A sweet scent before God
Kedushat Levi on Aaron's clothes

Supporting the Muslim community in Bridgewater

Addendum as of February 13: I'm no longer able to engage in substantial conversation around this post -- I need to move on to the tasks of this busy week -- but I invite everyone to read the comments below this post, which come from Bridgewater residents of different faith-traditions who offer different perspectives on the situation, and if you're interested, to reach out to the communities there and learn more.

The rabbinic cabinet at Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a part, recently received a bulletin from Jews Against Islamophobia, who had received a request for help. The Muslim community in Bridgewater, New Jersey, would like to build a community center they're calling the al-Falah Center. The center would hold a daycare and a K-8 elementary school in addition to a mosque / prayer space; their plans are to build it on the property which was formerly the Redwood Inn. They chose the venue because they've rented it on several occasions in the past, for events and gatherings, and found it sufficiently spacious (and with good-enough parking) to hold their community comfortably.

Bridgewater is already a religiously diverse community, home to seventeen Christian churches, a convent, a Jewish synagogue, two Hindu temples, and one Sikh temple. Out of consideration for their neighbors, the organizers of the al-Falah center have promised not to broadcast the call to prayer. "Our minaret is purely for decoration," they write in a recent press release, "just as a church steeple is part of the architecture of a church even without its church bells."

But the Muslim community in Bridgewater is running into difficulties. The Somerset County Tea Party opposes the building of the mosque, claiming that it is linked with terrorism. They note that "al-Falah" is the same name as a mosque in Queens which is, they argue, associated with the terrorist organization which was responsible for the shoe bomber.

"al-Falah" is an Arabic word which appears repeatedly in the Qur'an; it means "the true success," in the sense of "true success is not riches, but rather connection with God." Many Jewish houses of worship share common Hebrew names -- my parents belong to a Temple Beth El in San Antonio, and my friend Rabbi Joshua serves a Temple Beth El in Bennington, and there is no connection between the two. To argue that because this mosque has the same name as another mosque they are necessarily connected is specious.

But more importantly, tarring a community with the brush of suspected connections to terrorism is a powerful way to make people respond fearfully to that community. I'm saddened by this, as a rabbi and as a Jew. My religious community has living memory of being mistreated for our differences, and I believe we have an obligation to speak out against such mistreatment of others. The verse most often repeated in Torah is "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Talmud tells us that this verse appears in the Torah 36 times; it must be important. As a person of faith, I am powerfully moved by the Torah's call.

It is my fervent prayer that the various communities who call Bridgewater home find a way to relate to one another in compassion and understanding, not in mistrust and fear. May it happen speedily and in our day.

ETA: the letter being circulated by the rabbinic cabinet of Jewish Voice for Peace is now closed for new signatures; thanks to all of the Jewish clergy and student clergy who took part.