The synagogue where I teach on Saturday mornings has developed a relationship with a nearby mosque over the past few years. The two houses of worship, through the leadership of the clergy, have studied together, visited with each other, and have united in their mission to serve meals to those in need once a month.
Last Friday, with other members of my congregation and the clergy, I visited the mosque to show my solidarity with the Muslim community at this dire time with anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate crimes on the rise.
I left work mid-day to attend the service. I arrived before the other members of my synagogue, so I took the opportunity to speak with a young woman outside. Parking was challenging and we watched the line of traffic slowly pouring into the lot. I was shocked by the crowd, and I asked the woman if this was typical or perhaps I had arrived on a holiday. She smiled and laughed and said no, this was a normal Friday gathering. Largely an immigrant community, the worshippers come from all over the area. Venders were selling hot food by one door. Everyone around me was speaking Arabic. It felt oddly familiar, as if I were back in East Jerusalem where I worked during my graduate studies.
I asked the woman about the armed security in the parking lot. She explained that they were off duty police officers who were there to protect the worshippers and I thought yep—just like synagogues are forced to do throughout this country and all around the world as well.
She patiently answered many more of my questions. She was intrigued as to why I was there as well. I eventually thanked her and she directed me to the women’s section. I later learned that this mosque was once a synagogue before the Jewish community moved away and sold the building. Upon entering I was met with warm greetings in Arabic. I covered my head with a scarf, removed my shoes, and took a seat in the back. A partition separated the men from the women.
There were some prayers in the beginning and much chatting in the women’s section. Then I spotted one of the rabbis of my congregation entering, so I moved to join her. It occurred to me momentarily that this must be odd for her as a female rabbi to suddenly have to take a seat in the back of a congregation. She handed me a pair of headphones so that I was able to understand the sermon translated from Arabic to English. I noticed that the Jews were not the only ones wearing headphones. There were some Muslim women among us who clearly did not understand the Arabic either.
The sermon was about the importance of kindness. The Imam explained that even the smallest act of goodness could lead to a place in the afterlife. Prayer and fasting is fine, but hollow if one fails to extend compassion to those in need. What matters most is good relations with neighbors. Smile, he said. Talk to strangers. He also spoke a great deal about the need to treat animals humanely. And finally, he spoke about the One God and how we are all the same. Clearly we have many common values.
Following the sermon there were more prayers. The sea of men in front of me suddenly all bowed on their knees. The handful of Jewish men remained standing. Then briefly the Muslim men rose again to their feet and all the men were standing united, side by side. Again, the Muslim men returned to their knees and the Jews stood alone beside them. And then again, in an instant, all were standing united again.
I could not help but think, while witnessing this beautiful supplication to God, that this is how we must all respond to the hatred. And while I recognize we have major issues that divide us, right now we must put those aside and focus on our shared concerns. We must take turns standing tall next to each other.
As I exited the mosque to return to work, an old Muslim woman stopped me and asked if I could give her a ride home. She called me “sister” and thanked me constantly as I drove. Then she asked me if I was a Muslim and when I said no, I’m a Jew, she responded, “You don’t eat pork.” I didn’t tell her that sometimes, I just couldn’t resist. We arrived at her apartment building. She thanked me one last time. Then she added that she would pray that I should soon find a boyfriend.
And again I thought Jews and Muslims really are not so different after all.