Synagogue Located in Mosque Raises Eyebrows in the Bronx

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“We are able to co-exist together side by side in the same building,” explained Rabbi Avi Friedman. “That’s sort of like a taste of the future world to come—the messianic future where all people live in peace.”

In an interesting turn of events, a synagogue has now found itself situated in a Muslim center in the Bronx. While both the Orthodox Jewish and Muslim congregations have earned a fair deal of both skepticism and scrutiny with their unconventional decision, both continue to successfully offer services to the public while using neighboring facilities. For many advocates of interfaith communication and religious tolerance, this demonstration has highlighted their interests and served as a primary example of how Muslim and Jewish communities can utilize their similarities to overcome their differences.

“Right now, we are a family,” explained Sheikh Moussa Drammeh of the Al-Iman Mosque. “The rabbis are our brothers.”
In an extensive article written in Tablet Magazine, the ups and downs of Chabad of East Bronx, whose services currently occupy the Islamic Cultural Center of North America, was charted, as the struggling congregation moved through several facilities before receiving a generous offer from the Muslim leader of the Al-Iman Mosque. Having secured a positive relationship with Drammeh while extant, the synagogue, which encountered numerous financial obstacles as the Young Israel Congregation, caught a break when Drammeh said he could procure a property for them to hold services.

“They don’t pay anything, because these are old folks whose incomes are very limited now,” Drammeh said. He continued to explain how the principled move to include the Jews in the Center has met with criticism from less tolerant Muslims.

 “Not every Muslim likes us, because not every Muslim believes that Muslims and Jews should be like this,” the Sheikh elaborated as he discussed the housing situation. “There’s no reason why we should hate each other, [though], why we cannot be families.”

The initial meeting between the Jewish and Muslim congregations was brokered by a Catholic woman, who praised both sides for their ability to pursue noble ends in the face of condemnation.

“Nowhere in the world would Jews and Muslims be meeting under the same roof,” said Patricia Tomasulo, the precinct captain and a Parkchester community organizer “It’s so unique.”

The Jewish community’s response to the housing situation has been similarly positive.

 “People have a misconception that Muslims hate Jews,” said Yaakov Wayne Baumann. “But here is an example of them working with us.” For the involved rabbis, this scenario appeared divinely ordained to strengthen interrelations between the two communities.
“Even though they are Muslims and we are Jews, there is no hate between the two,” said Rabbi Meir Kabakow. “That’s the way G-d made things happen—he sent us a place in the mosque.”

While the rabbi’s words may appear shallow at first glance, the history of the Bronx synagogue certainly suggests that calling the situation to divine intervention may not be too far-fetched. In a twist of fate, Sheikh Drammeh of Al-Iman established an Islamic grade school at nearby St. Helena Catholic Church in an admirable display of religious tolerance—on September 11, 2001. For Drammeh, spreading the message of ecumenicalism has been not only practically useful but also carries theological significance.

“We’re not as divided as the media portrays us to be,” the Sheikh explained. “Almost 90 percent of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian teachings are the same.”

However, Drammeh’s involvement in religious tolerance reflects only one side of the story. The Young Israel Congregation, which had a fledging group of members during its early years, held a clothing drive to supply the disadvantaged at one time, and Drammeh found himself on the receiving end of their generosity. A number of his congregants, who largely hail from African nations, were in need, and from that first meeting emerged a mutually beneficial relationship between the two congregations.

Things got increasingly interesting as the synagogue began experiencing fiscal troubles. Declining membership compelled them to sell their first property on Virginia Avenue in Parkchester, and after another stint at a White Plains Road storefront, the Congregation found themselves holding their last services. It was at that point in 2007 that Chabad stepped in to help the ailing Congregation, but even with the external assistance, the then nascent Chabad of East Bronx found itself stranded in terms of housing.

Learning of the synagogue’s precarious financial situation, Sheikh Drammeh recalled their former generosity. In an unexpected act of reciprocity reminiscent of the story behind the upcoming Purim holiday, he summoned the Chabad members to conduct their services in the Islamic Center. While the idea for such an initiative seemed outwardly wrong to both Jewish and Muslim spectators, the tolerant but devout mosque and synagogue decided to flout conventions in favor of continuing their services and standing up for tolerance. While theories on the Messiah are conflicting, Rabbi Friedman suggested the unfolding of events resonated with the proverbial Messianic image of clashing animals living together in harmony.

Judging from the history of the Muslim and Jewish congregations in the Bronx, and the strange forces that brought the two together in the same building, such a suggestion may serve as a source of hope for both communities.