Near the corner of Westchester Avenue and Pugsley Street in Parkchester, just off the elevated tracks of the No. 6 train, Yaakov Wayne Baumann stood outside a graffiti-covered storefront on a chilly Saturday morning. Suited up in a black overcoat with a matching wide-brimmed black fedora, the thickly bearded 42-year-old chatted with elderly congregants as they entered the building for Shabbat service.
Nothing unusual here except that the green awning above the entrance reads Masjid Al-Iman in bold white letters with an Arabic inscription below. The building is owned by the Islamic Cultural Center of North America, home to the Al-Iman mosque. For the past two and half years, the Chabad of East Bronx, an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, has also worshiped under the same roof.
At a time when New York’s Jewish community is facing tension after the recent anti-Semitic attack in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, this Bronx neighborhood’s Muslim community and its remaining Jewish residents have shown that they can worship peacefully side by side.
And while many view them as historic adversaries, a demographic change in the Bronx has propelled the two religious groups into a unlikely bond.
“There is no reason why we should fight,” said Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the center’s founder.
Baumann only recently found out about the Chabad when he spotted six Orthodox men walking briskly in his area. They then invited him to their unusual prayer space for food during Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival in October. Baumann said he was surprised to find the synagogue was housed in a Muslim center, but also happy that there is still a place for Jews in Parkchester to worship.
“People have a misconception that Muslims hate Jews,” said Baumann. “But here is an example of them working with us.”
It all started a few years ago at the now-shuttered Young Israel Congregation, also in Parkchester. The congregation used to give away clothing for needy families in the neighborhood, said Leon Bleckman, 78, the treasurer of Young Israel, who now attends the Chabad.
Drammeh was in charge of collecting clothing donations for members of his mosque, many of whom are immigrants from Africa. The 49-year-old is an immigrant from Gambia in West Africa who came to the U.S. in 1986. After a year in Harlem, he moved to Parkchester, where he eventually founded the Muslim center and later established an Islamic grade school.
Through that initial interaction, cooperation between the two houses of worship was developed. It didn’t hurt that Drammeh is a likable person, Bleckman said. The synagogue continued to donate to the Islamic center, among other organizations.
But in 2003, after years of declining membership, Young Israel was forced to sell its building at 1375 Virginia Ave., according to Yeshiva University, which keeps historical records of synagogues in New York City. Before the closing, non-religious items were given away, including chairs and tables now used at Drammeh’s Islamic center.
Meanwhile, Bleckman and the remaining members moved to a nearby storefront location, renting it for $2,000 a month including utilities. With mostly elderly congregants, Young Israel struggled to survive financially.
That decline followed a trend in the Bronx. In the 1930s, the Jewish population was estimated at 630,000, according to the Bronx County Historical Society. Bleckman remembered that when he was growing up in the South Bronx, there were six or seven synagogues and on Saturdays, they were always packed.
But by 2002, the number of Jews in the Bronx had dropped to 45,100 in the borough of 1.3 million people, based on a study by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
At the same time, the Muslim population has been increasing. According to a 2001 Columbia University study, there were 600,000 Muslims spread across the five boroughs. In Parkchester alone, there are currently five mosques, including Drammeh’s Masjid Al-Iman.
At the end of 2007, Young Israel ran out of money and closed for good. The congregants were left without a place to pray.
During the farewell service a day before the closing, members of Young Israel were surprised when four young men from the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights showed up. Three months earlier, Bleckman, then chairman of the synagogue’s emergency fund, had appealed for help from the Chabad.
“The boys from the Chabad said they came to save us,” said Bleckman. “We were crying.”
From then on, Chabad took over from Young Israel. The members adopted the new name Chabad of East Bronx. Still, for the next six to seven weeks, Bleckman said they could not even hold a service because they had nowhere to hold it.
When Drammeh learned of their plight, he volunteered to accommodate them for free at the Muslim center at 2006 Westchester Ave.
“They don’t pay anything because these are old folks whose income are very limited now,” said Drammeh, adding that it was his turn to help.
For about six months, the few remaining Jewish members held their Friday night service inside Drammeh’s cramped office. As more people began attending the Friday prayer, Drammeh offered a bigger room where the Chabad could set up a makeshift shul, the Yiddish term for synagogue.
Inside the synagogue, a worn, beige cotton curtain separates the men and women who attend the service. A solitary chandelier hangs just above the black wooden arc that holds the borrowed Torah, which is brought weekly from the Chabad headquarters. A large table covered with prayer books stands in the center. In one corner, a table is stacked with pastries and Seagram’s ginger ale. A picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, is displayed prominently nearby.
During Shabbat, when Jewish congregants are strictly prohibited from working, they have to rely on the Muslim workers at the center or on Drammeh to do simple chores such as turning on the light and switching the heater.
Drammeh said he admires the dedication of the rabbis, who walk 15 miles from Brooklyn every Saturday so that they can administer the service for the elderly Parkchester residents.
Bleckman said he was comfortable attending service inside the Islamic center. “They were very friendly to us when we were in Young Israel, so I knew that it was okay,” he said.
“They are funny and nice and one of the most hospitable people in the world,” Drammeh added.
At first, it did not make sense, said Hana Kabakow, wife of Rabbi Meir Kabakow. “I was surprised,” said the 26-year-old congregant who was born and raised in Israel. “But when I came here I understood.” The Kabakows have been coming to the service from Brooklyn for the last two years.
Harriet Miller, another congregant, said she appreciated the center’s accommodating the synagogue. “They are very sweet people,” said the 79-year-old Bronx native and long-time resident of Parkchester of her Muslim hosts.
Miller said she welcomes the new Muslim immigrants in her neighborhood, adding “we were not brought up to hate.”
Drammeh also understands the importance of teaching tolerance. That is why fifth-grade students at the center’s Islamic Leadership School are required to participate in an interfaith program organized by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust memorial in Manhattan.
And it seems that he is making a conscious effort to make the school a model for religious tolerance in New York. The Islamic school was originally founded at the nearby St. Helena Catholic Church on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We’re not as divided as the media portrays us to be,” Drammeh said. “Almost 90 percent of Jewish, Muslim and Christian teachings are the same.”
The project introduces fifth-grade Jewish and Islamic school students to each other’s religious traditions. Other participants of the four-month program include the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, the Al Ihsan Academy of Queens, and the Kinneret Day School of Riverdale.
“It has been more successful than we thought possible,” said Shireena Drammeh, the principal of the Islamic school and wife of the center’s founder. She credited both the Muslim and Jewish parents and students for embracing the “opportunity to interact with each other.”
The program, now on its sixth year, involves Jewish and Muslim students visiting a mosque and a synagogue. At the end of the program, they also organize an exhibit that shows family artifacts of their respective cultures and religion. At the Islamic center itself, the makeshift shul doubles as a classroom for the Muslim students during weekdays.
The principal said that even after the program ended, the student participants became “fast friends” and would visit each other’s homes.
“They would have birthday parties together,” Shireena Drammeh said. “When someone invites you to their house, I mean, that says it all right there and then.”
The two faiths have a lot in common and its critical to teach students about those lessons at a young age, said Dr. Paul Radensky, Museum Educator for Jewish Schools. “We want to build mutual understanding and mutual respect between Muslims and Jews.”
Patricia Tomasulo was the community leader in Parkchester who introduced the leaders of the synagogue and mosque to each other.
“Nowhere in the world would Jews and Muslims be meeting under the same roof,” said Tomasulo, who is Catholic. “That’s why it’s so unique.”
While the Jewish congregants are thankful for the welcome, they hope that one day they can rebuild their own synagogue. But that day may be far off. Even now that they have space to worship, they still struggle to operate. They don’t have proper heating inside, and the portable working heater could not reach the separate area where the elderly women are seated, forcing them to wear their jackets during the entire service. Congregants are appealing for financial support from the Jewish community and other congregations.
Even with the less than ideal conditions, they hope to use Hanukkah to attract new congregants. Rabbi Notek said hopes to publicize the Dec. 26 Festival of Lights celebration to local Jewish residents through the mail and on the web. Leon Bleckman said the goal is to revive the Jewish presence in the neighborhood, while reaffirming the positive relationship with their Muslim friends.
“We are able to co-exist together side by side in the same building,” said Assistant Rabbi Avi Friedman, 42. “That’s sort of like a taste of the future world to come, the messianic future where all people live in peace.”
Despite his many efforts promoting religions tolerance, Moussa Drammeh said he still has a lot of work to do even within Parkchester’s diverse Muslim community. “Not every Muslim likes us because not every Muslim believes that Muslims and Jews should be like this,” Moussa Drammeh said referring to them sharing a space with a Jewish synagogue.
“There’s no reason why we should hate each other, why we cannot be families,” Moussa Drammeh said.