Congregational prayer at sunset / Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

On Sunday, March 24 — halfway through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — the Needham Muslim Neighbors group welcomed members of the larger community to break the daily fast with them. With no formal holy space to congregate in town, they celebrated the iftar at the First Parish Church on Dedham Avenue. 

The Needham Muslim Neighbors group began organically as residents met and introduced other families. Today the group has about 30 families who share everything from religious holidays to everyday questions of parenting. 

This close-knit group of families, some multigenerational, help one another navigate raising children in a part of the world less designed for their traditions, and in some cases averse to them because of misunderstanding of the faith. 

Zeenat Rasheed, one of the Muslim families’ lead organizers, had participated in the cross-sectional Needham Resilience Network (NRN). The group spent a lot of time discussing the question of belonging. 

Hamna Chowdhry, sophomore, explains the meaning and traditions of Ramadan / Credit: Ken Ruetenik

With the current geopolitical climate, the war in Gaza and the resurgence of Muslims in the news, Rasheed said Muslim families did not feel like they belonged in Needham. “But we realized we hadn’t taken any steps to create that belonging,” she said. “We didn’t put ourselves out there or make ourselves visible. We thought it was the time to make ourselves seen and heard, then we could be welcomed. If people don’t know we’re here, how can they make us feel welcome?”   

Rasheed suggested opening one of their Sunday potluck iftars, making it a more formal, catered event, and inviting members of the NRN, town leaders, and other non-Muslim guests to celebrate with them. 

“Our hope for this iftar is that it opens the door for Muslims to be seen, heard and celebrated in Needham,” Rasheed said in her welcome address. “But we also hope that you leave here tonight knowing that you can lean on us. That because of our shared values of kindness, compassion, and community, Needham can depend on its Muslims as a source of comfort, solidarity and support.”

The event had two parts, the first a celebration in which children and adults alike shared prayers, lived experiences, and even educated their guests about the faith and traditions of their holy month. After breaking the fast at sundown with traditional dates and water, the congregation moved to the multipurpose room where a prayer area was set up for the daily evening prayer, the fourth of five prayer times for Muslims, and for the communal meal. Rasheed said the hope was that people who didn’t know each other would break bread together and build new relationships. 

Select Board member Heidi Frail did just that. “I, particularly at dinner, tried to sit with nobody that I knew,” she said. She found common ground, shared interests, and even people they each knew in common. “There is so much commonality in our stories, even though we have different religious and ethnic backgrounds. It’s always possible to connect.” 

Invited guests mingle with Needham Muslim Neighbors at iftar / Credit: Ken Ruetenik

“The evening prayer was really impactful. It feels like something you don’t often see and is a pretty vulnerable activity for folks, especially these days.” 

School Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said it was an unexpected honor to be invited. “It was awesome to see young people and our students get up and hold such important parts in the program,” he said. “The second grader who offered the prayer and then explained it was incredibly powerful.” 

He said it was very special to spend a Sunday evening with students and parents who shared their heartfelt feelings about the community and their schools. “They want to be involved, and they’re so proud of their community for supporting them. It was just great to hear.” 

Many of the families grew up in parts of the world where Muslims were in the majority and their sense of self and their religion were strong. Here, that is not the case, so they have to find ways to create that strength for themselves. An example is that in Muslim majority countries a three-day national holiday occurs at the end of Ramadan to mark the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, following  a month of worship and restraint. In the U.S., with work and school obligations, taking that time for celebration isn’t possible.

“Those of us doing this, we think about how do you maintain tradition, how do you create a sense of excitement,” said Rasheed about raising children here. “It’s not mirrored for them at all.” 

Rasheed said everyone was very happy with how the evening went. “You could feel the excitement and the joy in the room.” She said they hope to make it an annual event. 
Frederica Saylor Lalonde was an invited guest of the Needham Muslim Neighbors Sunday iftar.

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