Teaneck has long been on the frontlines of diversity. In the 1960s it was the first town in America to integrate its schools. It is home to more than 20 synagogues, more than 30 kosher restaurants, and a large mosque, which led The New York Times several years ago to dub it “the Jerusalem of the West.”
And last week, the township council appointed New Jersey’s first Muslim mayor. His pairing with an Orthodox Jewish deputy mayor is reportedly a first in the country.
Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin has been on the council since 2008, while Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen won re-election to his second four-year term in May. The pair’s relationship, however, goes back to their days at Ben Franklin Middle School.
“It was sports,” Hameeduddin said. “That would be the first thing everybody did.”
The two became friends playing pick-up games of basketball, and later started a volleyball team in a Teaneck High fund-raiser tournament. During their junior and senior years, their team – named Volleyball Marathon Champs their senior year – came in second place.
|Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen, left, and Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin|
“We had our eye on the prize and we weren’t going to settle for less,” Gussen said.
The two eventually wound up at Rutgers University together, and the friendship continued. In 2006, after Gussen won his first term on the council, he noticed that several of the Teaneck planning boards had vacancies. Leaders of Hameeduddin’s mosque had been discussing expansion and land-use issues with the town, so Gussen encouraged his friend to run for the planning board. Hameeduddin ran, won, and served during the contentious debate over the township’s master plan to redevelop the Cedar Lane area.
“How I conducted myself in the Master Plan process built friendships with the mayor and others,” Hameeduddin said. “If you can’t compromise, then there is no democracy.”
In 2008, Hameeduddin ran for council in what many deemed a controversial election marred by uproar over the firing of two elderly black poll workers, perceived anti-Semitic comments by another candidate, and furor over a slate promoted by Councilman Elie Y. Katz. Hameeduddin was the only member of that slate to win election.
Teaneck has its issues with race and religion, but Hameeduddin praised the township for putting them aside when it matters most.
“The people who would vote against me wouldn’t vote against me because I’m Muslim,” he said. “They’d vote against me because of my politics.”
Hameeduddin pointed out that he and Gussen have disagreed on matters of policy. Hameeduddin voted to fire former Township Manager Helene Fall, while Gussen voted against firing her. Gussen supports repealing the blue laws, while Hameeduddin supports the restrictions.
“Teaneck did its job in creating an environment where Mohammed and Adam become friends – that childhood friendship goes through a lifetime, and then we can sit down as adults 25 years later and talk about commonalities we have,” Gussen said. “We can respect each other’s differences. That’s based on trust and mutual respect.”
“Politics by its very nature is divisive,” Hameeduddin said. “People need to disagree without being disagreeable.”
The pair have their work cut out for them. According to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), the township lost millions in funding from Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts.
While the combination of a Muslim mayor and Jewish deputy mayor may be unique throughout the country, it’s par for the course in Teaneck, according to Weinberg, a township resident.
“We’re used to living in our diverse community – to us it’s not such a giant leap forward,” she said. “We’ve had an African-American mayor, an Asian-Indian mayor. I’m happy to say that while many other people think it’s unique, I don’t think we do.”