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'Love Thy Neighbor' – Talking with Jewish Supporters at NYU's Jummah Prayers

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Posted on Oct 04, 2019
Gizelle Begler

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Every Friday since President Trump was elected, a group of Jewish supporters have stood outside of a building on the campus of New York University where Jummah (Friday) prayers are held to offer their love and support. Every Friday – come rain, sunshine, snow, cold, heat – without fail.

All of the Jewish community members who stand outside of the NYU Islamic Center are members of Congregation Beit-Simchat Torah Synagogue (CBST), founded in 1973. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum (the chief rabbi at CBST) spearheaded the ongoing gesture of support. After Trump was elected she announced during a service at the synagogue that people would be greeting Muslim worshipers as they went for prayer. Along with a group of Jewish members, she went down to the Islamic Center with roses and greeted people going in for Friday prayer. With that, a beautiful weekly tradition was born.

Jews for Muslims at NYU

Richard (Rick) Landman holds a "Jummah Mubarak" sign in the lobby of the NYU Islamic Center as Muslims come for Jummah prayers. Image source: Gizelle Begler

Several of our Haute Hijab team members head to Jummah at NYU each week and walk past this friendly group, exchanging greetings and smiles. And then we thought, we should do more. We should get to know them better and truly thank them for their friendship and support. So a few weeks ago, I reached out to three members of CBST who are always there to greet me when I come for Jummah Richard Landman (Rick), Jeremy Lawrence and David Fair. (Unfortunately Rabbi Sharon wasn’t available to talk.)

Rick has been with the synagogue since it was founded and has stood outside the NYU Islamic Center since Trump was elected. Aside from Rabbi Sharon, he has been the main man at Jummah prayers and has only missed a few Fridays when he needed to care for his mother or when he was ill. Jeremy joined the CBST right before the 2016 presidential election. He’s an actor by profession and travels a lot but always comes to stand in support when he is in town. And David is one of the youngest (and newest) supporters and works for CBST. He is half-black and just started standing in support at Jummah prayers this month.

In fact, when I first approached the group to do these interviews in early September, it was David’s first day there.

I interviewed all three separately to find out why they come week after week, what this all accomplishes and what they’d love to see from Muslims. And, I just wanted to express my thanks and offer my friendship to them. The following is a condensed and edited version of these touching conversations I had with Rick, Jeremy and David.

What brings you here every Friday? How long have you been coming? 

David: I’m a new hire at CBST as a student canter. My job is to encourage and direct the musical worship and be a source of leadership in that capacity, and part of my job is to come to the NYU Islamic Center. I’m really proud that I’m REQUIRED to come here as part of my work, as it speaks to the CBST’s sense of social justice. The first time I went, I didn’t know what to expect. But I found it to be a very spiritual experience, and it made me feel good to show up and show other people who are religious that we are all in this together.

When one minority is attacked, all minorities are attacked. And, we care about our Muslim brothers and sisters! If we, as Jews, got scared when Trump was elected, we can only imagine what the Muslims must be feeling.

Jeremy: My first time standing in front of the IC was a very unique experience. I had no idea what to expect. At first I felt awkward saying Jummah Mubarak and Salaam Alaikum and was wondering what people were thinking. However, the reception was amazing and humbling, primarily because the Muslims [who were coming for prayer] were so grateful. I found standing in front of the IC to be such an easy thing to do.

I later heard Imam Khalid Latif speak at a demonstration and thought he was amazing. Then I attended the NYU IC Jummah service a couple of times and found the service remarkably intense and wonderful. I was very affected by the intensity of the service and the overwhelming feeling of devotion in the room. It’s very impressive to be in contact with that kind of feeling. And since it’s all about the same God, it’s an honor to be a part of that holy community.

Rick: I have always been an activist in many capacities! When Trump was elected, Rabbi Kleinbaum asked us what we could do as Jews who have always been persecuted. She spoke to Imam Khalid Latif and asked him if it would be alright if the CBST stood in front of the Islamic Center with roses.

I believe that all of our religions say the same thing – love thy neighbor, the stranger and God, and always remember the time when you were not wanted. If you believe in God, you should reach out to your neighbor and be kind. That’s why I go out there  rain, shine or snow  every Friday! I’m currently retired and was planning to go to the gym on Fridays, but I’ve decided to go to Jummah instead!

Jews for Muslims at NYU

The CBST group outside of NYU IC's Jummah prayers. Jeremy is on the extreme left with Rick to the right of him. David is in the red plaid shirt on the right side. Image source: Gizelle Begler

What motivated you to start coming to NYU’s Jummah prayers?

David: I was required to come stand in front of the IC as it is a part of my job duties, and I’m so glad it is!

Jeremy: I felt it was important to do something against the hatred that Trump was spouting and the persecution that was about to happen. Clearly there is a connection between what happened to the Jews in Germany and the persecution against Muslims at this very moment.

Rabbi Kleinbaum always says, “If the Germans had stood outside of the synagogues in the 30s, would the Holocaust still have happened?”

However, I don't really like that comparison because it’s as though we’re taking on your struggle as if it was ours. Because honestly, we didn’t go through this struggle. Maybe our parents did, although we may soon know more about it. I’m standing here because of what has happened to you, and I care about what’s happening to the Muslim population in this country. It is important to stand as one.

Rick: I’ve always been an activist, so standing with the Muslims is not out of character for me. I love the understanding that has been created by standing with another persecuted people. Thanks to Trump and the NYU IC, I now have so many more Muslim friends!

I love that we now have programs where we read texts from Quran, Torah and Bible! I also now helps make iftars. So in a way, Trump’s hostility has truly created understanding.

How long do you foresee yourself standing here in support of Muslims at Jummah prayers?

David: Now that I’ve had a beautiful taste of this work, I really see myself coming on my off days. I think it’s worth it because it’s a really good feeling to see how the Muslim worshippers are so grateful. So long as there is a threat to the Muslim community, I will stand here.

As a Black person I was always acutely aware of how Black people and Jewish people are treated. It sickens me to witness prejudice and racism. There is a lack of understanding that Muslims are human beings and children of God. I also think the Muslim people have a uniquely different and concerning set of problems. But, we must support each other; my problems are not divorced from your problems. It’s all the same, and we need to come together as a community of minorities and say, “We don’t abide by this.”

Jeremy: I’ll stand here as long as Trump is in power! It’s not a big effort to show up, hold up a sign and welcome people. It’s so easy, and it makes me feel like a part of humanity to do it. It’s humbling to be part of that exchange and welcome.

To welcome a guest into your home is one thing. It’s like saying you are welcome in a world that’s being hostile to you. But that’s not the case. What is harder, though, is to welcome someone into THEIR home. But in a certain sense, it’s even better.

Rick: I will only stand as long as Trump is president! I love standing here, and I will continue to do it, but honestly, it can be really hard with the weather! I want to have a big event when Trump loses the next election. After that happens, I think we should still keep in touch, volunteer at iftars and keep having interfaith scripture programs.

Jews for Muslims, CBST

The Congregation Beit-Simchat Torah Synagogue; Images Source: CBST website

What do you feel like you’re accomplishing by being here?

David: I’ve always said that when white people use their voices to support people of color, when white people stand up and say “Hey, what you’re doing is not right,” their voices are heard in a way a person of color’s voice is not. It’s an unfortunate truth. Many Jewish people are white, and that’s a wonderful privilege. And by standing here, the white Jewish community can use their privilege for good and to support those who do not have that privilege.

I also enjoy wearing my kippah when I am standing outside of the NYU IC. I want to show that I am a Jew who is proud to support the Muslim community. I think that plants a subconscious seed in other people’s minds.

What do Muslims say to you when they see you here?

David: A lot of them want to take pictures of us, and that’s very meaningful to us. It’s not the words that are sticking out as much as the smiles and the surprised looks. It puts a little pep in their step; they feel supported. Sometimes some non-Muslims sneer at us, but I actually don’t mind because by seeing us, they are being influenced.

I want to stop the people who sneer at us and say, “Hi, I’m David. I saw you had a look on your face. Tell me about that?” I believe their disapproval comes from fear, and I’d love to explain to them that they have nothing to fear. Muslims are not a monolith. Each Muslim is their own human being self.

As a Black man I am very familiar with the terrible stereotype that all Black men are dangerous. But the perpetrators of mass shootings in our country [the past several years] have all been straight white men. ... What if we said that everyone that belongs to that demographic is a threat? That would be quite ludicrous, right? So by saying that all Muslims are dangerous, that is equally ludicrous.

Jeremy: They usually say, “Thank you for being here, and we love that you’re here.” When I put my hand on my heart and smile at someone, and they put their hand on their heart and smile back. It’s an exchange of love. It’s unspoken but perhaps it’s better that way.

Rick: Hundreds of Muslims go past me every Friday, and of them I’ve noticed there are three different types: The first are the people who’ve never come before and they think, uh-oh is this some protest against Muslims? They often look fearful and confused. The second are the friends I’ve made, who run to me eagerly and wave at me. And the third are the people who pat their heart and shake our hands and ask to take pictures to share with people around the world. Those people often stop and share stories about how much they appreciate us standing there.

Many Muslims respond by saying, Shalom, or Shabbat Shalom.

Have you developed any lasting friendships out of this? Bonds that go beyond meeting and seeing people here at Jummah prayers?

David: I just started going but I happen to be a very chit-chatty guy, so I’m sure that over the weeks I will develop some friendships. There was this one gentleman who said he wanted to come to our synagogue!

Rick: I have made easily over 20 close friends from standing out here! One woman three weeks ago baked some bread for us, and in the winter people bring hot cocoa or coffee for us.

I intentionally do not bring food or drinks with me during Ramadan so the Muslims don’t see us eating while they are fasting.

Jeremy: I’m shy. I don’t talk a lot; I don’t make conversation. But, if someone wants to talk to me, I’m happy to speak to them! It’s nice to see familiar faces every Friday.

I have a good Pakistani friend who lives in France. I’ve had conversations with him about our faiths, and he’s a rather remarkable man. If it wasn’t for my involvement with the Jummah services, he wouldn’t have been my friend. Our friendship is deeper because of this experience. If one understands core beliefs of another person, one is immediately connected in a deeper way with that person.

I like to think the smiles and “thank yous” are us connecting by belief, and in that we make a new community every Friday.

Jews for Muslims, NYU

Standing outside of NYU ICU at Jummah prayers time. Image source: Twitter, Rowaida Abdelaziz

Can you share any particular moment or experience of brotherhood/sisterhood that has made an impact on you?

David: I remember this one moment where this woman was carrying her little boy, and I thought to myself, I dare someone to look at us smiling and making silly faces at this little boy and to tell us that this mother and her son are a threat to anyone!

Jeremy: I like handing out dates at Ramadan. It’s pretty special to me. We say that we all worship the same God, we share many of the same stories, but there are moments like that where I feel that we are connected. I’m not a stranger here. I’m helping you break your fast; I’m now a part of your tradition. That feeling is pretty amazing. A chasm has been closed in the exchange of a piece of fruit.

Rick: In the years that we have stood outside the IC at Jummah time, there are children who have grown up seeing Jews waving and smiling and saying Jummah Mubarak to them on Fridays. A woman who was a regular at the IC was telling me a story about how when she moved to a new city and took her children to Jummah with her, her kids were surprised when they didn’t see anyone standing outside of their mosque smiling and waving at them at Jummah time. They asked her where the Jews were!

Based off what you are doing in support of Muslims, how can we all help our communities focus on our commonalities rather than differences?

David: I think it’s about sitting next to a Muslim on the subway and just giving them a half smile or saying, “I love the color of your skirt.” It’s about seeing another person as just another person. Almost everyone who works at an office surely has a Muslim coworker. Just make an effort to say hello, ask them how they’re doing, ask them about their kids. Make normal conversation!

As an American I know there is internalized racism in all of us, but it’s about rising above it and catching ourselves when we have that thought. It’s not a moment to feel shame or embarrassment but rather say, “Ok, why am I feeling this? Where did this come from in my life? How can I not have this thought again?” I think we need to address our prejudices on a much deeper, more human level. Don’t be afraid to look at a Muslim in the eye as they’re walking down the street.

We need to remember who the enemy is – it’s the people who are running this country, not anyone of color. Those are the ones [you need to be worried about], not the kind souls who are heading to the IC on Friday to pray.

Rick: We’re definitely doing more and more programs together. Iman Khalid spoke at our synagogue, but it would be interesting to see if this really spreads. It would be great to see some other Jews standing in front of other mosques around the country.

Every Friday when I leave the Islamic Center and gets out of the subway at Park Place. There’s a guy there with a halal food cart whom I intentionally walk by. I make it a point to give him business every Friday and to say Jummah Mubarak to him. I’d love to invite him to my home sometime.

You have no idea how many of us you touch every Friday. We all talk about it. How can we reciprocate?

David: I suggest Muslims interested in reciprocating contact our Rabbi Marisa James. Her full time job revolves around social action initiatives, and we always need volunteers!

If there is another attack on the Jewish people in some way, consider making a monetary donation of $18 – it’s a special number in Judaism. It represents life. Or you can make multiple donations of $18. I don’t know that we’re in need of people holding up posters in front of our synagogues, but there are a lot of Jewish charities that don’t only serve Jews!

The Hebrew Union College (in New York) has a soup kitchen every Monday from 4-5 p.m., and we are always looking for volunteers. It’s a charity that serves the community. It would be great to have Muslims join us in volunteering there!

Jeremy: The Muslim community has already done a lot for us! You’ve volunteered during our holy day services. It’s been incredible and wonderful. We loved having Imam Khalid speak at our synagogue as well as Muslims standing outside of our synagogue after the Pittsburg shooting. I feel like the Muslims have definitely reciprocated! And, it’s very much appreciated!

Rick: The IC already does a lot! They go to usher during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so Jews don’t have to usher and can enjoy the holiday instead. Also, after shootings in Pittsburgh, IC members came to stand outside of the synagogues in support. I’m sure it would be very nerve wracking to some, but it would be a delight to have Muslims come to our services.

If you’re in New York and interested in volunteering at the CBST, services are held Friday evenings at 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. You can contact Rabbi Marisa James at rabbijames@cbst.org for details on how to help. If you live elsewhere, contact your local synagogue and mosque to see what interfaith efforts there are in which you can get involved!


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