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Ramadan Reflections

Ramadan Mubarak

South Brunswick Human Relations Commission, Islamic Center host evening of prayer on first night of Muslim holiday


SOUTH BRUNSWICK – Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

Azra Baig, chairwoman of the South Brunswick Human Relations Commission, said Muslims cannot have food nor water from sunrise to sunset during the holy month. She said the young, elderly, ill and those who are traveling are excused from fasting. They may not lose weight, however, because they tend to overeat when they do break the fast.

Baig said Muslims may be extra tired, especially during the final 10 days of the month, when they stay up most of the night praying.

The Human Relations Commission partnered with the Islamic Society of Central Jersey (ISCJ), located on Route 1 in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick, to commemorate the first night of Ramadan on April 1.

Prior to sunset at 7:23 p.m., when Ramadan prayers were set to begin, many members of the greater South Brunswick community shared their thoughts on the holiday and the role South Brunswick plays for its Muslim neighbors.

Through the eyes of youth, two students from the South Brunswick School District shared their thoughts on the holiday and how the township has accepted and embraced the observance of Ramadan.

Muhammad Elnaggar, a fifth-grader at Brunswick Acres Elementary, said the schools support the needs of children who fast during the school day. He said students can stay in a classroom or in the library during lunch so as to not see or smell food.

At home, he said, families will play card or board games, or nap or sleep, to pass the time between meals, since Muslims have a large breakfast before sunrise but do not break their fast until after sunset each day.

He said parents will give gifts and money on Eid day, the final day of the holiday month.

Muhammad thanked the South Brunswick community for supporting Muslims, as stores in the area carry toys, blankets, lanterns, action figures and other items related to Ramadan.

Maya Ahmed, a senior at South Brunswick High School, said, “My experiences during Ramadan have taught me South Brunswick will always have my back.”

She said that as a child, she and her mother discussed what fasting would look like: prior to puberty, children can choose to fast for a full-day or a half-day to get accustomed to the practice. She said she was intent on fasting the whole day.

As such, she said she was supported by her teachers, who would let observers sit on the sidelines during gym on a hot day, or stay in the library during lunch.

She said the library includes books about Islam and the librarians allow students to come and pray during the day.

Maya said she loves the sense of unity at the mosque, the traditions of breaking the fast, the early morning breakfasts with family members, the late nights that extend into early mornings, feeling closer to God, and inner peace and satisfaction.

“I not only endure Ramadan, but I love Ramadan,” she said. “I come out of Ramadan as a better Muslim with a stronger faith.”

Imam Hamad Chebli of ISCJ said he came to South Brunswick in 1983. Almost 40 years later, he praised the township for being the first township in the United States to allow Muslims to take two days off from work during Ramadan.

“I want you, as a Muslim, to open your heart, not your eyes,” he said. “Ramadan is to be a better person. … We like to practice our religion from A to Z.”

ISCJ President Muhammad Ashraf said ISCJ is a religious organization that goes beyond religion.

“This month of Ramadan is the most blessed month: a month of forgiveness, a month of charities, a month of prayers by yourself and your family and all humans.”

Also the president of the South Brunswick Public Library Board of Trustees, Ashraf asked residents to support the expansion project at the library.

“This is a home for you. Please come and visit us,” he said about ISCJ.

The Rev. Wendi L. Werner of the First Presbyterian Church at Dayton, who is also vice chair of the Human Relations Commission and a member of Greater South Brunswick Clergy Association, said Ramadan is a blessed month of reflection.

“Community stretches well beyond this mosque itself … and into the lives of your neighbors as well,” she said. “Each of us is valuable to the fabric of the wonderful community we are a part of.”

Mayor Charles Carley said what makes South Brunswick and the country function is “teamwork.”

“The faithful will gather in prayer and studying and mindfulness,” he said.

He offered wishes of happiness, peace and blessings of knowledge and light.

South Brunswick Councilwoman Archana “Ann” Grover said she lived in Old Delhi in India near the Jama Masjid.

She said the spring season is a time to celebrate all religions respectfully: April 1 also marked the first night of the Hindu holiday of Navartri, with the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian holiday of Easter arriving mid-month.

The Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, a representative for Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman of the 12th Congressional District, said the ISCJ is a special place for him because he would visit the mosque when he was studying at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Even though he is a believer of the Christian faith, he would stop on Fridays to study and pray. He said he learned a lot from Chebli.

“We are one people with one destiny,” he said.

State Sen. Andrew Zwicker, who is a South Brunswick resident, said he began April 1 at the Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center in Bridgewater, handing out medication to Ukrainian refugees. He ended the day at the ISCJ, enhancing the sense of community.

“South Brunswick is an amazing place to go to school … and raise a family,” he said.

Zwicker, a former state assemblyman until the 2021 election, was joined by Assemblyman Roy Freiman of the 16th District.

A believer of the Jewish faith, Freiman likened the first night of Ramadan to Fridays being the night of the Jewish sabbath, where Jews study the same scripture around the world. He said the Torah reading for the evening of April 1 was about cleansing impurities, which is aligned with Ramadan being about cleansing yourself, and the Christian season of Lent that is about renewal.

“Ramadan, Shabbat (Sabbath) and the Lenten season, we are all connected, we are all brothers and sisters connected, and all religions teach you to love they neighbor,” he said.

Baig agreed there are more similarities than differences among people of different faiths.

State Assemblywoman Dr. Sadaf Jaffer, a former mayor of Montgomery Township, is one of the first Muslim Americans, and Asian American women, elected to the New Jersey Legislature.

Jaffer joins Freiman in representing the 16th Legislative District in Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex and Hunterdon counties.

Jaffer, who said she teaches Islamic history and literature, read a poems by the poet Rumi.

“It’s about a pause in our lives, not taking things for granted, slowing down, joining the community,” she said, noting that two years of the coronavirus pandemic should have taught people to pause and take stock.

Hira Shaikh, the first Muslim woman chief of staff, who works for Jaffer, was also in attendance.

Middlesex County Commissioner Shanti Narra, who is a resident of North Brunswick, acknowledged the South Indian holiday of Ugadi, which was also beginning that evening.

She called the holiday a “reset” since it is their new year, and said it sets the tone for the entire year ahead.

“It’s important to be here tonight in a world where there so much division and so much misunderstanding,” she said, adding that she attended the Ramadan event prior to celebrating her own holiday because she wanted to show solidarity with people of all religions.

Narra also made mention of a dear friend she had growing up who, as a Muslim, did not experience the same support as children and adults have now. She said the Muslim community has grown and is now welcomed among the 25 municipalities in Middlesex County, better than in the 1970s.

To close the event, Kendall Park First Aid Squad Chief Srini Vallury recognized many members of South Brunswick emergency services.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com

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