Of course, Rabbi David Levy, regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in New Jersey, was appalled at the March 15 terrorist attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. So was Sheryl Olitzky, the North Brunswick resident who founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS) in 2010 to grow Jewish-Muslim relations among women. But in the wake of the shootings that killed 50 and injured just as many, Levy and Olitzky were heartened with the efforts dozens of New Jersey synagogues put forth in joining hands with their Muslim neighbors.
Many synagogue leaders felt their allegiance — which included assisting local Muslim groups they have worked with in the past and saying Kaddish during prayer services in the names of Christchurch victims — was deserved considering the support their Muslim neighbors offered them after the Pittsburgh Tree of Life attack last Oct. 27. But Levy and Olitzky, both of whose organizations condemned the Christchurch shootings in the strongest terms, want to take Jewish-Muslim relations a step further, forging a lasting relationship, based on respect, not just born out of a tragedy affecting either side.
“We are working toward such a relationship, and we have for some time,” said Levy who, prior to joining the AJC, served as rabbi of Reform Temple Shalom in Succasunna. “In New Jersey, with what AJC and SOSS have been doing, there is a lot [of trust] we are building. There have been some excellent interactions fueled by the moment.…We have planted the seeds to eliminate stereotypes both groups have.”
Levy and the AJC work with the 21 members of the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council’s New Jersey branch, an interfaith, bi partisan group that was formed in 2016 by the AJC and Islamic Council of North America to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry, protect the rights of religious minorities, and work together on issues of common concern. Also, AJC recently announced that it has partnered with the New Zealand Jewish Council to provide financial support to the Muslim community devastated by the Christchurch attacks.
In addition to New Jersey and the 42-member national council, there are also branches in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, South Florida, New York, Houston and Washington, D.C.
“The whole key is our getting to know our Muslim neighbors, and them us,” said Levy. “When you don’t know and respect someone, that’s where stereotypes grow. When the effort is made to know, work with, and respect another group, stereotypes disappear.”
SOSS is approaching its 10th year of women and teens working together to reduce anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment, stand up to hate against one another, and collaborate on social action. Under Olitzky it has expanded to 3,000 Jewish and Muslim women from 150 adult and 12 teen chapters in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom, and this summer Germany and Poland will open chapters as well, according to Olitzky. Chapter size is limited to 10-12 to assure an intimate group.
“As we have seen over the last several months, hate crimes have affected both Jews and Muslims. We are working to limit such acts against both groups,” said Olitzky. “It’s important to work in common and stand as one against such hate crimes as the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh and what happened in New Zealand.”
SOSS launched the teen chapters, she said, “because we felt it was important for Jewish and Muslim kids of that age to begin to work together, and build strong bonds.”
One synagogue which has built a strong relationship with its Muslim neighbors is the Reform Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough Township, which has shared its facility with the Muslim Center of Somerset County for almost four years.
“It’s been a marvelous relationship,” said Beth-El’s Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck. “We’ve been there for the Muslim Center and they for us. We’re very close.”
“We’ve gotten to know their people well, understand what their needs are, and help anyway we can until the Muslim Center has its own facility. They are welcome in our synagogue as long as they require.”
The Jewish community in Springfield has ties with the Islamic Center of Union County, which operates out of a building in Union that used to be Temple Israel, which, due to changing demographics, merged with what is now Conservative Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael a decade ago. Temple Israel sold the building in Union to the Islamic Center in 2010.
“The thought was it would be better as a house of prayer rather than a doctor’s office,” said Mark Mallach, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael. “There were some objections at the time, but it worked out well.”
So well that Rabbi Renee Edelman, Mallach’s counterpart at Reform Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, knew her Muslim neighbors from Union would quickly accept her offer to host a solidarity service last week. After all, Edelman said, “We share a bit of history.”
Rabbi David Vaisberg, of Reform Temple Emanu-El in Edison, is working with his Muslim neighbors on a project called “Rings of Peace,” in which on three successive Fridays the synagogue’s congregants and interested members of the general community will surround area mosques holding afternoon prayer as a gesture of solidarity. “Rings of Peace” is co-sponsored by the Metuchen-Edison Interfaith Clergy Association and the Rabbinical Association in the Heart of New Jersey.
Vaisberg’s congregants and other community members were at the Muslim Center of New Jersey in Fords on March 22. The group will also gather at the Muslim Center of Middlesex County in Piscataway this Friday, March 29, and the next, April 5, at the New Brunswick Islamic Center.
“It’s a concept I saw with Muslims surrounding a synagogue in Toronto, and Jews doing the same at a mosque in Quebec,” said Vaisberg, who added that everyone is welcome to join his congregants in Piscataway or New Brunswick over the next two weeks.
The words shalom and salaam depict peace and cooperation in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. Many, in both communities, are working to make them interchangeable in Jewish-Muslim relations.