‘Religion at its best’

‘Religion at its best’

Massacre in New Zealand brings together people of good faith — and all faiths — in Bergen, Rockland counties

The audience and speakers at Darul Islah in Teaneck, above, represented a diverse outpouring of communities.
The audience and speakers at Darul Islah in Teaneck, above, represented a diverse outpouring of communities.

News about the massacre in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, made its way to the United States on Friday morning; during the day, more details made the stories harder to read even as they became impossible to ignore.

Jews headed into Shabbat — into Shabbat Zachor, no less, when we’re told to remember our prototypical enemy, Amalek, so that we may blot out his name later in the week, on Purim — with the images of evil and hatred and the bloody murder of 49 Muslims (later that toll rose to 50) on the literal other side of the world tearing at the fresh scar tissue from the October massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 Jews were massacred.

The murderer in Christchurch, like the one in Pittsburgh, was a white separatist, motivated by hatred of everyone not like them — white Christian men. (New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said that she would not give the murderer what he wants, notoriety, by using his name. We think that is a good precedent, and we will follow it here.)

During Shabbat, many members of the local Jewish community, from across the Jewish world, thought about the massacre, and that they wanted to show their solidarity with local Muslims. We know how terrifying it can be to feel unsafe in shul, they thought; to see police officers at the doors and wonder at any unfamiliar faces or odd noises.

As soon as Shabbat was over, the planning — and the checking to find out about already afoot plans — began.

Starting on Sunday, and going through at least Tuesday evening, as far as we know as of this writing, memorials and meetings have been going on all over the area.

This is not at all an exhaustive list, either of the events or of the speakers there, but here are some stories about those meetings.

Muslims, Jews, and Christians joined to share their grief and outrage at the Fusion Muslim Community Center in Paramus.

Rabbi Noah Fabricant of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township had known that the Fusion Muslim Community Center — a sort of JCC, transposed to the Muslim world — had opened in Paramus about a year ago; it moved into a onetime church building. “But because the year was so busy” — his shul and Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter are about to join to form a new congregation, Kol Dorot; to understate, it’s time-consuming — “I had meant to reach out to them to form a relationship — even after we move to Oradell, it still will be the Muslim community closest to us — but I hadn’t,” Rabbi Fabricant said.

“And then I woke up on Friday and I heard the news of the horrific attack.

“I think that Jews heard the news inflected through the Pittsburgh shooting. The idea of people at worship being attacked brought up that trauma. So on Friday, as I sat at my desk, went on line, and see other rabbis sending out messages of condolence, I was a little stuck. What could I say?

“So I sent off a few messages of condolence and support to local Muslim leaders who I have relationships with, and who I remember wrote to me after Pittsburgh, but I was still feeling unsettled.

“And then I looked at my clock, and I saw that it was late morning, almost time for Dhuhr,” the noon prayer. “So I decided that I hadn’t yet met my new neighbors, and because this is such a sad and difficult day, let me go and meet them in person.”

So he did. But he didn’t go empty-handed.

“What do we Jews do for condolence?” What do Jews do at any time? “We bring food.”

What to bring to a last-minute almost shiva call? “Fortunately we already had gotten our shipment of hamantaschen,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “Cases and cases of hamantaschen. So I raided them, and made a nice platter, and wrote a note, and headed over there.

“I was going to drop it off, with best wishes from the Jewish community, and then leave.

“But as so often happens when I visit a house of worship, and particularly in the Muslim community, they were so gracious and welcoming, and they invited me to stay for their prayer service, and I was really grateful to be able to do it.

Rabbi Noah Fabricant brings hamantaschen to the Fusion Center in Paramus. He is flanked by the center’s chairman,
Ahmed Al-Shebab, right, and Imam Jawad Ahmed.

“It was very moving. Some of the leaders of the community sat with me. As is their custom, the sermon is given in English. The imam’s message was based on a passage in the Koran, Sura 5, and it is familiar to us.

“It is basically verbatim, from the Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5,” he said. That’s the famous verse about the person who in saving a single life saves an entire world. “It gave such a feeling of comfort and resonance. The message was that ultimately hopefulness will triumph over the senselessness of violence, through perseverance and love.”

He also noted the massive police presence — including a SWAT team — “and I couldn’t help being reminded again of Pittsburgh,” he said. “I recognized some of the same Bergen County officers we had at Beth Or.”

On Saturday night, Rabbi Fabricant got a Facebook message from the president of Fusion, with a flyer for what was billed as an evening of prayer and unity, set for Sunday evening. “It was a wonderful event,” he said. “I don’t know the official count, but there seemed to be a couple of hundred people there. We had 25 or 30 of my congregants, including a number of children and teens.” Beth Or’s cantor, Sarah Silverberg, was there, and so were Beth El’s Rabbi David Widzer and the Glen Rock Jewish Center’s Rabbi David Widzer and the Glen Rock Jewish Center’s Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg, Rabbi Rachel Steiner of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, and Rabbi David Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. (That’s just who Rabbi Fabricant saw; it was crowded, he stressed.) The director of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, Ariella Noveck, was there; so were Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-5th Dist.), New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, the head of the state police, the mayor of Paramus, and many other local elected officials and leaders. There also were Christian and Muslim clergy.

And there were kids.

Loretta Weinberg addresses the crowd.

“It’s a community center, so there was air hockey in another room, and while the speakers were talking, the kids were playing it in the other room.” He loved that, Rabbi Fabricant said; kids from all different backgrounds playing together, paying more attention to each other than to the sadness just down the hall. Normal can be very good.

The meeting “met a real need,” he said. “We were hungry for the opportunity to be there. I was grateful to the Muslim community for welcoming us, for opening up their home to us. People really want these relationships. This is a response to the violence in the world.”

Evan Karzhevsky and her husband, Greg, live in Blauvelt. They heard about a meeting at the Islamic Center of Rockland County in Valley Cottage, held on Saturday night, and they went, “in solidarity with the community, to mourn the deaths in New Zealand,” she said. There had been a large spontaneous turnout there on Friday night as well, she added. There were some local officials there on Sunday night, and there were other Jews too.

“It was lovely,” Ms. Karzhevsky said. “I had never been in a mosque before. They said their prayers — the evening prayers — and then they had one or two speakers.

“We were welcomed warmly. It was very comfortable, and it was very educational for me. In the end, it didn’t seem too dissimilar from our services. It was prayers being said in another language.

“I think that if more people went to services in houses of worship other than their own, it would be valuable, because you would see that it is not dissimilar to your own experience, and that it is not scary.”

But there was fear. “They were loving and they were welcoming, but they also were scared.” Not of the visitors, there to share anguish and yearn toward hope, but of the white supremacist violence that apparently can be inescapable, even if you are in a paradise on the far side of the world. “They would like more security,” Ms. Karzhevsky said. “They are fearful, as we are.”

There also was a big meeting — not a prayer service, but a chance to meet each other, to listen to speakers from across the community, and to take comfort from each other — at Darul Islah, the Muslim Community Center in Teaneck.

The Jewish community was well represented there; Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, both rabbis and laypeople, all showed up, compelled to show their solidarity.

Congregation Netivot Shalom of Teaneck’s rabbi, Nathaniel Helfgot, and many congregants were at the mosque.

Noam Schneck, who belongs to Netivot Shalom, was instrumental in bringing them there.

“We kind of take for granted that Teaneck is this nice, moderate place, and that everyone is friendly and nice to each other,” Mr. Schneck said. “And it is. But we don’t actually have anything to do with the other communities. And that’s particularly true for the Jewish community, because we don’t use the public schools.

“But I think that seeing people, and being with them in times of tragedy, builds bridges, and makes it a little harder to view the other person as fitting into a racial category as opposed to being a person.

“I can only imagine what it must feel like to be a Muslim in America now,” he continued. “In every movie, the bad guy is Muslim, and Arab. The president is constantly attacking Muslims. Whenever anything happens, that just builds on the sense that the world is circling, closing in on them.

“So it was really important for us to demonstrate with our bodies that we don’t feel that way. And it ended up that there were hundreds of people who don’t feel that way.”

The meeting, he said, “was the physical embodiment of the truth that we don’t regard the Muslim community as enemies. We are together with them.”

This meeting, like the others, was filled with local dignitaries; one of them, Gurbir Grewal, was both here and at the one in Fusion. Mr. Schneck found many of them deeply moving. The mayor of Teaneck, Mohammed Hameeduddin, spoke, “and he brought tears to my eyes,” he said.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal spoke with great passion both here, in Tenafly, and in the Fusion Center in Paramus.

“There are a lot of first-generation immigrants in that community,” Mr. Schneck continued. “And they are getting it from all sides, as Muslims and as immigrants.

“As Jews, we kind of assume that we own the title of victim,” Mr. Schneck said. “And of course the Holocaust was one of the worst events in human history. But you can’t imagine what it must be like being a Muslim kid, growing up, and here Hameeduddin was talking to those kids, with great passion, saying here is your proof that you should not be afraid to be Muslim.

“It was amazing that we could be part of that proof.

“Teaneck tacitly embodies all these things, but this brought out the real variety of Teaneck. You have all these people living in harmony.”

There is much good in living together, he suggested, and much risk if you do not. You can live in your own community bubble, he said, and be very comfortable. “It’s like living in a nest. But say that within a nest, one of those nests, you have a troubled kid, with no interaction with anyone in any other of those other communities.” The internet, with its rabbit holes and subcommunities of hate, can seem to make sense then. “If you’ve never met anyone from the other community, you can have a crazy conspiracy theory.” You even can act on it.

Or you can go outside of your bubble. “This event shows how we can blend our cultures by coming to know somebody beyond ourselves,” Mr. Schneck said.

Rabbi Helfgot said that he was asked to speak at the meeting, “and I was very touched.

“I thought it was very important that we in the Jewish community show solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering and in pain, so I accepted. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was very pleased that they tried to make everyone, from all the various faiths, feel comfortable.

“It was not an interfaith service,” he continued. “It was not a service at all. Originally they had planned to time it so that it fell during the daily prayers, but they decided to move it in between those prayers. So it was in the afternoon, and it was in the equivalent of a social hall, so no one had to take off their shoes. Everyone felt comfortable.

“Many faith leaders and political leaders shared their thoughts, their feelings of solidarity, their desire to come together to fight hate and to fight the white nationalism that unfortunately has raised its ugly head.

“A number of speakers said that we have to get to know our neighbors and interact with them not only in times of crisis, but all the time. I read a few verses from the Tanach that speak about identifying with the pain of others.

“The Orthodox community in Teaneck wanted to express its condolences and its solidarity with the Muslim community, which felt and feels very targeted by bigotry,” Rabbi Helfgot continued. “We wanted to say that we are brothers in pain, and to express our condolences and our support.”

But real support and solidarity must be deeper than the ideas offered in (theoretically two-minute, often longer) speeches. “The most important things will have to be on the day-to-day level,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “We can gather for official dialogue, and that is very nice, but we need the day-to-day work of getting to know our neighbors and finding ways to connect with people from different backgrounds and traditions. The more we can break down barriers on a personal level, without compromising our own traditions, the better it will be.

“We have a tradition of doing that here — we are very blessed in this country — and we should take advantage of that tradition.”

Paula Eiselt, a member of Netivot Shalom, was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, particularly given the short notice. “We couldn’t find parking,” she said. “We had to park blocks away. And there were so many people at the meeting that it overflowed into classrooms on the perimeter of the social hall.

“It was honestly religion at its best,” she said. “It was like a celebration of unity, because we were doing exactly what the terrorists in Christchurch, in Pittsburgh, in Charleston were trying to prevent. It was palpable. It was like a kind of utopia. Everyone was coming in together, sitting next to each other.

“It was a magical two hours,” she said. “It was a crowd of religiously observant people. You had yarmulkes next to hijabs; men in full-on Muslim garb and women with their whole faces covered, and I saw a black hat there too. These are people who wouldn’t normally come together.”

Ms. Eiselt was proud of Netivot for its turnout there, and proud of her rabbi, whose talk she loved. And she was moved, perhaps most profoundly, by the children.

She brought her 3-year-old daughter, and the two of them ended up spending some time out of the social hall, in a preschool classroom. “It was so parallel to a Jewish one,” she said. Some things were the same; the toys, the secular books, the puzzles. Some were different but the same; the posters showing Arabic letters where Jewish day schools have Hebrew ones. “There was a kid-friendly chart showing how to wash their hands before praying, like we wash our hands before eating bread.

“Everything was like a mirror, because we are cousins,” she said.

State Senator Loretta Weinberg listens intently with others.

When they first walked into the community center, “there was a little girl at the door, thanking everyone for coming,” she said. “It was really cute. Kids were playing together. This was a shining moment for humanity, and for religion.”

Lois Goldrich of Fair Lawn, a Jewish Standard correspondent who was there not as a reporter but as full-hearted participant, was “moved not only by the sense of purpose and unity but by the warmth and hospitality of the congregation. They ensured that everybody (!) in the crowded room had water, asked younger people to offer their seats to elders, and maintained a two-minute speech rule to ensure that everyone could speak.

“We were greeted warmly by congregants, who reached out their hands to grasp ours,” Ms. Goldrich said.

Joel Pitkowsky, the rabbi of Beth Sholom in Teaneck, found the gathering beautiful. It was important to be there, he said, “Because if we ask the non-Jewish community, the Muslim and Christian communities, to be there for us in our time of need, then we need to do whatever we can to be there for them.”

He was struck by the numbers of elected officials there, and by the police presence; not only were officers there to provide safety, but high-level officers spoke, as they did at commemorations for the murders in Pittsburgh. “When you think about our history of oppression as Jews, one of the amazing things that I as an American Jew take for granted is the fact that the government stands with us,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “That is not something that we should take for granted. It is not a small thing, and we should be thankful for it.”

Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who is active in interfaith work, spoke as well. Later, he recalled a line from another speaker. “Someone — I can’t remember who — said that usually the joke starts with ‘A rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into a bar,’” he quoted. “But really, more often, ‘A rabbi and an imam walk into a room’ isn’t the start of a joke. It’s a press release.”

Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly speaks in Teaneck.

He recalled that Sinai held an interfaith service after Pittsburgh, and many members of Darul Islah, including its president, Mazher Usmani, came to offer support. “Shaheen Ahmed, my friend from the Tenafly Interfaith Association, spoke so eloquently to our congregation that evening,” he said. “Who would have thought that just four months later she would be asking me to speak at her mosque after another horrific terror attack by a white nationalist extremist, this one against Muslims?”

When he spoke on Sunday, he said, he quoted what his friend had said in October. “We stand with you, knowing the attack against people of any faith, because of their faith, is an attack against people of all faiths. We are here to say you are not alone. Together, we can and will ensure that the values we collectively hold dear triumph over hate and violence.”

Mr. Usmani first heard about the murders in New Zealand late on Thursday night, he said, given the difference in time zones between here and there. “Everyone was in shock,” he said. “And our Friday prayers were just a few hours away.

“On the one side, I was in shock, and saddened by the news. On the other side, I was thinking about what to do for our community, to make sure they were safe. I knew that everyone would be worried not only about what happened but also about their own security. They would be thinking both things at the same time.

“I was able to get in touch with Teaneck township about our congregants’ safety,” he continued. A big program, having nothing to do with the massacre, already had been planned for that night; he was worried, but the mayor and police chief “came to the Friday sermon and assured us that they will do whatever they can to make sure that we feel safe.” Many people — Jewish and Christian clergy, politicians, and just plain people — reached out to him, sending reassurance, support, and love.

When the mosque’s leaders planned the Sunday afternoon meeting, they had no idea what to expect. “We put out 240 chairs,” Mr. Usmani said. “We kept on putting out more and more chairs. And then we had to tell people to go downstairs, to watch the program on my screen. My guess is that there were somewhere between 450 and 500 people.

“I don’t know who brought the signs, but on his way out, somebody left a sign on the door that says in Arabic and Hebrew and English that we are all brothers. I don’t know who did it, but I want to say thank you.”

Someone left this sign, handwritten in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, on the door of the Darul Islah Muslim Community Center in Teaneck during the memorial gathering there on Sunday night.

He noted the crushing irony in the truth that the murderer who killed 50 people “also united us. I was so full of emotion when I saw so many people gathered to support us.

“We are looking to nurture that feeling. We all have to work at it. We all are committed to it. When Pittsburgh happened, I was able to represent the community — and now this. This is what the goal should be.

“Whenever someone is in pain, someone is suffering — or at the time of their joy also — we should all be together. We are looking forward to working on these things. Now I am going to send out thank-you notes to people who sent emails showing their solidarity and sending their condolences. I will ask that we all work together.

“What happened was very saddening. Very very upsetting. But something good will come out of it too.”

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