Baltimore — Like other members of this city’s tight-knit and closely packed Jewish community, attorney Phil Abraham heard a rumor last year about the fate of an empty building that recently had served as the site of an assisted-living facility: a mosque was moving into the Slade Mansion, right across the street from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a prominent Reform temple which Abraham serves as president.
Convinced that the Ahmadiyya sect, with which the mosque is affiliated, is “peaceful,” an often-persecuted reformist movement within the Muslim world, Abraham left a phone message on the mosque’s answering machine, concluding with “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Since the Ahmadiyya Islamic Center opened its doors a year ago — the first mosque in Baltimore’s heavily Jewish Park Heights neighborhood — the Jews and Muslims have established the typical relationship of any urban neighbors whose paths do not frequently cross, said Abraham. The mosque’s worshippers, he told The Jewish Week on a recent visit, have proven to be congenial and largely inconspicuous; there is no call to prayer and no star and crescent marking the center as a Muslim house of worship.
In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, however, the large Russian émigré community, which is heavily Jewish, has waged a bitter battle against a planned mosque/Islamic community center, affiliated with the Muslim American Society. The group fighting the center, which will cater to a growing Muslim community in south Brooklyn, cites quality-of-life issues like traffic and noise. But it has also speculated that the mosque may be aligned with radical Islamic organizations like the Islamic Brotherhood.
After a temporary halt in construction because of a court challenge, building recently resumed, and the mosque will open soon.
Given the rising standard of living and upward mobility among many American Muslims — both native-born and immigrant — the Jewish community in this country will likely be encountering scenarios like these with greater frequency in coming years. As mosques establish themselves in heretofore largely Jewish neighborhoods, the model that prevails — Baltimore or Sheepshead Bay or something else entirely — is up for grabs. But the close proximity between the faiths, observers say, holds out the promise for better understanding and dialogue between Jews and Muslims.
“It’s in our interest to build ties [so] Jews do not see [Muslims] as the enemy,” said Walter Ruby, who coordinates Muslim-Jewish programming for the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (ffeu.org), which works to promote Jewish-Muslim ties and sponsors the annual Twinning Weekend, which brings together synagogues and mosques in the U.S. and around the world. throughout December.
The rapid growth of the Muslim community in the U.S. (2.6 million, up from 1 million in 2000, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census) seems to give Ruby’s statement added urgency.
An upcoming test case is now beginning to play out in Skokie, Ill., the well-known Jewish suburb near Chicago. That community, home to many Holocaust survivors, recently approved a special use permit for a mosque that will occupy the former site of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, which has moved to larger quarters. Members of the Skokie Jewish community, Holocaust survivors among them, spoke in favor of the mosque’s approval at public hearings.
And in Devon, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, a Chabad center moved next door to an existing mosque a decade ago. Although the two institutions don’t have joint programming, the relationship over the years, say leaders of both institutions, has been a warm one.
In Baltimore, Phil Abraham said, representatives of the mosque have spoken at meetings of several Baltimore Hebrew Congregation groups, and the wife of a mosque leader has come to the synagogue’s Sisterhood meetings. Rabbi Andrew Busch, the congregation’s spiritual leader, said he was invited to the wedding reception for the son of a prominent mosque leader. “I hope that he will join us for my son’s bar mitzvah.”
Abraham said the concerns he heard raised about the Ahmadiyya mosque by a few members of the Jewish community — Would they build a minaret atop the building? Would there be traffic congestion? What would the people be like? — were “assuaged” by a series of meetings Dr. Agha Khan, a neurosurgeon and prominent member of the mosque, conducted with local Jewish and civic organizations. (There is no minaret and no call to prayer, similar to the mosque in Devon.)
Kahn “was very forthcoming” at the community meetings, answering the suspicious questions asked by local residents, many of them Jewish, said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “It wasn’t an angry conversation.”
What about the elephant in the room — Israel and the ubiquitous Middle East situation? “We are going to have differences,” Abramson said — that’s a given. “We agree to disagree and move on.”
On a table in the front lobby of the Baltimore mosque’s is a brochure, “What does Islam say about terrorism?” “Even in a state of war, Islam enjoins that one deals with the enemy nobly on the battlefield,” the brochure answers. “As far as the non-combatant population is concerned such as women, children, the old and the infirm, etc., the instructions of the Prophet are as follows: ‘Do not kill any old person, any child or any woman.’”
Omar Binabbas, who regularly participates in worship services at the mosque, says fellow Muslims opposed the congregation’s move to the neighborhood because the new site is several miles from the old one in northwest Baltimore. “That was the biggest issue,” he said.
Few friendships have developed so far between members of the shul and mosque, Abraham and Baltimore Hebrew’s Rabbi Andrew Busch say, because of conflicting schedules — the mosque’s primary prayer service is Friday afternoon, when members of the shul are at work.
But, Rabbi Busch said, the fears that some Jews have expressed when a mosque appears in their neighborhood have proven to be baseless. “Relationships will develop over time.”
“It’s very important that we develop relationships with all of our neighbors, that we understand all of them,” says Rabbi Robert Kaplan, who coordinates intergroup work for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “That’s not overnight work.”
The situation in Sheepshead Bay proves the point.
When members of southern Brooklyn’s growing Muslim community announced three years ago that they were planning to build a mosque/Islamic community center affiliated with the Muslim American Society, on a double lot on Voorhies Avenue, a residential side street, neighbors were angry.
Rabbi Kaplan said opposition to the Sheepshead Bay mosque was exacerbated by the controversy three years ago over the planned 13-story Islamic center — Park 51, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, in Lower Manhattan. “There was a tremendous angst” about any new mosque “in the [Jewish] community,” he said.
Members of the Jewish community, under the aegis of the ad hoc Bay People organization, were among the most vocal opponents of the planned mosque. Jewish residents there oppose the mosque because it will bring “a lot of traffic and noise,” Victor Benari, an electrical technician who is an active member of Bay People, told The Jewish Week. “It will change the fabric of the community.”
Benari says he also fears the mosque is aligned with radical Islamic organizations like the Islamic Brotherhood.
“The neighborhood residents are mostly of Italian/Russian/Jewish/Irish decent and will not benefit from having a mosque and a Muslim community center,” the organization’s website, baypeople.org, states.
Several leaders of the Sheepshead Bay mosque did not respond to several requests for comment.
Rabbi Kaplan said the neighborhood’s émigré Jews, who in recent decades had become the predominant part of the Sheepshead Bay Jewish community, had a “fear of more demographic change.”
Leonard Petlakh, executive director of the neighborhood’s Kings Bay Y, which has established close ties with Brooklyn’s Turkish Muslim population, said he is disturbed by Sheepshead Bay residents who ask him, “What right do they” — Muslims — “have to build a mosque in our neighborhood?”
“They don’t belong here,” Petlakh said émigré Jews in Sheepshead Bay tell him.
The situation is very different, however, not far away in the Flatbush-Midwood neighborhood. Over the last century, when hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims moved to this country, they usually settled in separate towns or neighborhoods, and there was little daily interaction between them. But the Flatbush-Midwood area is a demographic outlier — it’s home to a sizable, mostly Orthodox community, and a growing Muslim population. With the two communities living cheek by jowl, it’s commonplace to see shuls and mosques, or kosher and halal restaurants, next door to one another.
Residents there typically report that they infrequently socialize with members of the others’ religious groups, but day-to-day encounters, such as Jews and Muslims passing each other on the way to worship services, proceed witout hostility.
The area is “a role model,” said Rabbi Kaplan. “The two communities coexist. Communities can coexist.”
Ten years ago, in Devon, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Rabbi Yossi Kaplan opened his Chabad center, Chabad-Lubavitch of Chester County in a renovated house on a rural road. Next door, across a shared parking lot, was the all-American sounding Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge, a Sunni Muslim institution. Over the years, Rabbi Kaplan said, he and his wife Tickey and their Chabad congregants have established warm bonds with the imam and members of the Islamic Center.
“It’s a misnomer that the Jewish and Islamic population can not get along,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “We don’t need ‘dialogue’ here.”
Mohammad Aziz, a leader of the Devon mosque, told The Jewish Week that a few members of his congregation were nervous about the reception they would receive from their new Jewish neighbors.
Such questions, say Jews and Muslims both in Baltimore and Devon, faded as members of both groups have grown to know each other. They report no vandalism, no graffiti, no physical attacks. And in fact the State Department brings groups of international dignitaries to Devon — along a stretch of North Valley Forge Road — to demonstrate interfaith harmony.
One recent afternoon, Rabbi Kaplan spent an hour at a table in his Chabad center next to Aziz, an information technology consultant, bantering with him like an old friend, sharing some stories and kosher snacks.
Jews and Muslims share a status as members of a minority religion in the U.S., Rabbi Kaplan pointed out. Especially in suburban, WASPy Pennsylvania. “We’re both outsiders,” the rabbi said. Aziz added that he and the rabbi point to the Golden Age of Spain, in the 15th to 17th centuries, when members of both faiths flourished in the same society. “We have a beautiful precedent of living together.”
From the Chabad building, the pair walked across the parking lot to inspect some recent renovations on the mosque. With brochures for various religious causes displayed in the building’s lobby, and a mechitza separating the men’s and women’s sections in the prayer halls, the mosque looks like a synagogue, the rabbi observed — except for the absence of seats or pews in the prayer room.
When the mosque was seeking a variance a few years ago to add an additional building on its property, a local group of opponents asked Rabbi Kaplan to sign a petition blocking the expansion.
The Chabad rabbi said he refused to sign it. He said he told the mosque opponents, “Are you crazy? They’re our neighbors.”