Dr. Arnold Brenner, a physician from Montville and a member of two Conservative synagogues, is on a mission to develop meaningful relationships among Jews and Muslims.
From arranging for halal food for Muslim hospital patients to setting up dialogues among Jews and Muslims, he believes that if “there was ever a time when we needed to work together and get to know one another, it is now.”
For his efforts, an Islamic cultural center on Staten Island conferred on him its Visionary Award on Dec. 15 in recognition of his “leading-edge spirit and creative approach to every pursuit.”
The award inscription reads, “Thank you for continuing to think in new and innovative ways.”
“I don’t want to make a big deal of my award. I want to make a big deal for people in my shuls to do more things like this,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Dec. 20 phone interview (see sidebar).
Brenner is a radiologist at Staten Island University Hospital. He works next door to the medical center’s Muslim chaplain, Imam Zulqarnain Abdu-Shahid. They met four years ago when the hospital administration allocated a prayer room in Brenner’s radiology department for the 700 Muslims on the staff and the 60 Muslim patients it treats each day.
“We were talking about what he could do better as a chaplain,” said Brenner. “We started off with the concept that at that time Muslims could not get halal food at the hospital. They were eating kosher food,” which is permitted under Islamic dietary laws. A supportive hospital administrator helped in getting quality halal food for the Muslim patients.
That was the beginning of their collaboration. The imam and Brenner, he said, “would shoot the breeze about what we could do for the community at large, and he got the halal food suppliers to agree that once a month they would give out free food to a depressed Muslim neighborhood in Staten Island,” said Brenner.
Then Abdu-Shahid “decided that a lot of people in different mosques don’t talk to one another,” said Brenner, “so he decided to put together his Bait-ul Jaamaat community center to connect mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island so they can work on community goals.”
Asked whether a Jewish-Muslim dialogue could rapidly deteriorate into a bitter argument over the Middle East, Brenner said, “If you want to be an idiot you can do that. But if you want to actually work together with people and bring them close to one another — they definitely need it and we definitely need it.”
Despite the recent attacks by radicalized Muslims in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Brenner disputed the notion that now is not an opportune moment for reasoned dialogue between Muslims and Jews.
“This is exactly the right time to do it,” he insisted. “The person I feel really bad for every time I hear about terrorists is the imam. When I see him I give him a big hug. He’s not a terrorist but almost everybody looks at him like he might be one. I work with lots of Muslims every day and they don’t want to kill me, and I don’t want to kill them. They love me and I love them.”
Abdu-Shahid said he and Brenner “have some of the same values. We definitely share the value of serving humanity. Dr. Brenner has been supportive of me in starting the Bait-ul Jaamaat community center and serving humanity — not just Muslims or Jews but serving all.”
Brenner “has been an inspiration and positive input for the community,” said the imam. “He deserves more than a plaque.”
Asked whether disputes in the Middle East might cloud open dialogue between American Muslims and Jews, the imam said, “I am Muslim of African-American descent. I was born in Far Rockaway, NY. So I recognize the Palestinian issue. However, I am not justified to speak on it because I don’t live there. Dr. Brenner and I don’t discuss politics. We don’t go there, and that’s a beautiful thing, because we can help one another in that which is serving to everyone and that he is a beautiful human being.”