In an effort to improve Muslim-Jewish relations in New York City, the city's most prominent mosque and the flagship seminary of the Jewish Conservative movement have reached out to one another. Last month, Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center, located on Manhattan's Upper East Side, gave a sermon after minha (afternoon prayer) at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Returning the favor, Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a JTS professor of Interreligious Studies, spoke at the ICC (also known as the 96th Street Mosque) last Friday after jum'a (Friday noon prayer).
This interfaith dialogue is vitally important because Muslim-Jewish relations are at an all-time low. After the 9/11 attacks, the then-imam of the 96th Street Mosque, Muhammad Al-Gamei'a, stated that the Jews were responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center and were guilty of disseminating "heresy, homosexuality, alcoholism and drugs." In recent months, the infamous email about Barack Obama -- he's a radical Muslim! He studied in madrasah! His middle name is Hussein! -- has been taken very seriously by many American Jews. It's time for both faith communities to push aside the hazerai (nonsense) and build a real relationship.
After spending the morning chopping vegetables and marinading chicken for Shabbat dinner, I joined the group of JTS professors and administrators who went with Dr. Rabbi Visotzky to lend support. I wore loose-fitting pants and sweater, brought a scarf to cover my hair and neck, and remembered to wear sandals that would be easy to kick off. Within seconds of our arrival at the mosque, a man sternly said to one of the women in our contingent, "Sister, cover your neck!" She had covered every one of her hairs with a dark, opaque scarf but unwittingly had left her neck completely exposed. One of the other women quickly tossed her an extra scarf. Disaster averted. I felt as if I were in the ultra-Orthdox Mea She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, where posters on every street warn girls and women to dress modestly in long skirts and long sleeves. You wouldn't want to be caught there in a tank top.
In fact, the entire experience for me was a slap-in-the-face signal that devout Muslims and Jews are not altogether that different, particularly in the worship department. Just as when I attend my own Orthodox synagogue, located a half-mile away from the mosque, I was separated from the men. After we placed our shoes in cubbyholes, we women filed up the staircase to the cramped balcony above while the men found places in the majestic sanctuary downstairs. There appeared to be nearly a thousand men and perhaps sixty women in attendance for the congregational prayer.
Imam Ali delivered his khutba (sermon). He told the worshippers that Muslims need to reach out and live harmoniously with other people because all people are servants of Allah. If someone chooses another path, he said, Muslims have a responsibility to show them the right way. However, one may not force others to follow the Islamic way. "We must show respect and dignity to all children of Adam," he said. "Everyone is dignified by Allah." It is human nature, he continued, that different people have different opinions, and Allah knows this. "But this difference of opinions does not make us hate each other. This diversity is seen in Islam as good," Imam Ali declared, and all of us must "make an effort to get to know one another."
Although I tried, I could not see the imam at all during his sermon. He spoke from a platform that was obscured from all but a few choice seats in the women's section. So I ran my gaze across the women listening to him. Their hijabs reminded me of the tichels common in Borough Park and other Hasidic neighborhoods. I craned my head to check out the men below. The several men from JTS blended in with the crowd, the kippot on their heads closely resembling the kufis. After the sermon, it was time to pray. The bowing and prostrating was not altogether different from the shuckling (rhythmic swaying) commonly done during Jewish prayer.
Then it was the rabbi's turn. Dr. Rabbi Visotzky thanked the imam for inviting him to speak in this "beautiful house of God." He recalled when Jews and Muslims lived together relatively harmoniously in medieval Muslim rule and then as co-minorities under Christian rule. He lamented that the relationship today has deteriorated and called on both communities to come together as New Yorkers to help people in need. He announced that JTS and the mosque have agreed to a joint social action program that will include students from both institutions volunteering side by side at a Manhattan soup kitchen.
Imam Ali presented the rabbi with a Qur'an, and everyone was all smiles. One woman came up to me and said shyly, "My boss is Jewish." What to say in response? Stumped, I smiled back. In her awkward way, she was trying to make a connection, and I wanted to connect back. Several other worshippers made a point of walking up to the JTS contingent to say welcome and how glad they were that their mosque was going to work together with the Jewish community. A few asked how they could get information to become personally involved.
I wished the JTS folks a "good Shabbos," then went home to get the vegetables and chicken ready for dinner.