2016-06-08 / Voice at the Shore

ADL, JCRC reps attend service at AC mosque

By DOUG STANGER For Voice at the Shore

Standing together: (from left) Kaleem Shabazz and Imam Amin Muhammad with JCRC’s Harvey Wolbransky, and ADL’s Doug Stanger at Masjid Muhammad, an Atlantic City mosque, on May 13. Standing together: (from left) Kaleem Shabazz and Imam Amin Muhammad with JCRC’s Harvey Wolbransky, and ADL’s Doug Stanger at Masjid Muhammad, an Atlantic City mosque, on May 13. I admit it: Deep inside, I have had feelings, which I now recognize as symptoms of “Islamophobia.”

Rationally, I know that only an extremely small percentage of Muslims are radical. Yet somehow, when I see people wearing Islamic garb, I still feel a sense of discomfort—a discomfort that is rooted in unjustified fears and mistrust.

Ironically, Donald Trump’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric regarding Muslims has helped me get in touch with those feelings, as has the generally unwelcoming attitude of both political parties toward the 60 million mostly-Muslim refugees who are desperately in need of a new place to call home.

Being a regional leader of Anti-Defamation League has brought all of this sharply into focus for me. Under the able new leadership of Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL has boldly called out Donald Trump for his rhetoric, and is calling upon Congress not to enact more restrictive measures to keep out Muslims, but rather to open our borders to a reasonable number of immigrants.

Against this political backdrop, I felt personally determined to confront my own prejudices. I was also determined to seize the moment, to reach out to others in our community and to the local Muslim community. I found a great kindred spirit in Harvey Wolbransky, chairperson of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties. The JCRC has taken stands similar to those of ADL and is actively building bridges within our local community with those of different religions.

Harvey and I both felt it was time to deepen the interaction between the local Jewish and Muslim communities. While the two communities might not agree on all issues, we agree on the importance of confronting hate speech, and we agree that we must do our fair share to provide a safe haven for immigrants fleeing religious persecution.

We decided to reach out to Kaleem Shabazz, an Atlantic City Councilman who is also a leader within the local Muslim community and a member of Masjid Muhammad, an Atlantic City mosque. Shabazz, who cofounded Bridge of Faith—a local interfaith group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian clerics— along with Rabbi Aaron Krauss of Beth El Synagogue, has attended services at many local synagogues. I realized that many of our local leaders, including myself, had never been to a mosque for a service. What better way to kick off a deepening relationship than to visit his mosque, learn about their prayer service and witness a service?

Shabazz spoke to his imam, Harvey spoke to Federation leadership, and I spoke with ADL leadership. Everyone thought it was a great idea. We sent out emails to all local synagogue rabbis and leadership, asking only two people to come from each synagogue. Our goal was to have a relatively small, intimate gathering of people who would attend a prayer service at the mosque.

The response was great. We had almost 100 percent participation. All were interested and engaged.

On Friday afternoon, May 13, we all met at Masjid Muhammad. Shabazz and Imam Amin Muhammad gave us a warm welcome. Prior to the service we learned about Muslim prayer. While Jews traditionally pray three times a day, they pray five times a day. Although we need a minyan (10 individuals), they don’t—which is why most Muslim prayer is very individual and not done in a mosque.

On Fridays they have Jumu’ah, a congregational prayer (salat) service. That is what we were there to experience.

While most of those at the worship service sat on the carpet, mosque leaders had set up a large number of chairs for their Jewish guests. We sat alongside Muslims who had difficulty sitting on the carpet.

We did not expect our presence to influence Imam Amin’s “sermons,” but clearly his words were intended for us as well as for his Muslim worshippers. He spoke about true Islam being peace-loving. He spoke about the value that true Muslims placed on each living being. He bemoaned those who would take lives of others in the name of a peace-loving religion. “The Koran says if you kill one person, you kill all of humanity,” said Imam Amin. “How can a Muslim be a terrorist? It’s impossible.” He noted that those who committed such acts were “sick souls” in need of reformation.

“When everyone is doing wrong, deviating from the will of God, you [as a Muslim] still have an obligation to do what’s right,” he added. “Our job as Muslims is to bring out excellence in other human beings…We should be examples. No one should ever fear a Muslim. When people are in a Muslim’s presence, they should feel safe.”

For me, and for others I spoke with afterward, the service was somewhat of a cathartic experience that helped us to confront our own prejudices. I think many of us face this challenge, and that this challenge will only grow as the battle against hate and extremism gets even more difficult.

Now is the time for us to come together with our Muslim cousins under attack. This meeting was the first of several programs that will be planned for a larger segment of our Jewish community to create relationships and build bridges with the Muslim community. If you are interested in assisting or participating, please contact me at dscottstanger@gmail.com or Harvey Wolbransky, chairperson of the JCRC, dr@wolbran.com. s

Doug Stanger, Esq., Vice Chair of ADL Philadelphia Region and member of Flaster/Greenberg, PC law firm

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