Emma’s Torch: Religion and Food

Emma’s Torch: Religion and Food

Kathleen Shriver

Kerry Brodie teaches her students to bake Challah, a ceremonial Jewish bread. (Photo/Emma’s Torch)

Some of the best views of New York’s Statue of Liberty are from a waterside park in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. From there, visitors can see the broken shackles at Lady Liberty’s feet, the golden fire raging from her copper torch, and the words to “The New Colossus,” the sonnet at her pedestal.

Just a few blocks from New York’s Statue of Liberty, a nonprofit restaurant and school labors to keep the spirit of Lady Liberty alive. It is known as Emma’s Torch, a tribute to Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poet whose verse -- “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe” – decorates Liberty’s pedestal. Founded by Kerry Brodie, Emma’s Torch aims to empower refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of human trafficking through culinary education.

When launching the nonprofit, 27 year old Brodie, thought back to her highschool -- Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School -- where she learned about Jewish leaders. She says Lazarus was one of the “unsung female heroes of Jewish history” whose work always stuck with her.

“I felt like Emma never got to see what her poem would become,” Brodie said. “ So my hope is that Emma's Torch will also be able to create that sort of lasting legacy and those ripple effects of change as well.”

In the Jewish tradition, when speaking of a righteous deceased person, many will say Z"l (pronounced zal), which is an abbreviation for Zikronam L'bracha. This literally means “may their memory be for a blessing.” “I think this definitely applies to how we are trying to honor Emma's legacy and memory. We are working in her memory,” Brodie says.

While for many restaurants, reopening after the pandemic means staffing up, adding tables, expanding menus, opening the doors earlier and closing them later, for Brodie, it means reprioritizing. It means reconsidering the purpose of Emma’s Torch and drawing from her past and, as it turns out, her faith.

Since its founding in 2017, Emma’s Torch has become a beacon of hope for hundreds. The nonprofit offers a full-time paid training program, during which students receive instruction, mentorship, and work experience, while also developing English conversation skills and other “soft skills” such as resume development and computer literacy.

In 2020, Brodie was looking forward to formalizing and publishing her curriculum and opening new locations around the country.

“2020 was supposed to be the year of stability,” she said. Instead, she got a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and a racial reckoning.

While the pandemic threatened the lives and livelihoods of everyone, the toll it took on those working in the restaurant industry was especially dire. To make matters even worse, Emma’s Torch doubled as a training program for immigrant communities, some of the country’s most vulnerable. Even so, Brodie had faith.

Brodie’s Jewish faith has gotten her family through a profoundly difficult past. “My great grandparents are among the only people from their families, to survive the Holocaust,” she said.
She recalled that several years ago she joined her grandfather on a trip to Lithuania, where many members of his family were murdered by the Nazis. “Standing there was just such an eye-opening experience of what happens when we don't remember that our neighbors are not that different to us, and that's just always stuck with me,” she said.

Ever since this experience, Brodie has been particularly motivated by the Jewish practice of welcoming the stranger. A commandment that is repeated 36 times in the Torah, the scripture reminds Jews that they once “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). “We hope to live up to this commandment and imperative in our work.” At the same time, Brodie doesn’t see these values as exclusive to Judaism.

She loves learning from her students how these same values can come from different life experiences, including other religious traditions.

“At Emma’s Torch, a lot of times either our students come from very strong backgrounds of faith, or are supported and have found friends through their religious community, whether that be a church or a synagogue or mosque,” she said. “Faith in general can be such a powerful tool to bring people together.”

These universal values of unity and welcome have motivated every step of Brodie’s career. After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Brodie hoped to effect change through public policy.

Following two years of policy work at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, she became the press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, a nongovernmental agency based in Washington D.C., where she publicized the organization’s international work. At the same time, she spent her free time meeting with women who inspired her next endeavor.

“I started volunteering at a homeless shelter and was really struck by the conversations about food that I would have with the women at the shelter,” she said.

Brodie wanted to cook with the women. She grew up learning to cook different dishes that connected her to her family’s religious and cultural history and inspired her pride in that history. She wanted to find a way to use food to do more than just feed these women. She wanted food to empower them, too.

“Recipes are not simply a list of ingredients. Each is wrapped in memories,” she said. “Cooking simultaneously defines and transcends our communities.”

Kerry Brodie at 3-years-old after helping her grandmother make milchika. (Photo/Kerry Brodie)

Growing up, Brodie would visit her grandparents in South Africa, where they had found refuge during World War II. Both of Brodie’s parents were raised in South Africa and her grandparents still live there today. And during her earliest visits to her grandparents, Brodie learned to cook.

“My grandmother makes the most incredible milchika which are basically South African cinnamon buns. One of my earliest cooking memories is helping her make these.” While many American Jews have foods like bagels-and-lox to break their fasts on the Jewish High Holidays, South African Jews break their fast with milchika–a kind of cinnamon bun. Dishes like milkchika and the religious traditions around sharing them with family and friends has always inspired Brodie to see food as a powerful element in strengthening her faith and in enforcing a shared sense of identity amongst her community of faith.

For this reason, she encourages her students to embrace and celebrate their origins and home countries when they cook.

“Food helps our students understand that they’re not victims and that their work is valuable,” she says. Brodie says that she wants her students to see that each of their unique understandings of flavor and culture can actually enhance our communities and inspire our kitchens.

Inspired by her love of food and her conversations with the women at the homeless shelter, Brodie started reading about the restaurant industry. She read about widening labor gaps and about restaurants struggling to find talent to build out their kitchens.In May of 2016, Brodie left the HRC and began studying at the Institute of Culinary Education.

When she wasn’t learning to cook, Brodie was working to build out the organization of her dreams: a restaurant that would provide opportunities for the most vulnerable, a restaurant that would tell stories through its food.

She wanted to provide jobs for those who were left out. She wanted to bring people of different backgrounds and life experiences together in a space that felt comfortable to all of them; in a space where they could connect and realize that they could, in fact, work together. That space was the kitchen. And after graduating from culinary school in June of 2017, Brodie launched her first pilot program at Emma’s Torch.

Emma’s Torch began offering a free 12-week apprenticeship program with up to 500 hours of culinary and professional training. What’s more, students were paid to participate, allowing them to train full-time and cover expenses.

By the end of 2019, over 100 students had graduated from the program with professional culinary skills, English proficiency, and a community of support. Ninety-seven percent of the graduates had been placed in culinary jobs around the city.

And then, the pandemic hit. Like most people working in the hospitality industry in New York, many alumni were laid off or furloughed and Brodie was forced to close her training program and restaurant. She closed the doors of her restaurant and sent her students and staff home. But Brodie didn’t give up.

She turned her faith into action. The organization remained stable due to support from donors and a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Meanwhile, the Emma’s Torch staff began volunteering to work with students and alumni online. They hosted online cooking classes while also helping students and alumni apply for unemployment benefits. And Brodie innovated, working with old and new partners on her “Culinary Council” to restructure the business in response to the shifting industry.

After six months of solely online programming, Emma’s Torch reopened in October of 2020 with a three track program including the original culinary program in addition to two new tracks for alumni: the first being a community building program and the second a management-level leadership development fellowship for select program graduates.

Ruslan Abdraimov, a graduate of Emma’s Torch, participated in the fellowship. Abdraimov arrived in New York from Russia in 2016 with just $216 in his pocket and no understanding of the English language. Fleeing cultural and political persecution, he left everyone and everything he knew behind – for a chance to start over in America.

Winter’s Heat, cooked by Abdraimov on his graduation night.(Photo/Ruslan Abdraimov)

He knew one person in New York, who loaned him his sofa and told him about Emma’s Torch. Abdrainmov applied to the pilot program in 2017 and became a student in the first graduating cohort at Emma’s Torch.

Abdraimov remembers making 12 dishes on his graduation night. “I can’t choose a favorite,” he laughs. “It’s like asking [me] to pick [a] favorite child.”

But four of the dishes made him especially proud – a combination he calls “Winter’s Heat.” The roasted buckwheat katah, celery potato mash, sauerkraut stir fried with German sausage, and deep fried mushroom stuffed meatballs use all the vegetables available during winters in Russia. “Winters in a large part of Russia are long and cold. And you have to eat a lot to keep yourself warm,” he says with a smile.

Abdraimov describes his experience at Emma’s Torch as more than just an education in the culinary arts.“You know, it’s one thing when you hear about different countries and religions, but the other thing is, when you actually have a chance to meet that person and spend some time in a kitchen with that person, you know, and be around them every day, like for eight to 10 hours a day,” he said, nodding his head. “You learn a lot. And behind all that history, it’s something universal -- things like kindness, friendship.”

As Brodie shifts her focus to the students and alumni, the flames of Lady Liberty’s fire continue to burn at Emma’s Torch, which has transformed into a take-out cafe. As it was before the pandemic, the menu remains “New American cuisine,” cooked by New Americans.

‘Not Your Mother’s Potato Latkes’

As published in the Columbia News Service

‘Not Your Mother’s Potato Latkes’

Lily Lopate

Kosher Culinary Center co-founder and director Perline Dayan in the teaching kitchen. (Photo/Lily Lopate)

Kosher cooking has a lot of rules, but that doesn’t mean that learning kosher cooking isn’t fun. During a pastry workshop at the Kosher Culinary Center in Brooklyn in July, the students — six women, one teenage boy and one man — were tasting bite-sized cocoa pear muffins that had just emerged from the oven. “These muffins are perfect for a ladies’ brunch, bridal shower or bris,” said Avram Wiseman, 64, the Center’s co-founder and chef. As the class inspected the flecks of melted chocolate and grated pears, the teenage student looked despondently at a muffin that overflowed in the baking tray. Wiseman noticed. “What do we do with our mistakes?” he asked. “We eat them!”

There’s plenty of humor at the Kosher Culinary Center, especially since it reopened to full capacity cooking classes this summer. Located in Sheepshead Bay, between Marine Park and Mill Basin, the center offers recreational cooking classes, a catering business and a professional culinary training program.

Because people experience faith at varying degrees, the center’s aim is inclusivity, and its students make up an eclectic mix of Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews. “We cater to everyone regardless of how religious they are,” said the center’s director and co-founder, Perline Dayan, 53. “One does not need to have knowledge of kashrut laws prior to starting our program.”

This attempt to create common ground, through food, among segments of the Jewish population that may otherwise be isolated from each other has made the center a place for members of the Jewish Brooklyn community to connect or reconnect. Recreational and professional classes are open to men and women, ages 16 and older. And things are getting busy again now that in-person gatherings are less restricted than they were last summer. “Once people got vaccinated, our class size shot up,” said Dayan.

The increased number of students has inspired the school to apply for full accreditation, which would grant it an added degree of recognition as an educational institution. It’s currently the only trade school licensed by the state of New York to teach the skills needed to work in the kosher food industry.

In addition to its classes, the center’s also seen an increase of customers who book the venue for social events. People come for Jewish Singles Night or Culinary Date Night. “The date nights always fill up fast,” said Dayan. “A few couples meet for the first time and make a signature cocktail, kalamata olive focaccia and the chef’s choice of hors d’oeuvres.” The center has also resumed catering for large party events up to 50 people, a significant increase from the 10-person average last summer.

The center certainly has the look of a place where serious cooking happens. In the airy, industrial-sized teaching kitchen are red cupboards filled with baking tools, large pieces of cookware hang from a pot rack that wraps around the ceiling and students wearing black aprons work at long silver tables. A Star of David and printouts of Hebrew prayers are taped to the entryway wall. Opposite the sink, a framed plaque displays the kosher certification signed by two rabbis from the Northern American Kosher Supervision. If it weren’t for these hints of Judaism, the Kosher Culinary Center — which founders say is the only school outside of Israel to offer professional training in the kosher culinary arts — looks just like any professional cooking school.

Wiseman’s classes are the most popular, said Dayan. “Students love him,” she said. It is easy to see why: his sense of humor and playfulness in the kitchen allows him to quote apt lessons from the Torah as he’s teaching. In a class on “quick dry breads,” Wiseman asked, “What is the origin of unleavened bread?” And when students answered “Passover,” he explained further. “When Pharoah agreed to let the Israelites go, they hurried out of Egypt. They were in such a hurry they could not let their bread rise all the way so they took it with them just as it was starting to rise. So, there you go — quick bread.”

Wiseman teaches classes in both the professional and recreational tracks. Recreational classes are shorter and focus on one theme, like breads, desserts or meats. Professional classes are much more intensive. They include 216 hours (or 54 days) of hands-on training in technical professional skills and techniques. Courses last 11-16 weeks, and participants must enter with a high school diploma or equivalent degree to obtain a certificate from the culinary program. Students are drilled on how to cook safely and skillfully in a kosher environment, and the course’s difficulty escalates from knife skills to breads, starches, stocks, fish and meat.

The school also provides counseling, networking opportunities and interview preps to help students make the transition into a full-time culinary job. Come the end of the term, students in the professional classes must take a final exam to test their knowledge of kosher rules.

Before co-founding the center with Dayan in 2015, Wiseman had been teaching for several years, most recently at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn, which closed in November 2015. He had also worked in a variety of settings, including the United Nations, where he was the executive sous chef. In that role, he said, “I cooked for several presidents: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. Each one had their quirky favorites.” He also cooked there for Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Though he keeps kosher, Wiseman’s years in the culinary industry were spent cooking in non-kosher kitchens at a large, restaurant scale. His vast career network allows him to connect students with colleagues in the industry. “I’m doing this so people can gain a parnassah [the tools to make a decent living],” Wiseman said. It’s a way of passing on the trade through generations.

Avram Wiseman instructs a student on country biscuits during a class at the Kosher Culinary Center in Brooklyn. (Photo/Lily Lopate)

Dayan met Wiseman when she took a class of his in 2013 at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts. “It opened up a whole new world. I had never tasted a beet before,” she said. Dayan, like many of Wiseman’s students, is a career switcher. After years working in the trading firm Ladenburg Thalmann and Co., she wanted a change.When the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts was forced to close because it was operating without a license, Wiseman and Dayan decided to form a partnership. “I come from accounting and he’s a professional chef,” she said. “We decided to start our own school.”

Their vision was to create a modern twist on kosher cooking. “We do traditional Jewish foods, but we do them with style,” said Wiseman. “It’s not your mother’s potato latkes. We make it gourmet.” To stay relevant, they also teach a range of global cuisines including French, Italian, Vietnamese and Greek. Recently, at the request of one student, Sephardic dishes were added such as cassola (sweet cheese pancakes), buñuelos (puffed fritters with an orange glaze), keftes de espinaka (spinach patties), and keftes de prasa (leek patties).

For Dayan, an observant Jew, the kosher component was critical to the partnership. “If it wasn’t going to be a kosher school then I wouldn’t be here,” she said. To be fully compliant as “kashrut” (kosher), the kitchen must be supervised by a rabbi, and a certified “mashgiach” (the kitchen supervisor), must always be present. The kashrut rules are strict and unyielding: no meat can coexist with dairy in the kitchen and even meat and dairy utensils must be separated. Recently, a younger student entered class with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and, when asked whether it contained milk, was directed to go outside and immediately throw it away. It is common practice to toss out or “tear” food that is out of order. (The Yiddish word “treif” derives from the Hebrew word for torn).

Across the spectrum of Judaism, the level of piety in the kitchen may vary. A nostalgic relationship to Jewish cuisine is sometimes described derisively as “Kitchen Judaism,” referring to Jews for whom religion revolves mainly around food. At the center, the connection between faith and food is clearer. “There’s more to Judaism than just being Jewish and cooking at the same time,” said Dayan. “So, if we have someone who is new to Judaism, we educate them on aspects of the religion.”

But regardless of the degree of piety, once students come to the center, they are part of the “whole mishpachah” (family) as Leah Waronker, a recent high school graduate and volunteer at the center, described it. “To cook kosher is to have faith in Judaism,” she said. “There’s a real intimacy that comes from working inside this community. From the moment I first put on my apron, I was welcomed with warmth. I literally fell in love.”

Back in the kitchen classroom, the smell of baked apple and cinnamon fills the room as the students begin preparing country-style biscuits. “Gentlemen,” Wiseman said to the two males in the class, “when you’re working with the flaky dough, bring out your feminine side. Be tender.” If the dough lacks moistness, he recommended more kosher butter (a non-dairy substance akin to margarine). “We grab the block of frozen butter, and we grate it like mozzarella cheese into the bowl. Now, we add vanilla. Say it with me,” he said, waving a wooden spoon like a conductor. The class recited the words after him “van-i-ll-a, van-i-ll-a, van-i-ll-a.”

For Alla Dorch, an architect and student in the pastry class, baking kosher started as a peripheral activity and is now central to her life. “Cooking is usually something I do on the way to doing something else, you know?” she said. “I have my own design studio, so this started as something I could do with my family. But now I realize the crossover with architecture and pastry — both are very precise.” As Dorch’s interest in kosher culinary arts has grown, she is now considering starting a baking business. “It’s funny,” she said. “I used to go to synagogue to think about what comes next in my life. Now I come here.”

“The Whole Situation was Soaked in Love”

“The Whole Situation was Soaked in Love”

Lucy Soucek

Rev. Christine Davies, ordained Presbyterian minister. (Photo/ Christine Davies)

When Hope Fried first received the text from her staff chaplain, she burst into tears. Pacing her Manhattan apartment, her mind was racing. It was spring of 2021 and she was working the on-call shift of her chaplaincy residency at nearby Mt. Sinai hospital. The message came in at around nine in the evening explaining that a mother in the labor and delivery unit was preparing to give birth to a baby either stillborn or expected to pass away soon after birth. The mother was Roman Catholic, Spanish speaking, and she was asking for her child to be baptized.

Fried, 32, is Jewish. Normally, she would have called for a Catholic priest to conduct the baptism, but this was during the overnight shift. If the baby was born alive and they waited for the priest to make it over to the hospital, they ran the risk that the baby might die before the priest arrived.

Fried wasn’t allowed at the hospital during the overnight shift because of Covid restrictions. She had never been to a Catholic baptism, and now she would have to talk a doctor or a nurse through one from her living room on the phone in Spanish in the middle of the night during a pandemic. After her initial bout of panic, she realized that she had a choice to make. And that choice was experienced by many chaplains over the past year and a half.

“COVID made it so that in the times where you would call for a priest or you'd try to call for an Imam, that wasn't available,” said Fried. “So it asked more of us because just the logistics weren't really possible. I think a lot of chaplains were like, okay, we just have to show up with our full humanity.”

In hospitals across New York City, pandemic restrictions have forced chaplains to navigate novel and potentially uncomfortable situations in their attempts to administer care. But what has guided them through the last year and a half is training that prepares them to honor the belief systems of their patients, even when those belief systems are dramatically different from their own. Now, chaplains and chaplain educators are focusing on how to care for themselves so that they can care for others as they continue to practice both in person and remotely.

For Fried, growing up in a multi-religious household influenced her eventual path to chaplaincy. Her mom is Catholic and her dad is Jewish. Ever since she was young, she’s felt more connected to Judaism, although she’s never had a strong belief in God. That’s where her humanism comes in. She identifies as a Jewish Humanist, which means she is ethnically Jewish, but in terms of spiritual beliefs, she doesn’t believe in a higher power.

When deciding what she wanted to pursue in her career, religion felt important. She thought, if she was meant to become a rabbi, God would reach out. But that just never happened. And so she turned to chaplaincy. It was a way for her to still feel connected with her faith, despite not believing in a higher power, and it allowed her to just sit with people and help them navigate hardships.

“I thought, ‘maybe I should try chaplaincy,’” said Fried. “It doesn't have to be super religious, but you get to be with people; you get to accompany people.”

She attended Union Theological Seminary, graduating in the spring of 2020. After taking four units of Clinical Pastoral Education to become board certified and participating in a yearlong residency. She is now a staff chaplain at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.

It was during her residency that she navigated the baptism. And so on that night, Fried spoke with the doctor, who also happens to be Jewish, and they decided to make it happen. “We were both very firm,” Fried said. “I remember that feeling of being really grounded in our intention of like, we've been asked to do this; we are going to do this.”

After they made the decision, it was all about talking through logistics. Fried’s staff chaplain and clinical supervisor emailed her a guide to performing an emergency baptism, with details outlining the protocol, sample prayers and information on how to provide support over the phone.

She didn’t know Spanish, so she pulled up YouTube videos and practiced it with her husband over and over again, then walked the doctor through the ritual instructions on the phone. The doctor would need a little pill cup of sterilized water, which would act as holy water. Typically, holy water is water that has been blessed by a member of the clergy, but in the hospital, the protocol is different.

Dabble water on the baby’s forehead, and say:

“[Patient’s name,] Bautizo a ti en el nombre del Padre,” [I baptize you in the name of the Father].

Drop of water.

“y del Hijo.” [and the Son].

Drop of water.

“Y del Espiritu Santo,” [and the Holy Spirit].

Drop of water.


The baby was born at around 4:30am, alive. A nurse performed the baptism, though Fried doesn’t know their personal religion or language preference. And then, at 4:45am, Fried called the on-call priest to come to the hospital to bless the baby and provide an official document. The baby survived for a couple of hours and then died later that morning.

In the Catholic church, baptism is seen as a way to cleanse infants from the original sin they were born with, and to welcome them into the Catholic faith. So Fried says the family was deeply appreciative that they were able to perform the ritual and receive the certificate.

“I think sometimes we attend to the worst moments in people's lives,” said Fried. “We try to be present and accompany and we try to lessen, slightly, their spiritual distress, and I think having their baby baptized was able to slightly lessen some of that spiritual distress.”

Throughout this whole situation was the tension between Fried’s Jewish Humanism and the Catholic ritual that she was being asked to lead someone through. But Fried, relying on what she learned about being a hospital chaplain where they often have to navigate interfaith situations, thinks of it as an expression of love.

“If a family has this request and this is their ultimate expression of love and will provide some sense of spiritual relief to know that their baby has been baptized and blessed by God and will be accepted into heaven, I think that's an ultimate expression of love and I will perform it,” said Fried.

Hospital chaplains navigate these complicated situations every day, but many also benefit from a system of training called Clinical Pastoral Education that is in place to guide them. During her yearlong residency, Fried was guided by her education supervisor, Rev. David Fleenor. He is the director of education for the Center for Spirituality and Health and the Assistant Professor of Medical Education at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. He is also ordained as an Episcopal priest.

One idea that Fleenor, 46, taught Fried to keep at the forefront of her mind was to think about the context of the situation and how that determines her role as the chaplain. For Fried, the pandemic, the timing of the birth, the support she received from educators and other chaplains, and the importance of this ritual to the family all drove her decision to make sure it would happen.

“The whole situation was soaked in love,” Fleenor said. “People have their own convictions, but the beautiful work that she did was to dig deeper within herself and find that love was a deeper value; that love and care and compassion compelled her more to facilitate this meaningful ritual for this family, at such a profound time of loss in their life.”

Profound loss was ubiquitous throughout the pandemic. And hospital chaplains spent much of their time caring for not only patients and families, but staff as well. At Mount Sinai, chaplains had the option to administer care throughout the pandemic in person, and many did. Fleenor said their role of caring for staff at the hospital was vital and is too valuable for the field to be replaced by services done over the phone.

“What happens with chaplains is that they are embedded on units and they walk around and staff informally say, ‘Man I'm really struggling,’” said Fleenor. “They're not necessarily gonna reach out to the employee assistance program. But when the chaplain happens to be there, then they open up.”

But to be able to provide staff support, hospital chaplains also need to know how to take care of themselves.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the staff chaplains were able to administer care in person throughout the pandemic, just not in the rooms of COVID-19 patients. Figuring out how to sustain care and avoid compassion fatigue is now one of their primary concerns.

“It’s like everyone's taking a vacation or is sick or something,” said Rev. Christine Davies, ordained Presbyterian minister and the director of pastoral care at Robert Wood Johnson. “They're all dropping like flies just because of the sheer amount of suffering that they witnessed; It’s unparalleled. And so I think they’re still carrying a lot of that.”

Davies, 38, teaches Clinical Pastoral Care Education courses as well, and she says that much of what she teaches her students has to do with learning how to maintain their own emotional wellbeing so that they can care for others. Especially after this past year.

“Even right now, when we're not in a surge, I'm cognizant of my students’ cumulative exhaustion since the pandemic started,” said Davies. “A lot of it is helping them to see and acknowledge and be aware of their own feelings and emotions so that they can honor the emotions in others.”

For Fried, practicing chaplaincy during the pandemic will stay with her for a long time, and she’s learned to recognize when she might not be able to give the care she wishes she could. “I think it just really made me aware of how long lasting the intensity of the pain that we're asked to witness and hold is, and that that can become sort of ingrained in your body and needs to be processed over a longer period of time,” Fried said.

When she got home from her shift the day after the baptism, her husband ordered her favorite takeout dish, Pad Thai, and she spent the afternoon watching The Real Housewives and taking moments to cry. Fleenor and she have a running joke that she’s the crying chaplain.

“Your body needs to release the anguish and the fear and uncertainty,” Fried said. “All that needs to come out, and my way is through crying.”

Is online dating a more permissible option for Muslims?

Is online dating a more permissible option for Muslims?

Ammal Hassan

A user opens up the MuzMatch app. (Photo/Ammal Hassan)

The Muslim dating app Muzmatch has one of the boldest taglines in the world of online dating: “Muslims don't date – they marry.”

In one breath the statement encompases the views of Musim scholars’ Islamic interpretation of dating: unless it is done the right way, it is haram–forbidden by Islamic law.

With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, Muzmatch saw a massive surge in use, with a 45% increase in user downloads globally within the week of March 15 to March 22 2020. The app can be argued to have shown young Muslims a more halal–or permitted_way to form romantic connections online rather than in person. However, with cities opening up as COVID infection rates subside and populations receive their vaccines, will young Muslims continue meeting each other online?

That is the question that many Muslims are asking but the answer is not at all clear. It turns out that there are both advantages and disadvantages to the new dating technology. Some say that these apps are certainly more halal because of the way in which they limit physical contact, some say there are still ways to sin through the usage of the app.

Most agree, however, that the apps are certainly convenient. How permissible they are, ultimately all comes down to the intention of users.

Fahmida Rashid is a Long Island native who self describes as a “kind of quirky, weird person.” She believes her personality and unique sense of humor do not come across as well online as they do in person. But the pandemic forced her to limit her social interactions, so she took a chance on meeting a partner through dating apps like Muzmatch.

Now though, she and many others prefer to revert back to dating in person.

“I think I do prefer dating in person – have I done that before, or have experience with that? That's probably a no,” Rashid, 27, said, “[but] like going to the mosque, or like going to events, going for yoga, going to things I like and just trying to meet people that way, so that there's at least a commonality.”

In Islam, modern, Western definitions of dating should not exist. Islamic rules dictate a man and a woman should not be left alone for fear of committing physical sin. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad once said “whenever a man is alone with a woman, Satan is the third among them." Therefore, instead of modern ideas of dating, Islam encourages “dating” as a chaste, focused courtship with the purpose of marriage, which is not just between two people, but also with their families involved.

According to Islamic teachings, that is what should exist, however, despite the rulings, many Muslims have still dated alone, without the involvement of families and not always with the purpose of marriage. Apps like Muzmatch have tried to change this and create a more acceptable way for Muslims to date and marry.

Through the Muzmatch nature of being online, its marriage-focused marketing enables couples to add a third person to their private chat, the app caters to three important islamic rules around dating:

  1. It must always be done with the purposes of marriage.
  2. A mahram or chaperone must be present while a man and a woman get to know each other for marriage.
  3. By being online men and women do not risk the chance of pre-marital sexual relations.

Salams (formerly Minder) is another Muslim dating apps that has halal-friendly features such as a “stealth” mode where a user can pick who sees their profile. Both apps offer the option to have your photos blurred in an effort to guard modesty, a virtue that is highly encouraged in Islam. In effect, these newer Muslim dating apps create an experience more in line with Islamic practices, and Muzmatch founder Shahzad Younas agrees.

“The app is quite unashamedly, for Muslims looking to find a life partner, you know, and it's quite unashamedly not if you're just looking to date or mess around.” said Younas. “We make it quite clear, even when you build up your profile, of what isn't acceptable.”

While the experience may be close to Islam, the reality for many Muslims can be quite different.
“I may be a cynic, but I think it's a little bit naive to think that it makes [dating] more halal because in my experience, it hasn't,” said Rashid.

This is not the case for all Muslims who began using dating apps during the pandemic. Halima Aweis, a Muslim woman from Rochester, whose videos on her experiences using dating apps like Muzmatch and Salams, are popular on Tik Tok amongst many other young Muslims. For Aweis, the pandemic showed her a more halal and convenient way to date, especially with long-distance, which she prefers. Aweis says that she intends to stick to Muslim dating apps even as New York opens up from pandemic restrictions.

“Because of not being able to be around each other in person for long periods of time, the fact that the vast majority of your communication is virtual, whether it's on FaceTime or on the phone, and that you're kind of limited because of proximity because your ‘x thousand’ miles away, you're not given the opportunity to do lots of free mixing and engage in things that like aren't permissible,” she said.

The benefit of these apps, as the six people interviewed for this story have agreed, is that it is certainly a convenient way to meet potential partners. Chastity McFadden, a Muslim woman who both converted to Islam and tried out Muslim dating apps during the pandemic, found that the apps broadened her reach.

“I think what apps could do is help you date outside of your small circle, which tends to be like, one culture, one area, one idea of what Islam is and sometimes that [is hard to do] in your space, so finding people that don't exist in that space might make it actually easier,” said McFadden.

The apps certainly do their best to try to create a halal environment, but at the end of the day, it all ultimately comes down to the intent of users – a point that Younas was sure to make.

Farwah Sheikh, a nutritionist and host of Spill the Chai podcast, which discusses dating as a Muslim, adds onto this by explaining that connecting on dating apps still holds some haram elements as they are based off of physical attraction, but what comes of that is the intention of users.

“You are swiping based off of someone's aesthetic, like right off of their physical appearance, because you're attracted to them to some extent and then the conversation can lead to a place where when you do meet you do want to become physical because you've built up that [attraction],” said Sheikh, “or, it really just eliminates that physical factor [of meeting] and you just get to know someone and then you know you move from there – I think it's the intention of the person, of how they're going in talking to somebody.”

Though some may argue that dating online is still a much more innocent option than dating in-person because of the reduced risk to physically sin, Salwa Ameen a Muslim marriage life coach said that dating digital does not actually reduce the risk of sinning. Conversation on the app may still be inappropriate, including the exchange of elicit photos.

Because of the subjective nature of human intention, despite the apps’ purposes to create a more halal environment for dating, many Muslims, particularly women, have had to deal with inappropriate advances. Because of this they agree with Rashid’s point of view.

Sanjida Rashid, who is the twin-sister to Fahima and has used several Muslim dating apps, spoke about how her own personal experiences with inappropriate behavior on the apps is what makes her prefer prefer dating in person.

“In person I feel that there's still a level of decorum, but online, people feel brave enough to say whatever they want,” Rashid, 27, said. “I had one guy straight up ask me to send nudes and it’s like I just couldn't even believe I was on a Muslim dating app.”

In addition to this, more features like the option for a chaperone or the option to blur a user’s photos do exist to allow a user to make their experience more halal, however, they are optional.

Rashid also expressed that though the feature of a chaperone was not available to her while she was using the Muslim dating apps, she would not have opted for the feature anyway because for her, privacy is necessary from the beginning.

“I don't know who the chaperone would be, whether it would be my parents or my sister, but I just feel that's weird because when you put a third person in the circle, it changes the dynamics of the communication,” she said.

Further, many Muslims believe that dating in person is the way to go simply because it is the best way to truly know the other person.

“I think the apps have this way of hiding who people fully are and you can’t understand even simple things like if your energies mesh well,” said McFadden. “It’s easier to hide the bad stuff about yourself on an app than it is in person.”

As things stand, many Muslims plan to revert back to dating in-person, however, the convenience of the apps has shown to be beneficial. For that reason Ameen believes that even with more people dating in person, dating online is still here to stay.

“I don't think that seeking a partner online will ever really go away,” said Ameen.

From the streets to the sanctuary

From the streets to the sanctuary

Kayla Steinberg

Don Abram (left) and other protestors at a Black Lives Matter Event (Photo/Brianna Lawrence)

Don Abram was something of a prodigy growing up in his church in Chicago. As a 14-year-old in an oversized pinstripe suit, Abram preached from the pulpit of the Greater New Mount Eagle Missionary Baptist Church for the first time. When he finished, the crowd was on its feet.

But after he publicly came out as queer, Abram, 27, said he lost speaking invitations from pastors. One person even revoked an invitation.

Abram said the pastors offered seemingly innocuous excuses, like scheduling conflicts. But he thinks they silently were uncomfortable with his expression of his sexuality. “They just don’t say the quiet part out loud,” said Abram.

Elements of the Black church certainly have a problem with individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. But after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman and the nationwide protest movement that resulted, Abram believed there was an opportunity to help his community.

“I saw a renewed interest among the Black church to start having conversations around intersectional justice,” he said. “I thought that it was an opportune time for the Black church to recommit itself to freedom, liberation and justice for all of God’s children, including LGBTQ+ folks.”

So, Abram took to the streets.

He trekked to protests across Chicago, feet hurting, carrying a cardboard sign that read, in black letters, “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE.”

Abram refused to be silent. It was his spiritual beliefs — his belief in human dignity, a belief that all of us are children of God — that brought him to protest.

“It’s not just a cis, straight Black man who needs to be advocated for,” said Abram, who earned his Master’s of Divinity at Harvard but was never ordained by a church. “It’s also women, it’s also queer folk, it’s also differently abled folks.”

He wanted to make an effort to include them in a space he knows well: the Black church.

In March, Abram launched Pride in the Pews, an organization dedicated to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the Black church. For its “Can I Get a Witness” project, Pride in the Pews is collecting 66 stories of queer Christians in the Black church, corresponding to the 66 books of the Bible. Abram hopes those stories will inspire change.

And change might be happening elsewhere. Earlier this month, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the largest Black Methodist denominations in the world, voted to create a committee that will study LGBTQ+ matters.

Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, the fourteenth historiographer of the AME Church, said the church has been discussing LGBTQ+ issues on-and-off for a number of years. Now that the AME General Conference passed the resolution, church leaders will look deeply into them.

The committee will study texts that discuss sexuality, hear testimonials from Black LGBTQ+ people within and outside the AME Church and propose legislation addressing the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the AME Church, all by the church’s 2024 General Conference. Abram and Dr. Jennifer Leath, a co-author of the resolution and the pastor of Campbell Chapel AME Church in Denver, spoke about a possible collaboration for the testimonials, though nothing is set just yet.

Leath, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, sees encouraging conversation about how the church views LGBTQ+ individuals as a “defense of my own dignity.” And, she said, “there are many, many others who are like me.”

Don Abram and Pastor Frederick E. Wilson, Sr. Greater New Mt. Eagle M. B Church in Chicago

The typical Black church stance toward LGBTQ+ people has been “don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Ronald Hopson, a professor of psychology and pastoral care at Howard Divinity School who teaches about sexuality and the Black church. Of course, he added, LGBTQ+ individuals have always been in the church.

“There’s a kind of anecdotal lore that the Black church would not have music without gay men,” he said.

But being gay has historically been considered a sin, said Hopson. At some churches, those who are openly LGBTQ+ could be ostracized or asked not to participate in a church role. Some LGBTQ+ church leaders might alternatively seek forgiveness from the church and ask to be allowed to continue in their leadership roles. Other LGBTQ+ church leaders might leave altogether, like the late writer James Baldwin, who ministered as a teenager.

Hopson attributes change to Black women in theological education, womanists (who see society and the world through Black women’s experiences) and young people who he said “have not been socialized with the same prejudices and bigotry that two generations of earlier people were raised with.” He considers BLM to be part of this larger, preexisting effort to create change.

The Rev. Vanessa M. Brown also credits young people with shifting the conversation in the church. The pastor and founder of Rivers of Living Water UCC, an LGBTQ+ affirming, “radically inclusive” congregation in the Upper West Side and in Newark, New Jersey, said before the Black Lives Matter movement was born, churches saw an exodus of young congregants who did not want to be part of an institution that wasn’t more inclusive.

“I don’t think Black Lives Matter is driving change,” she said. “It is young people who are helping churches to see that if you can’t open up, if you can’t really be inclusive, then I don’t want to be here.”

Brown, 50, knew she liked girls at around 12 but still married a man. She’ll never forget a conversation with her dad on her wedding day. “My own father said to me, ‘You look beautiful, but you don't look happy,’” said Brown.

She worried about what others would think of her and how it would reflect on her church if she walked away, if she left her fiancé at the altar. So she didn’t. Amid the divorce, which came just months later, Brown decided to leave the church.

But her friends encouraged her to start her own.

“The more you exclude, the more you run people away,” said Brown. “And people are looking for inclusive places to be themselves, whatever that looks like for them.”

But Rivers of Living Water is an exception. Many Black churches today, like Ebenezer Gospel Tabernacle in Harlem, do not fully affirm LGBTQ+ people. That’s a stance they attribute to several Bible passages, like Leviticus 20:13. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them,” the verse reads.

The Harlem church welcomes everyone in prayer but not in leadership, said Jonathan Springer, a minister.

“If you’re preaching or teaching or in a position of authority, and you’re not living a lifestyle that’s consistent with the word, you have to go through a period of reconciliation or you have to step to the side,” Springer, 32, said.

Black Lives Matter has not changed Ebenezer Gospel Tabernacle’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues.

“I don't think that Black Lives Matter has influenced our church to think more reflectively from a theological perspective or from a sociological perspective about LGBT rights,” said Springer.

Hopson interprets Bible passages on sexuality differently. Considering the Hebrew, he said, can make the Leviticus verse about what distinguishes Jews and non-Jews rather than about homosexuality as an abomination. Hopson said some pastors understand that the verse doesn’t necessarily pertain to homosexuality but thinks they don’t want to disrupt harmony in their churches.

Abram hopes to create change on a larger scale — not through the Bible but through a different set of stories, those collected in Pride in the Pews’ “Can I Get a Witness” project. He imagines congregants will sit and listen to the wisdom from the stories, learn from them and create change.

“The same way that those texts and stories teach us about God and how we should relate to one another, the stories of queer and trans folks will teach us about God and how we should relate to one another,” said Abram. “Because our stories are sacred, too.”

Abram said he never believed homosexuality was bad though he recognized there was shame associated with it. He said he had tried to embody a sort of toxic masculinity. But it was more to secure his safety, he said, than because he believed being queer was problematic.

As time passed, he wanted to stand up for the LGBTQ+ community. Abram said so many people can’t be fully who they are because they have internalized anti-LGBTQ+ theologies. “For me, that is not what God has called us to do,” he said. “It is not the life that God wants for us.”