When Michael Fabius’ grandmother died in January, his three-year-old son began to have questions about God and spirituality.
Fabius, 40, took his son to Congregation Rodeph Shalom to give him a Jewish perspective on death, but he also reached out to an imam, a leader in Philadelphia’s Muslim community.
As co-chair of the Circle of Friends, the Philadelphia chapter of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council co-founded by the American Jewish Committee, Fabius is committed to giving his two children a strong Jewish foundation, but also opportunities to meaningfully engage with other Abrahamic religious.
“It will be important to me that they know their Jewish heritage, it will be ultimately their prerogative as they grow to develop and uncover their own identities,” Fabius said. “Part of the mitzvah of parenting is being able to see that growth.”
As part of Circle of Friends since its 2016 founding, Fabius, an administrative law attorney at Ballard Spahr, views his work within the MJAC chapter as a chance to build a world for his children that embraces a diversity of ideas and spirituality.
“This work is really being part of how I want to parent: trying to influence the world where they grow up, so that they can be who they are, and there’s a measure of self determination,” Fabius said.
In practice, Fabius’ work with Circle of Friends looks like finding ways to identity and mitigate hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim communities by building interfaith solidarity. On July 20, AJC Philadelphia/South New Jersey honored Fabius with the 2022 Human Relations Award for his work in “fostering Muslim-Jewish ties in the community,” an AJC press release described.
Fabius is raising his children and building interfaith relationships with his own childhood in mind. Growing up attending Friends’ Central School, a Quaker school in Wynnewood, Fabius only knew one Muslim kid, who he vaguely remembers not eating during the month of Ramadan. Despite growing up with one Jewish and one Christian parent and embracing pluralism from an early age, Fabius and his classmate were not close.
In hindsight, Fabius recognized, also as a religious minority, that not having a strong understanding of Islam was an oversight.
“There’s some merit to knowing when you’re ignorant, rather than just acting from a place of being ignorant of your ignorance,” he said.
When Circle of Friends co-founders Tom Tropp and Amid Ismail invited him to dinner in early 2016, Fabius reflected on this idea. After almost six years as part of the group, Fabius has noticed the ways in which he, as well as the political and social landscape of interfaith solidarity, has changed.
“It’s made me a better ambassador for myself, my community, for the Muslim community,” Fabius said. “I did not speak intelligently about Muslim Americans, or Muslim communities in general, before Circle of Friends.”
On a broad level, his work in Circle of Friends has helped build on a national initiative to address hate speech and crime.
As part of the national MJAC initiative, Fabius helped lobby and organize grassroots efforts to pressure Congress to pass the Jabara-Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assaults, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act.
The legislation followed an FBI report that, despite steady levels of hate crimes in 2017 and 2018, 87% of law enforcement agencies did not report any hate crimes to their jurisdictions. The legislation would increase resources for data reporting on hate crimes. Fabius said that Jews experience the largest proportion of religious hate crimes, and Muslim experience the fastest-growing number of hate crimes.
On an interpersonal level, Fabius feels he has the tools of challenge misinformation or bigotry against Muslim communities. Though Circle of Friends events, he’s been able to learn more about Islam and share more about Judiasm.
This past spring, the organization hosted an interfaith Iftar, the meal eaten after sunset of Ramadan. They’ve hosted ceremonies and celebrations of holidays at City Hall. State Sen. Sharif Street, a member of Circle of Friends, sponsored state legislation protecting religious institutions from vandalism and desecration.
Though Circle of Friends has helped to create lasting tangible change in religious communities, Fabius asserts that the impact of the group has also created a feeling of safety and comfort in the wake of Islamophobia and antisemitism, such as in the wake of the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting.
“We’ve been able to build solidarity, project solidarity…there’s some comfort in knowing that there are allies to help support in times of crisis,” Fabius said.