through that particular change themselves. But when you see the end goal in sight -- I think having that level of persistence and being able to show that what I'm trying to achieve is only going to help the community at large -- I had some people reach out to me and really be big supporters early on. And that was very, very helpful. So in the same sense, where you have in any situation, I think people who may say some unfortunate things, and they may seem that they are much larger than they actually are. Because they have a microphone. There are far more supporters who always want to ensure that we have understanding and peacebuilding blocks.
- We believe that if you bring people from vastly different backgrounds together and you have a safe space to have conversations around faith, but around other topics as well, that just the mere moment to understand someone else that you may not necessarily have time to spend time with, you're able to gain a new perspective and ultimately be able to take that perspective with you. And that allows us to be able to appreciate each other in a new new way.
- Our organization and what we do -- especially because of the fact that we don't just do products, we do programs as well -– we produce Interfaith Meat, we produce “Honey I love you” and Hummus for All of Us, but we also have these interfaith dinners we call Shabbat Salaam, and the comedy shows and Cut the Beef. And so for us, we never really see ourselves as a meat company, or even as a food company, but rather as an interfaith organization at its core that happens to use food as a tool for social development. With that said, it's taken a lot of effort and expertise to find halal and kosher equivalent to produce Interfaith Meats -- it involves two very difficult things: faith and dietary laws, and food production itself (people may have allergies or certain preference or whatnot).
- Halal and kosher as two complementary sides of the food production process: the way I see it now, after doing this for some time is halal value comes from the moment the animal is raised up until the sacrifice, while kosher’s value is the moment of sacrifice to the very end production to when the consumer enjoys the product. Halal makes sure that the animal has a certain diet, that it's treated a certain way when it comes to the moment of sacrifice, that there's a clear process. And then after that the sacrifice is done, there’s kosher checking and making sure that the animal was healthy for life, otherwise it shouldn’t be consumed. So I now very much see the importance for making sure that these two sides work in any type of food product because it's very thorough and it comes with a great deal of respect for the environment and for public health.
- After attacks on my family following 9/11 and getting stares from 6th grade classmates when news blared that people with the name Mohammad were “terrorists,” I realized that because I had the name Mohammad I had a special responsibility. I wanted to show in my life that I was different, that I treat people with love and respect. I wanted to reduce stereotyping. It's a reflection of a lot of personal responsibility we take on when we are a minority or when we are marginalized. We want to make sure that people see us beyond what is shown on TV or heard on the radio.
- My team's goal (along with that of other entrepreneurs, activists and artists) is to bridge across many different lines of difference (race, religion, etc.). How to create an environment where people can bring forth their true self and others can listen and engage with the identity that they're bringing forward? So we can just first and foremost simply understand where people are coming from. When you come to one of our events, it's not just an hour or 2-3-4; sometimes people stay around five hours. People want to know, not just how other people think about how they feel and how they make those decisions. So that's really critical for us. If you want to do this kind of work, you've got to be able to invest the precious commodity of time.
- COVID effects: Music, comedy, and other arts are a key part of interfaith gatherings. While COVID has brought a lot of problems -- there's just a lot of emotional, a lot of economic, a lot of just social frustration all around -- COVID has also brought, weirdly enough, a gift of clarity. And you know, when you're walking blindly in the dark, sometimes you stumble upon something good. And for us, that has been the opportunity to simplify how we work. I mean even just personally, the things that I want and the things that I need. I've never been able to see that more clearly. I think when we distinguish those two things we are then able to look around us -- when we're okay and our families are okay -- we can see who needs our help and how we can help them.
- I got into political cartooning because that is how I could get my voice heard. When there were natural disasters or school shootings in the news, I did not know what to say but I knew how I felt. Cartooning helped me find my voice and express myself the best way I knew how at that time. Everyone needs to find their own way of expressing themselves (find their own voice and their medium). Everyone has stories and should share them.
- It’s hard to hate someone close up. Lean into the conversation and be curious. Brené Brown. Because you don't look someone in the eye online, there's also more hate there than in an in-person setting.
- There has been an increase of harsher narratives of division among people. Therefore, the need to reach out and build bridges of understanding and respect across these divides need to be accelerated.
- A big key to the success of the Shabbat Salaam dinners has been the programming -- comedy, music, dance, and things that are uniquely suited for the particular attendees. A lot of care goes into the community building, to make sure the dinner is a deep experience of fun, humor, love, and friendship for the people assembled.
- Go where it’s difficult. Interfaith work can be preaching to the choir. Confront bigotry where it is. Don’t settle on the people who naturally come. Look for opportunities to speak into controversial spaces. "I need to go and I need to speak in these particular spaces that may be controversial because if I'm not writing my story, someone else will." Make effort to welcome people who challenge others to live in peace to participate in interfaith gatherings. My long term goal is to have Shabbat/Salaam dinner gatherings directly after an incident where a group has been attacked or hurt and use these gatherings for connecting and healing when it is needed most.
- Broken is not the same as unfixable, and we need to get up and fix our country no matter what the election outcome.