Mohammed Hameeduddin: Emphasizing commonality is key

As a long-time resident who is completing his first two-year term as mayor of Teaneck and was decisively re-elected to his third council term on Tuesday, Mohammed Hameeduddin has come to understand and revel in the commonalities between his Muslim community and the Jewish community which he serves, and which helped elect him.

Being on the campaign trail – such as it was, in the run-up to this past Tuesday’s municipal’s elections – highlighted one aspect of that commonality.

“The Jewish people of Teaneck are very similar to the Muslim community, because when you walk in, the first thing everybody makes sure to ask is ‘Did you eat?’ That’s the first question every grandmother asks. It’s very similar if you walk into a Muslim household from south Asia,” says Hameeduddin, whose parents came to America from India in the late 1960s.

“They’ll say, ‘Did you eat? Did you eat enough?’ If you were blind and walking into a room, you wouldn’t know if they were Muslim or Jewish,” he says.

Teaneck’s Mayor Hameeduddin chats with a Jewish resident in a local diner. photos by Jerry Szubin

Hameeduddin’s familial roots in Teaneck are deep and wide. His parents moved here in 1981, following one of his uncles who bought a house in Teaneck back in 1973. His father and his uncle were among the founders of Teaneck’s Dar-ul-Islah mosque. (The town now has a second, break-away Muslim congregation.) Overall, Hameeduddin estimates Teaneck’s Muslim population at around 300 families, and his extended family he said numbers “35 or 40″ Teaneck residents. Of the four generations of his family who lived in Teaneck, 17 of the individuals are graduates of the town’s high school.

Family of volunteers

“If you look at the [Hameeduddin] family, it’s a model of volunteerism and community service,” says Adam Gussen, a longtime friend and a fellow council member. Hameeduddin’s sister is a very active parent in the public schools, Gussen says.

The 39-year-old Hameeduddin is protective of his family. He married his wife Faiza four years ago. They have a newborn son, Ahsan.

“Teaneck has no foreign policy,” he says, explaining why the international tensions between Jews and Muslims have never become an issue during his time in town government. It is also true, however, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has far less resonance among South Asian Muslims than it does in the Arab world. The mayor’s parents left India for America in the late 1960s.

It has even less resonance in Teaneck.

“There’s such a warmth and receptiveness between the two communities toward each other than I think Teaneck has something special,” says Gussen.

Gussen says he accompanied Hameeduddin to Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, when a special kiddush was being held to support the Israeli army. The synagogue is seen as taking a right-leaning stand towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Rabbi [Steven] Pruzansky introduces Muhammed at the kiddush and has Muhammed address the congregants. That’s the environment where something would come to the surface, and it didn’t,” says Gussen.

Hameeduddin’s campaign literature bears Pruzansky’s endorsement. The rabbi praises him as “dedicated, conscientious, and effective.”

Calls for Shoah memorial

Councilman Eli Y. Katz is a political ally of Gussen. Back in 2008, he helped persuade Hameeduddin to run for the town council. He praised Hameeduddin as “very sensitive to the needs of every single Teaneck resident, whatever religious beliefs they may have,” and pointed to Hameeduddin’s remarks at Teaneck’s recent Yom Hashoah ceremony in favor of creating a memorial to the Shoah in Teaneck.

“Whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist, we should never forget,” Hameeduddin said.

Growing up in Teaneck – he was born in the Bronx – Hameeduddin knew plenty of Jews.

“I went to bar mitzvahs at Temple Emeth,” he said. “A lot of my friends were Reform. I didn’t have that many interactions with the Orthodox community” that, by and large, did not send their children to the public schools.

In sixth grade, he became friends with classmate Adam Gussen. It was a friendship that revolved around basketball and other sports, one that continued through college at Rutgers together, and that ended up thrusting Hameeduddin into the part-time, unpaid world of Teaneck politics. (He owns a title agency in Hackensack.) Gussen was elected to the Teaneck town council in 2006, and he recommended Hameeduddin to fill a vacancy on the town’s planning board.

Two years later, Hameeduddin won a seat on the town council. In 2010, he was selected as mayor by the vote of the town council.

On Tuesday, he was re-elected to his council seat, receiving 4,501 votes, the highest of any candidate. The next highest was a newcomer who campaigned jointly with him, Mark Schwartz. Schwartz received 3,254 votes. All told, Hameeduddin was supported by two-thirds of those who turned out to vote.

Teaneck Council tradition, at times honored in the breach, makes the highest vote-getter after each election the obvious choice for mayor, which could mean a second term for Hameeduddin.

Basic day-to-day problems

Hameeduddin has enjoyed his tenure as mayor, a post suited to someone who enjoys dealing with people in their individuality.

“It’s fantastic to meet people all over the town. You get to interact with people on a daily basis, because when somebody has a problem in Teaneck, they go right to the mayor. They don’t want to deal with anybody else,” he says. “It’s nice when you’re able to help people and solve problems and cut through bureacracy.”

He has helped with issues from dogs barking too loudly, to snow removal, to helping people facing foreclosure, to those needing help for elderly parents.

“You name it, they call you. If you can do it in town, I take the responsibility to guide them, and put them in touch with the right agencies.”

For Hameeduddin, it is precisely these sort of backyard problems that nurture the Jewish-Muslim collaboration which made his friendship with Gussen the stuff of a Voice of America documentary.

“People are people. When people come together, it’s the same problems, it’s the same issues.

“There’s more in common with the modern Orthodox [Jews] and the Muslim, I would say, especially when it comes to eating habits, to praying – three times a day versus five times a day – revolving your life around God,” he says.

“How do you have a good family? I need to take care of my parents, I need to take care of my kids, I need to pray five times a day, I need to find food that I can eat. How can I make sure my kids have the upbringing we want, the lifestyle we want for them? We’re not judging anybody else, but we would like to live this way – how do you do that without other people judging you?”

What people bond over

“Women’s issues” is another area of commonality, he says: “women trying to teach their kids how to swim fully clothed; covering up their hair. Private school versus how are you going to support private schools. There are a lot of the same problems in the two communities. All of these are things that people bond and talk over. They realize: ‘oh, you too!'”

When approached this way, the diverse township of Teaneck “is an incubator for understanding.”

For dialogue to work, however, “you have to be open to the experience. If you come in to anything with preconceived notions on any side it never works. There are many preconceived notions on both sides of what somebody thinks, of what somebody actually believes. The preconceived notions that people have because of different things that are put out in the media and in the post-9/11 world, it makes it hard for people to come together.

“I remember some conversation where one person was just uncomfortable and asked the question, ‘don’t you want to hurt me?’

“I said, ‘No. I understand what you’re saying, I know what you’re talking about, but from a Muslim standpoint, Jews are a ‘People of the Book.’ They’re very revered. It’s the God of Abraham.’

“Obviously, you can dwell on the differences, or you talk about what we have in common.”

One of the highlights of his time as mayor was an opportunity to do just that – he went with Gussen to speak to Jewish and Muslim students at Rutgers.

“We talked about how an observant Muslim and an observant Jew were able to get along and be friends.”

Hameeduddin said they spoke about Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism, and what the Muslim community can learn from how the Jewish community has dealt with anti-Semitism “as an ongoing institution in society.”

No preconceived notions

“Now you see Islamophobia, it’s like a cottage industry that’s growing. People are making money off this, selling books, saying bad things about everyone.

“No matter who you are, you’re a closeted Islamist. No matter what you say, you’re a closeted Islamist.

“People try to make up these labels about people. There are good people and bad people, and I think you’ll find good people in all communities. This goes back to not having any preconceived notions about people.”

In his personal observance, Hameeduddin (as he said above) prays fives times daily. “I try to make congregational prayers at least three to five times a week. It’s not always in Teaneck; it’s wherever you’re at. Friday is obligatory.”

Religion became a more central part of Hameeduddin’s life as he entered his 30s. It was around the same time that his childhood friend Gussen similarly became more observant.

“Even though as a child I had a religious upbringing, it wasn’t the central part of my life. It was just something I did. Then as I grew older, I began to dig deeper into the religion. It happened to both of us at the same time.

“When I say more religious – I think sometimes you go through the motions. That I always did. Then there’s a time when you feel with your whole being, from the time you get up, when you eat, when you sleep, that you’re always in the presence of God.

“I can’t really explain. The more you search for God, the more God comes closer to you. It’s an Islamic tradition that when you approach God, God comes closer to you. That’s the thing that happened to me.”

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