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Cong. B’nai Tikvah welcomes Muslims to Shabbat services
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Cong. B’nai Tikvah welcomes Muslims to Shabbat services

Attendance was inspired by cemetery desecration

Azra Baig. Photo via South Brunswick Board of Education
Azra Baig. Photo via South Brunswick Board of Education

The toppling of 170 gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in Missouri inspired a Muslim woman in Middlesex County to do something in support of her local Jewish community. 

“When I heard about the cemetery desecration…I thought we need to do something as a Muslim community,” Azra Baig told NJJN. 

Baig organized a group of 50 people who attended Shabbat morning services on Feb. 25 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick. She said some of those attending were from other Muslim communities and they felt outraged by the desecration.

“They had to do something because these stories were getting headlines,” she said about the vandalism in St. Louis and later in a Philadelphia Jewish cemetery on Feb. 26. She said those responsible for the desecrations “need to be caught and held accountable. It is not acceptable. They are hate crimes.”

Baig, a member of the South Brunswick Board of Education, was the victim of anti-Muslim discrimination when six of her signs during her reelection campaign several months ago were defaced with phrases like, “Rag Head,” “ISIS,” and “ISIS sympathizer.” While vacationing in Hawaii this winter a woman refused to get on an elevator with her because she was wearing a hijab.

Baig is active in the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom — launched nationally by Sheryl Olitzky, initially in North and South Brunswick to bring Muslim and Jewish women together — and a member of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in South Brunswick. Several weeks ago, she said, members of Salaam/Shalom visited her mosque.

B’nai Tikvah’s Rabbi Robert Wolkoff described his congregants as “ecstatic” over the large show of solidarity.

“We felt very supported and encouraged,” said Wolkoff, noting that Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, religious director of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, joined the visitors. “We refer to him as ‘our imam’ and he refers to me in front of his congregants as ‘our rabbi.’”

About attending the synagogue, Azra Baig said, “They greeted us with open arms.” She added, “It was heartwarming to see the Muslim community and the Jewish community there for each other. They had the Torah and holy books and we read the translation because we don’t read Hebrew, but basically it was the same message as in the Muslim faith of peace and compassion.”

Wolkoff has had a connection with the Islamic Society for years. Seven years ago during a discussion with the South Brunswick school board about including all of the Jewish High Holy days in the school calendar, Wolkoff prepared a calendar that included Muslim Eid and Hindu Diwali as well as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, enlisting the help of the South Brunswick Area Interfaith Clergy Association. The board accepted the calendar. 

At the time Chebli told NJJN, “When I reported the good news at a service…I could see the tears on the eyes of the many mothers and fathers. And if there is any credit this should go to the members of our South Brunswick Area Clergy Association and our wonderful rabbi.”

At the B’nai Tikvah service, Wolkoff repeated to the imam a previous pledge that “God forbid if we ever again get to the point where we talk about registering Muslims I will shove him out of the way to be the first in line to register. It got a big laugh because the imam is a big guy, like 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds.”

Baig said she hopes the solidarity that was shown at B’nai Tikvah will be replicated at other mosques and synagogues because “we need to love and support one another.”

Wolkoff said the show of support is not surprising.

“One is painted a picture of Jews and Muslims being at each other’s throats, but we actually have a tremendous amount in common, certainly as threatened minorities, but also in our way of looking at the world,” he said. “Arguably, Judaism and Islam are closer together than Judaism and Christianity.”

He said while the Jewish community and others were rightfully upset about the cemeteries and the wave of bomb threats targeting JCCs, “the fact is half a dozen mosques have been burned down to the ground and where is the outrage?” 

“If God forbid a Muslim immigrant burned down a church there would be nothing else on Fox News for 24 hours, but some bigot burns down a mosque and nothing happens,” said Wolkoff. “There’s a real problem. You have this cascade of bomb threats, graves being desecrated, people being shot like that poor Indian guy out in Kansas. The real madness is being unleashed all around us.”

“We need solidarity with each other, but I think we need aggressive solidarity, a firm principled insistence this is the USA and this isn’t supposed to happen here,” said Wolkoff. “While the focus is keeping us safe, right now I’m not really afraid of immigrants. For me that’s not where danger comes from, and who’s addressing that?”

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