Mosque near Ground Zero?
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Mosque near Ground Zero?

'This could have been us'

Some local groups strongly support the mosque.

While their reasons range from First Amendment freedoms to trust that rank-and-file Muslims are well-intentioned, they speak with passion about the right of their fellow citizens to build houses of worship.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu, whose Teaneck synagogue has partnered with the town’s mosque, Dar-Ul-Islah, to create an ongoing Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, wrote to his congregants, “I have long believed that Muslims occupy a similar place in American society today that Jews occupied about a century ago.”

“It is a community largely of immigrants who have come to America seeking a better life,” Sirbu continued. “It is a community struggling to determine which traditions to keep and which to shed in an effort to acculturate to American norms. And it is a community which is misunderstood by a large number of Americans who fear its influence.”

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Rabbi Steven Sirbu, left, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, and Rabbi Kenneth Brickman

The religious leader of Temple Emeth pointed out that “it wasn’t long ago that synagogues were blocked by non-Jewish residents who didn’t want them in their backyards. The Jewish Center of Teaneck had to acquire its property near Cedar Lane through a third party, well aware that if their identity as the true purchaser were known, the sale would have been canceled.”

The rabbi told The Jewish Standard that he introduced the topic of the mosque at a Torah study discussion on Shabbat morning and that his congregants overwhelmingly supported the project.

“There was the sense that this could have been us,” he said, “and that these are the types of Muslims that we ought to be working with, building bridges.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who suggested that “we are only a few decades away from when Jews were kept out of Tenafly, when our neighbors tried to block the building of synagogues.” (For excerpts from his pre-Shabbat message about the mosque, go to ‘Good people can disagree’.)

Rabbi Kenneth Brickman, leader of Temple Beth El in Jersey City, signed a letter in support of the mosque written by the interfaith Hudson County Brotherhood-Sisterhood Association and published in the Jersey Journal. Urging respect for minorities and for religious freedom, the letter took issue with a “very anti-Moslem” opinion piece and cartoon that had previously appeared in the paper.

Brickman said the issue of the mosque has clearly divided the Jewish community.

“Some of my best friends don’t agree,” he told the Standard, noting that ultimately he concluded the issue is one of religious freedom “and it should go forward or it could happen to us.”

While he was away for much of the summer, he said, “my colleagues who were around said it was a hot topic of conversation at social occasions and services.”

Brickman said that by weighing in on the issue, “the Anti-Defamation League inspired other Jewish organizations to take a more public stance. (See related story.)

“I get the feeling that some responses were because of the ADL statement,” he said. “They didn’t want it to stand as the only public statement.”

Sirbu said that while some argue against the building of Cordoba House, citing the loss of life on 9/11, to hear most of the arguments “is to be exposed to a series of rants motivated, it seems to me, not by grief but by animosity, fear, and politics.”

Questioning the comparison between the treatment of Muslims here and treatment of adherents of other religions in Arab countries, Sirbu wrote to his congregants, “One opponent of the plan said that the Cordoba House should not be built at the proposed location so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on churches and synagogues is outrageous, but do we really want to adopt Saudi standards for New York City?”

Nor does he accept the argument that the mosque should not be built near Ground Zero because it is “holy ground,” citing vocal protests recently held against mosques in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Sheboygan, Wis.; and Temecula, Calif.

Wrote Sirbu, “In Temecula, one protester held up a placard that said, ‘Mosques are monuments to terrorism.’ To me, this is so telling. If we allow the Cordoba House to be displaced from its intended location, we implicitly endorse the idea that every Muslim seeks to undermine our country – an argument made against our people countless times throughout history.”

Sirbu, who attended community-wide Iftar celebrations sponsored by three local mosques at the Glenpointe Marriott hotel in Teaneck Saturday night, said the topic of the Manhattan mosque was raised by several guest speakers, including Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin and Rep. Steven Rothman. Iftar is the celebratory meal that breaks the fast of Ramadan at the end of each day of the month-long fast. Sirbu pointed out that the root of the word is the same as that for “haftarah,” meaning conclusion.

The rabbi said there were hundreds of participants from the three mosques, some 12 representatives from his congregation, and dignitaries including not only the Teaneck mayor and Rothman but Sen. Robert Menendez, Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney, and various Teaneck officials.

“The tenor of Rothman’s remarks was very positive,” he said. In addition, the congressman “made an offer. He said that since young people need to understand all [our] rights and liberties, those present should encourage them to apply for an internship in his office.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, noted that there have been no meetings over the summer of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee, nor any formal interactions between the JCRC and the local Muslim community. However, he said, “We will be open to discussing this issue with all of our interfaith partners when we reconvene our meetings after the High Holy Days.”

He added that his personal reaction to the building is that “it will more parallel a JCC than a synagogue.” He is preparing his second-day Rosh HaShanah sermon “on the topic of our entitlements and responsibilities as Americans and as Jews living in a multicultural, religiously diverse society.”

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