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Mosque, ultra-Orthodox synagogue share one roof in the Bronx

Members of the ultra-Orthodox synagogue Chabad of East Bronx were mostly members of Parkchester's Young Israel congregation in Parkchester, which closed down because of low membership. (Ted Regencia/THE BRONX INK)

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.

On weekdays, when the makeshift synagogue is not in use, students from the Islamic school use it as their classroom. (Ted Regencia/THE BRONX INK)

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.

Aside the from the mosque, the Chabad of East Bronx synagogue also shares space with an Islamic school. All fifth graders at the Islamic school are required to participate in an interfaith program organized by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Ted Regencia/THE BRONX INK)

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, North Central Bronx0 Comments

Forging a path of one’s own

After the mayor banned cell phones in public schools five years ago, Bronx-native Vernon Alcoser, 41, decided to figure out how to tap into this new, niche market. So, he bought a truck, equipped it with safe places for kids to store their electronic devices, and called it Pure Loyalty.

Alcoser and his sister Theresa, 34, started off parking one van on East Tremont Avenue directly across from Lehman High School.  They charged $1 a day to keep students’ phones during school hours.

Lehman is one of many city high schools with metal detectors that vigorously enforces the ban on cell phones, iPods, beepers and other communication devices.  Not all do.  The only allowable exception is for students who need cellphones for medical reasons.

The siblings’ cellphone storage business has now expanded to five trucks that park outside additional large schools in Manhattan and Queens.  Theresa Alcoser said Pure Loyalty was the first of its kind and now has competitors.  She did not disclose the school locations for fear of more copycat competition.  Some, she said, are run out of nearby homes and barber shops.

Each competitor cuts into Pure Loyalty’s share of the student clientele.  Still, Theresa said she is happy that her business is staying afloat and employing five people during the recession.

“We are not getting rich, but we are staying alive and are hoping to expand,” said Alcoser. “For right now, we’re okay and I’m proud of our business.”

Posted in The 12 Percent0 Comments

Restoring grace to a river dedicated to an American hero

Hutchinson River Restoration Project volunteers gather garbage on the shore of a Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary clean-up site. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)


Ten years ago, Eleanor and Giles Rae began a journey to search for a house and instead found an unexpected new mission in life.  The couple spent many hours driving on the Hutchinson River Parkway to City Island, Giles Rae’s hometown. In the process, they became fascinated by the history of the parkway’s namesake, Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan who fought religious orthodoxy and was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.

Eleanor Rae’s look back at over 400 years of American history brought her to the present: the Hutchinson River.  Hutchinson’s battles against the establishment inspired Rae, 77, to clean up part of the river that was filled with garbage. Her goal was to restore the river dedicated to her newly discovered hero.

Three years ago, Eleanor Rae helped found the Hutchinson River Restoration Project together with other board members, the youngest of whom is in her 50s. Rae, the current president, acknowledges that the group doesn’t fit the stereotype of environmental activists.

“We are pretty ancient,” she said. “We would love to have young people be active.”

But their age hasn’t stopped them from cleaning up the river. On a sunny mid-September day, volunteers stood along the shore of Eastchester Bay on the 420th anniversary of Hutchinson’s birth.  Gray and white hair stuck out beneath their matching red Hutchinson River Restoration Project hats.  Eleanor Rae’s enthusiasm was contagious.  The clean-up crew was ready to gather up glass bottles, cans, plastic bags, wrappers, PVC pipes, lighters, and condoms scattered around Goose Island.

The small island, which is home to a colony of nesting birds, is directly across the river from Co-op City.  It was one of the seven Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary clean-up sites.  By the end of the day, the group had filled nearly 70 large black garbage bags.

Dressed in rubber boots and red life jackets, Rae and 34 other volunteers paddled up river in red canoes that were supplied by Pelham Bay Park, the largest park in New York City (it spans over 2,700 acres).

But the group’s mission was larger than just restoring the five-mile river that runs from Scarsdale in Westchester County and flows south through the Bronx where it empties into Eastchester Bay at the most southern tip of City Island.  The nonprofit organization also wanted to honor Anne Hutchinson’s legacy.

The courageous Puritan stood for religious freedom, the right to assembly, and freedom of speech.  In 1642, she ultimately settled in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx.

Toby Z. Liederman, 75, one of the original founders of Hutchinson River Restoration Project and current coordinator of the Anne Hutchinson Year project, sees Hutchinson as the first feminist in American history.

“Anne Hutchinson has made her place in herstory, standing for separation of religion and government, religious freedom, tolerance, the right to dissent, freedom of assembly, free speech, and women’s rights, all of which have become part of our American Constitution and Bill of Rights,” said Liederman.  “She had the courage to stand up for her beliefs, even when there were personal consequences.”

Over four centuries later, Giles Rae, 76, was part of the clean up effort that day.  Sitting at a table full of pamphlets and maps, he said he cared about the river.  “We are here to bring awareness to the Bronx and the people affected by the river,” he said.  “People should have access to water.”

“I can see Goose Island from my house,” said Rochell Thomas, a Co-op City resident and clean up volunteer. “It’s disgusting.”

In 1999, the Hutchinson River was designated one of the most polluted rivers in New York State, according to testing by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.  Several years ago, the government agency told Eleanor Rae that the river was too silted for its research vessels to enter and do water monitoring.

The Hutchinson River Restoration Project studied the 2011 Harbor-Wide Water Quality Monitoring Report for the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, and the group contacted the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in September to ask why the Hutchinson River was not being monitored for water quality.  She said a DEP spokesman offered the “old excuse” of it being difficult to bring boats into the waterway. But  she told him she saw two large tugboats with loaded barges making the trip without difficulty just the day before.  In an email response, a DEP spokesman said,  “DEP is currently working closely with the state to establish water quality monitoring protocol for the Hutchinson River.”

In August, a white-painted, wooden motorized dinghy, donated by 82-year-old board member Jack Ullman, was christened the Anne Hutchinson. Violet Smith, a Hutchinson River Restoration Project board member, even dressed up as the historical figure.

Piecing together a costume, she wore Eleanor Rae’s black doctoral graduation gown that hung in her closet unused for years since receiving her PhD from Fordham University in contemporary systematic theology.  Rae said they had fun re-creating history.  To complete the 17th century look for the celebratory launch, the outfit was topped off with a white apron and collar.

The boat was small and modest.  But those traveling aboard the Anne Hutchinson understand it is making a larger statement.  With the Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance, Ann Hutchinson motored up and down the river, collecting one trash bag at a time onto its bow and restoring grace to the river.

On the crisp, bright autumn day, this unlikely group made a dent in cleaning up the pollution of the sanctuary and resurrecting the memory of an American heroin.  “When will our goals be accomplished?” Eleanor Rae said.  “Not in my lifetime but many years down the road when we can say hooray.  Right now, we have little hoorays along the way.”

Posted in Culture, Multimedia, Slideshows0 Comments

Better luck at next year’s Savor the Bronx


The legendary Mario's Restaurant served its regular fare for restaurant week (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

Holy cannoli.  No special prices at Mario’s for the Bronx’s first annual restaurant week?
Instead, customers looking for a deal at the iconic Arthur Avenue restaurant were offered a free glass of Montepulciano red wine and a complimentary crash course in all things Italy. Ionic columns and brick arches frame the dining room overflowing with Roman sculptures, portraits of Tuscany, Italian flags, and endless family photos.
Owner Joseph Migliucci said he could not offer a special prix fixe menu because his family-owned business in Belmont already offers the best food on Arthur Avenue at a great price as it is. “Being here 92 years, we feel we’re the best restaurant on Arthur Avenue,” said Migliucci, 73, who has been working at the restaurant named after his father since he was 13 years old.

Mario’s was one of 40 restaurants chosen to participate in “Savor the Bronx,” an event that offered customers a chance to explore the borough’s culinary diversity at a discount from Nov. 1 to Nov. 13. Migliucci believed the promotional two weeks did not bring in any more customers this year.

What started as a pizza parlor with six tables in 1919 now seats more than 100 in what is now one of the most famous Italian restaurants in the city’s “Real Little Italy.”  Migliucci’s father Mario, his uncle Clemente, and great grandmother Scolastia–all originally from Naples–opened the restaurant after they moved to the United States.

The cheesy penne-rigate sorrentina made with southern Italian sauce went for $13.50e with southern Italian sauces. The pasta was hidden beneath a layer of baked mozzarella. Ricotta cheese oozed out of the thick tomato sauce.

Another popular southern Italian dish is the stuffed eggplant for $9, also known as eggplant rollatini. Slightly under-cooked, it hid bits of beef and sausage not mentioned on the menu.

For these heavier dishes, the pleasantly crispy sesame bread with olive oil and butter soaked up the savory tomato sauce. It’s worth a trip to Adieo, where the bread is made everyday, just two stores down.

The clams oreganate at $9 for 5 were seasoned with oregano and baked with bread crumbs are somewhat lighter. The fresh clams–bought from the Cosenza’s fish market across the street–were served with squeezed lemon on top.

“Restaurant Week did not really help us, but it was the first year,” said Migliucci.  “Maybe next year it will catch on.”


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, Slideshows0 Comments

Cannoli and gorillas in the Bronx, Crain’s NY

Local merchants of the city’s largest Little Italy that rely on zoo crowds for business fight Bronx Zoo budget cuts.  Crain’s NY reports that the annual Boo at the Zoo Festival alone brings thousands of families to Arthur Avenue after the festival.  City Hall’s original budget proposal for fiscal 2012 called for a 53% funding cut for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the zoo.  In protest, Bronx’s Cannoli King, Jerome Raguso, owner of Gino’s Pastry Shop, sent a few dozen empty pastry shells to City Council members. His message said, “This is what you get when you eliminate 53% of a cannoli.”



Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Construction worker dies following Bronx building collapse, NY1

A two-story commercial building under renovation on Stratford Avenue in Soundview collapsed on Saturday.  NY1 reports that hours after being pulled from the rubble, Muhammed Kebbeh, 51, a construction worker, died at Jacobi Medical Center.



Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Baby giraffe at Bronx Zoo, The Bronx Times

The Bronx Zoo’s latest addition is six feet tall–a five-week-old giraffe calf named James Marjani. The Bronx Times reports that according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, he is the first giraffe born at the zoo since 2009.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Supporters of accused officers in ticket-fix scandal turn out in force, NY1

Many supporters of the 16 arraigned NYPD officers turned out yesterday to protest outside the Bronx courthouse.  NY1 reports that the protesters expressed anger toward Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.  Their signs clearly display their belief that ticket-fixing is not a crime and officers were merely following orders.


Posted in Newswire0 Comments

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