From Commack To Tuba-Zangariya
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From Commack To Tuba-Zangariya

With a nun on staff, and outreach to local and Arab-Israeli Muslims, the Suffolk Y JCC redefines community.

It’s called the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack, L.I., but it’s more like the county’s ecumenical heart.

Drop by on a Monday or Wednesday afternoon and you’re likely to see Sister Yolanta in her black-and-white habit serving food to a group of senior citizens.

Come back again and you might find Nazli Chaudhry, the Muslim chaplain at Hofstra University and board member of the Islamic Center of Long Island, working with three different groups of high school and college students from all different backgrounds.

One evening each month the Y’s Olympic-size swimming pool is closed to men to accommodate observant Jewish and Muslim women.

Next month, 10 local college students (five Jewish and five Muslim) will fly to Israel to spend 10 days with 10 Israelis (five Jewish and five Muslim) as part of a UJA-Federation of New York-funded program called HAMSA (Heroes Are Made Through Service and Action).

During the trip, the group plans to drive to the Galilee to meet with residents of the Bedouin-Arab Israeli village of Tuba-Zangariya. The mosque there was seriously damaged last month in what police called an arson attack carried out by West Bank settlers, and its outside wall was defaced with Hebrew graffiti. The blaze, which was believed to be a reprisal for Palestinian attacks on West Bank settlers, charred the walls and burned carpets and holy books.

Block said the Y and the Islamic Center of Long Island plan to buy either prayer rugs or copies of the Koran — whichever the mosque needs most — to help replace those that were destroyed; HAMSA participants plan to bring the items with them.

Although this type of outreach to the broader community may be considered unusual for a such a center — a spokeswoman for the JCC Association said she “doesn’t know of any other” JCCs with such programming — it has been warmly embraced.

At the same time, Block pointed out, there is no mistaking that this is a Jewish facility. Near the pool is Suffolk’s only community mikveh; a few steps away is the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame; upstairs is the Jewish Military Hall of Heroes; and at the other end of the building is the Jewish Children’s Museum.

“We have been able to do all that we do without sacrificing one bit the Jewish feeling you get when walk in the door and bring everyone under the same roof,” he said.

Block, who came to the JCC 29 years ago and has been its executive director since 1995, said he started outreach efforts in June 1993 after the JCC held a program to discuss the swastikas and anti-Semitic hate messages that had been painted on the track of Commack High School.

“I looked at the audience and saw that everyone was Jewish — we were talking to ourselves,” Block said. “I realized we did not have relationships with the broader community in order to have the kind of dialogue we wanted.”

One of his first institutions he approached was the YMCA in Huntington. The two facilities now permit members to use each other’s gym and pool when their own are closed. And they have banded together to place both their logos on gift bags given to new mothers at Huntington Hospital.

Then, after the 9/11 attacks, Block reached out to the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.

“I called and asked them if I could come by,” Block recalled. “I found them to be not only inviting but thankful that it was the JCC that was making the overture.”

Sanaa Eldik of Smithtown, L.I., who serves as the Muslim chaplain at Stony Brook University, said the JCC’s activities “embody what a community center should be like. It opens a whole new world of thought and opportunity by bringing in others and giving them a chance to see how others feel. I think this is monumental for the next generation.”

Her son, Yaseen, 21, who participated in the HAMSA program three years ago, recalled that the Jews and Muslims really bonded the last night of the Israel trip when they were asked to stay inside because of Arab-Israeli “turmoil that broke out in Jerusalem.

“There was warmth and love while outside there was conflict,” he said. “Our unity gave us a ray of hope and reminded us that what we are doing can really make a change.”

A Jewish participant, Peter Mastrocinque, 21, of King Park, who was in HAMSA two years ago, said that when the Israelis complained that it was “a lot easier for Jews and Muslims in America to have close friendships,” he told them his father had been killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

“I told them that hate for Muslims never came across my mind because of what happened to my father,” he said. “I was in tears when I finished and they all came over to shake my hand.”

Fred Troll, 77, of East Northport, L.I. said he has been a member of the JCC since retiring 10 years ago. He said he is Catholic and lives near the JCC but planned to join the YMCA in Huntington “because I didn’t know if I would be allowed there.”

“But [the JCC] welcomed me with open arms,” he recalled. “I just wanted a place that was clean, with no stupid rules and friendship, and I got it all.”

Troll said he now runs the current events club for seniors, puts out their newsletter four times a year and is now working to bring the Israeli Scouts back to the Y, on their annual visit.

“I love coming here and having my kosher lunch served by a Catholic nun,” he added. “She’s a wonderful lady; very friendly.”

Sister Yolanta is studying for her master’s of social work degree at C.W. Post College in Brookville. A member of the Missionary Sisters of St. Benedict, she moved here from Ukraine in 2008 and lives in St. Joseph’s Guest Home for the Aged in Huntington, with other 20 other nuns who care for 45 elderly patients.

As part of her college studies, Sister Yolanta was required to perform an internship. But after the college had difficulty finding an institution willing to accept her, Block offered her a position at the JCC. The nuns, members of the Missionary Sisters of St. Benedict, had met Block several years earlier when checking out the JCC’s pool for one of their members, Sister Pia, who needed it for therapeutic purposes.

Sister Matea, the Sister Superior, accepted Block’s offer, she said, having heard from Sister Pia that members of the JCC were “so nice and made her feel so comfortable.”

Block described Sister Yolanta as “a warm, sweet, caring, spiritual woman — you couldn’t ask for better.”

Ann Abusch Freifeld, director of the center’s senior adult department, echoed that observation and added: “Everybody likes her, and I had such a fabulous feeling the other day seeing her having a wonderful conversation with a Holocaust survivor as they walked down the hall. I couldn’t help thinking how fantastic this place is that it promotes that kind of interaction. I’m not sure a lot of places would do this.”

David Mallach, managing director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish People, said each JCC “has its own community and figures out how to be most effective in responding to its needs. We don’t dictate programs to the JCCs. Obviously the lay and professional leadership in Suffolk said it made sense for them to reach out. … It is responding effectively to their community and the needs they see as most relevant.”

Although this type of outreach is unusual, Mallach pointed out that the JCC in Washington Heights has a “relationship with the Dominican Republic. … The Educational Alliance has done work with drug and alcohol addiction. Each reflects the community in which they live.”

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Yochanan Bechler, executive director of the Community Center in the French Hill section of Jerusalem, said he arranged for the HAMSA participants to visit the village whose mosque was torched later this month and to meet with young people their age.

“We have to go there and speak to them and see if [the two groups] can connect,” Bechler said.

He pointed out that the arson attack prompted a visit from President Shimon Peres because it was “so shocking to most people.”

Bechler said the items the HAMSA group will bring the village will be largely “symbolic” because the State of Israel will pay restoration costs. But the very fact the HAMSA group is making the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the village “to talk is significant — a demonstration of our interest in what happened.

“This is a village where most people serve in the army,” he added. “This is a friendly Arab village.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said, “What the Suffolk Y JCC is doing goes beyond dialogue – being there after the mosque is burned down and traveling to Israel together,” he said. “I know from Joel Block that they have a genuine commitment and passion for strengthening relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Suffolk County.”

Block, who said he plans to fly with the HAMSA group to Israel next month, was asked if the JCC raises money for Jews in Israel who have been attacked by Arab terrorists.

“Throughout the year we raise money for Israel through our support for the UJA-Federation campaign, which supports all the myriad issues facing Israel,” he replied. “It’s OK if one day out of 365 we, in partnership with the Islamic Center, do something for a mosque in need in Israel. … I think our role as human beings should be to stand up to injustice wherever it occurs.”

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