It’s three o’clock when I jump off my bike at The Bridge Centre, a community centre in Nottingham’s Hyson Green area. I’m spending the afternoon with Salaam Shalom Kitchen, a new project that aims to bring together Nottingham’s Jewish and Muslim communities through the preparation of food.
As I make my way to the centre—which looks confusingly like a church—a woman passes me, holding a traditional Turkish dessert.
“Are you here to volunteer?” she asks. “I can’t stay this week, it’s Ramadan in the morning!”
I’m met by Farouk Azam, a community organiser in Hyson Green and active member of Himmah, the Muslim led charity that co-organises the project.
“We don’t call it a soup kitchen,” he explains, as ingredients are ushered quickly into the kitchen. “We want to make it so that everyone feels equal, as we are. We’re building a community, not acting out of pity.”
The weekly cafe has been serving meals for just a few weeks, but word of their work has already spread around the city. Tonight, we’re catering for 60 people, all of whom are served three courses for free, regardless of religion or ability to pay.
“Both the Jewish and Muslim communities face prejudice from parts of our society,” Azam tells me, when I ask why he volunteers there. “Preparing food gives you a chance to get talking to other people, you interact and get to know each other. Food brings people together.”
The small open kitchen at the end of the hall is a hive of activity as this week’s chef, Shirley Hocking, briefs her team of volunteers on the service that’s to follow.
“We have two hours of cooking to do,” Hocking explains as the volunteers pick up their knives. “And service starts at 6 PM.”
The chefs and their gang change on a weekly basis, but each team includes both Jewish and Muslim volunteers. On the menu tonight is a roasted red pepper and basil soup, followed by jacket potatoes with a vegetarian chili.
Dishes are always strictly vegetarian, which makes the dietary rules of Kashrut and Halal far simpler to navigate. There are plans to expand to cooking traditional dishes from each faith, but it seems that this week’s chef has kept it simple: a healthy dinner made with fresh ingredients at just £1 per head. The Kitchen hopes that keeping their costs down will allow them to continue running project.
Away from the kitchen, two volunteers, John Youens and an older man who is introduced to me as Dr. Roaf, take a break from prepping courgettes.
“Food has always, through our history, been a focal point,” Roaf explains to Youens, as they discuss their respective cultures. “It’s one of the things that God has given to us. We sit down with our family and eat. It’s the same in both communities and could have pulled us together all along.”
“Us too!” says Youens. “The Sabbath meal is the highlight of our week.”
Strictly to time, by 5 PM prep is over and the volunteers sit together, grasping cups of tea. I’m soon called into the kitchen to sample the soup, which is sprinkled with parsley and drizzled with generous amounts of cream.
As the room begins to fill up for 6 PM service, Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich’s teenage son dons an apron, transforming into an impromptu maître d’ for the evening. Jacket potatoes submerged with chili fly out of the kitchen.
“Poverty leads to isolation and shame,” Bilal Hussain, another Himmah organiser tells me in the midst of the busy service. “This project puts put people in a situation where they meet the primary need of eating, but can also relax and chat to other people, which makes our lives worth living.”
Nottingham is no stranger to the damaging effects of poverty. According to the Office of National Statistics, it’s the poorest city in the UK, with an average individual income some £5,000 below the national average. In 2012, child poverty was estimated to be at 35 percent.
“Firstly we want to feed the hungry, it’s a mitzvah, a good deed under Jewish law,” adds Sakhnovich, who leads Nottingham’s Liberal Jewish congregation. “Helping the poor is intrinsic to Judaism, and Islam too. Food plays a vital role in Jewish tradition—everything starts and finishes with food.”
As she gestures to the room, alive with dialogue between people from different backgrounds and faiths, the second aim becomes clear.
“We want to be example of community cohesion; our communities are often unfairly separated by international conflicts,” Sakhnovich explains. “We need to show this city, this country, and the world that a relationship between our communities is possible.”
Some areas of Nottingham have long struggled with community cohesion. In 2005, a Muslim man was stabbed to death in an Islamophobic attack and over the past 12 months, Himmah co-founder Sajid Mohammed says he has noted a rise in both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the city. Growing up in a Jewish household myself, I was frustrated by the sometimes inward-looking nature of the religious community.
Salaam Shalom Kitchen volunteers hope that actively seeking relationships with other faiths that extend beyond “official” business could go some way to ease these tensions. And with recent Nottingham City Council hopefuls caught sharing Islampahobic content on Facebook, a united front can only be useful.
“This is the most diverse area in Nottingham, and probably the country too, over 30 communities in one square mile,” says Azam, as he surveys the chatting volunteers and customers. “We can’t all communicate in words, but the language of food is universal.”