Synagogue and mosque explore ‘common ground’

Synagogue and mosque explore ‘common ground’

Montclair worshipers share services during annual twinning event

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Five women, scarves covering their hair, sat on chairs or pillows or red prayer rugs during afternoon worship on Friday, Nov. 16, at the Masjid Al-Wadud, a mosque in Montclair.

Imam Kevin Amin’s chanting could be heard through the sound system, though he could not be seen from the women’s section. At certain moments during the service, led in Arabic with English translation, two of the women prostrated themselves toward a designated corner and intoned “Allah hu Akbar.”

Two other women, both members of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Montclair, looked on, eager to learn what they could from the Muslim worshipers.

“Listen, it’s just like the word ‘anashim,”’ which means “people” in Hebrew, whispered Jill Hamburg Coplan, as Amin used the Arabic words “al naas.” At another point Hamburg Coplan marveled, “This prayer is very similar to the Sh’ma.”

Women and men from Shomrei Emunah visited the mosque on Nov. 16 as part of the fifth annual Weekend of Twinning, a Jewish-Muslim interfaith event spearheaded by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Later that day, worshipers from the mosque joined Shomrei Emunah for kabalat Shabbat services, followed by cookies and grape juice.

The mosque-synagogue exchange was one of a number of area programs marking the weekend, whose theme this year was “Muslims and Jews Feeding the Hungry Together.” Members of Shalom-Salaam, a Rutgers University Muslim-Jewish co-existence group, gathered at Somerset mosque Masjid-e-Ali, where they prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and then traveled together to the Greater New York Feeding the Hungry event on Nov. 18.

Though Havurah Or HaLev of Morris County and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge could not schedule an event for this year’s Twinning weekend, the two congregations have developed an ongoing relationship under the auspices of FFEU. Over the past year, their leaders — rabbinical student Deb Smith and Dr. Ali Chaudry — have held a variety of joint programs, from teaching from each other’s pulpits to holding a panel on fasting to participating in a multi-faith program about how to make houses of worship more secure.

“We should participate in things that affect us in a common manner,” said Amin, in a phone conversation shortly before the Nov. 15 mosque service. He cited verses in the Qur’an that say, in his words, “Okay, we may not agree on doctrinal issues, but we should agree on common things — we both worship one God, and we can help each other.”

He mentioned circumcision and ritual slaughter, practiced by both religions and under intense scrutiny in some countries. “These are just two things we can cooperate on,” said Amin.

In the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Amin said, he received about 15 messages on his phone. One said, “Go back to Pakistan,” but the others expressed support and concern that he would be targeted for being a Muslim cleric. Of those, “at least 12 either identified themselves as Jewish or, for other reasons, I have guessed they were Jewish.” He concluded, “No one will tell me to hate Jewish people because I’m Muslim. That is not a way of practicing Islam.”

Rather, he said, “Whenever there is something we can work on together, we should do that….”

During the service, the imam invited Rabbi David Greenstein of Shomrei Emunah to offer some thoughts. “We walk by each other I’m sure on the streets, and we never see each other,” said Greenstein. “I hope we can build love so that we can see each other, greet each other, and embrace each other.”

Calling the day’s interchange a “first date,” Greenstein added, “Let us begin to build a relationship that binds us by love between our communities.”

After the service at the mosque, a few Jews and Muslims lingered inside and in front of the building.

“It’s wonderful if we can get down to each other’s humanity and remove all the barriers,” said Tshana Nelson of Montclair, a relative newcomer to the mosque. She hadn’t been aware of the interchange but hoped to be able to attend that night’s synagogue service. “It would be wonderful to go and see people as they are,” she said.

“It’s especially nice doing this when the bombs are falling” in the Middle East, said Hamburg Coplan, a member of Shomrei Emunah and a Montclair resident. Hamburg Coplan speaks Arabic, lived in Jerusalem for three years, and has taught reporting on religion at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She has been involved in interfaith dialogue and was eager to be involved in this effort, she said.

Awny Elkorany, a chaplain with the Newark Police Department who lives in West Orange, was on his way back to work. He too was hoping to get off early for Shabbat services at Shomrei Emunah.

“It’s good to get to know one another,” he said. “We see one another, but we don’t know one another, as the rabbi said. We share the neighborhood, we share the community; we should get to know one another face to face. This way, if there is any issue, we can address it.

“We can work to beautify the neighborhood; we can work to keep one another happy, which is a very important part of our faith — and not just our faith, every faith.”

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