When members from Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings and Temple Israel in New Rochelle joined other religious groups and Westchester community members in White Plains for a solidarity rally recently to affirm their support for immigrants, and protest Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban and the construction of a wall between Mexico and the United States, it wasn’t surprising.
“What’s going on now is a natural extension of the life of the synagogue,” said Rabbi Edward Schechter of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings.
The down payment established by a foundation of close connections between Jews and Muslims (as well as other faith groups) here in the county long before the election of President Trump last November has delivered powerful dividends during the unsettling climate that’s taken hold since the inauguration.
Members of the Westchester Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapters joined with their counterparts from the New York and Long Island chapters at a 140-person unity vigil at Jewish Theological Seminary in mid-February, concurrently with similar vigils around the country. Some also participated in a mission to Azerbaijan in March, where they met with members from different faith communities as well as political figures.
The Upper Westchester Muslim Society issued a condemnation of the recent bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and the desecration of the St. Louis Jewish Cemetery. And the Westchester Interfaith Clergy also delivered a statement condemning the bomb threats against the two Westchester JCCs.
Yet there is more to these relationships than a show of solidarity when there are anti-Semitic attacks and joining hands at protests and rallies.
Richard Cohen, co-chair of the interfaith relations committee at AJC Westchester/Fairfield, specifically became involved two years ago “to do Muslim outreach.” His approach is not on events and programs, but “to form individual relationships between Muslims and Jews, to build relationships and friendships.”
Cohen added, “it’s about replacing distortion with knowledge. When mainstream Jews and mainstream Muslims better understand each other and create alignments, and once friendship and rapport are developed, you can have discussions.”
This past Sukkot, for example, 35 Jewish hosts mingled with 35 Muslim guests to have an informal gathering, punctuated by readings and prayers, in White Plains’ Bet Am Shalom sukkah.
Mona Abramson, a native Israeli who grew up with Arab neighbors in Jaffa and chairs the Westchester Jewish Council’s interfaith and intergroup relations committee, is focusing on “creating bridges.”
“Being from the Middle East, I want to create human connections. If we can look at each other as human beings, it changes,” she said.
Recognizing that the Westchester Jewish Council is an umbrella organization that connects organizations and groups, “We’re more behind the scenes,” Abramson said. “We sit down and hear what’s going on. It’s about bringing people together and seeing what else can be done. … It’s about giving tools to people.”
One of those with a long-standing interest in expanding that toolbox by providing the Muslim viewpoint is Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan. As a founder of the American Muslim Women’s Association in Westchester, Dr. Hassan has been eager to share her faith and explain it to non-Muslims even before the 9-11 attacks made her mission more urgent. Working with the AJC here, Dr. Hassan has acted as an informal ambassador to local synagogues and temples in the county.
Still, “For every step forward, we take two steps back,” said Dr. Hassan. “Through relationships, we can feel each other’s pain. We see each other as Americans. There are always going to be minorities. We feel we need each other. You cannot be Muslim if you don’t accept Judaism as a religion of God, or Christianity as a religion of God.”