Fasting around the World: A Celebration of Diversity and Culture at UNMC ID

Infectious Diseases is a specialty that is inherently diverse, if you consider our patient population and the constellation of diseases we treat.  Our UNMC ID division is a diverse and welcoming community, encompassing faculty, fellows, nurses, advanced practice providers and staff from different cultures, languages, race/ethnicities, geographic origin and faiths.

Three of our faculty, Drs. Nada Fadul, Salman Ashraf, and Razan El-Ramahi, are Muslim and have been observing Ramadan for the past month.  In celebration of the diversity of culture and traditions in our ID division, Drs. Fadul (far right), Ashraf (center) and El-Ramahi (far left) coordinated our division’s inaugural annual Ramadan Iftar (breaking the fast) event on May 24th 2019 – Fasting around the World: A Celebration of Diversity and Culture.

In this celebration, we learned about what fasting means in various faiths, from representatives of those faiths within our division and UNMC.

Pastor Joyce Miller is a Lutheran minister and chaplain at Nebraska Medicine and has been a pillar of comfort for grieving faculty, staff and patient families during illness and death. She began by acknowledging that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity share similar roots, therefore it is no surprise that there are similar customs among these faiths. Miller shared the major fasting period of Christianity – Lent – is an important 40-day period of prayer, charity and alms-giving in preparation for Easter.

Kate Tyner, an Infection Preventionist working with the Nebraska Antimicrobial Stewardship Assessment and Promotion Program (ASAP), shared about fasting specifically within the Catholic faith. She related that before the Vatican II council decision, Catholics observed strict abstinence from meat on Fridays, but that after the decision, this strict abstinence was relaxed outside of the Lenten period. Tyner also shared a beautiful quote about what fasting means: “The willingness to deny ourselves awakens in us a capacity to give ourselves in greater love to our faith.” (Adapted from Magnificat daily devotion provided by Father Donald Haggerty).

Bryan Alexander, an ID Pharmacist working with the Antimicrobial Stewardship program, shared about fasting in the Orthodox Christian faith, which we learned is a stricter fasting regimen, including fasting from meat, wine, dairy and fish with backbones on Wednesdays and Fridays, and approximately 180-200 days of limited fasting per year. Alexander related that the purpose of the limited fasting was to “simplify your diet to focus on your day”, and that the act of fasting makes feasting more joyful, especially with the communal nature of the feasts at the end of a fast.

Dr. Raj Karnatak, a senior ID fellow, shared what fasting means in the Hindu faith. The Sanskrit word for fast is Upvaas, which means “staying near God”. He shared that in his culture, different foods carry various implications. Food is divided into three categories 1) Sattvic food: fruits, vegetables and dairy. 2) Rajsic food: Spicy food, garlic, onion (Believed to create unrest in mind). 3) Tamsic food: Meat, fish, and eggs (can serve to decrease spiritual enhancement); therefore, fasting often involves abstinence from Rajsic and Tamsic foods. People can fast in different ways in Hinduism – complete abstinence from all food/water, abstinence from only food, limiting intake to just one meal per day, or even abstinence from speaking (Maunvrat). He reminded us that fasting has been used as a political/social justice tool, as Mahatma Gandhi did fasting for human rights.

Nowairah Syed, a teacher at Noor Academy and wife of Dr. Ashraf, shared about fasting in Islam. The fasting month of Ramadan (which means dryness or scorching heat) occurs in the 9th lunar month, with daily fasts (abstaining from food and water) from sunrise to sunset. The daily breaking of fast is called Iftar. Dr. Fadul shared that in Sudan, men would sit outside in the community with food around sunset so that if someone was too weak from fasting to make it inside their homes, they could celebrate Iftar wherever they were at sunset, a testament to the strong sense of community responsibility. Because it is based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan can last for 29-30 days and is at a different time every year. Syed shared that Ramadan is a reminder for Muslims to be better people, both spiritually and physically, refraining from anger and frustration. It is a reminder to exercise patience, understand others and giving to charity. The fast is broken daily with dates and water, and at the end of Ramadan, called Eid, Muslims gather to celebrate with a big Feast.

After hearing about fasting in different faiths, there was spirted discussion and sharing as the group waited for sundown at 8:43pm on that evening, then it was time to feast. There was so much food there that everyone was filled and still had enough to take home leftovers. It was an event where after sharing this occasion with friends and colleagues, and learning about different cultures, one left feeling full both physically and spiritually, regardless of individual faith backgrounds.

Drs. Fadul and Ashraf were previously colleagues together at another institution where they created this tradition, and Dr. El-Ramahi joined them here; we are thrilled that they have shared it with us here at UNMC. We hope that in subsequent years the event is even bigger, expanding to the Department of Medicine and beyond, so that more people can share this special occasion, learn about different cultures, and recognize the impact of diversity in our lives.

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