Russian Jews Meet With Muslims


Although he lives in a borough with a sizeable Muslim population and leads a congregation of Bukharian Jews, a community that hails from a mostly Muslim region of the former Soviet Union, Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov says that, until Sunday, he never visited a mosque.

Moreover, his congregants expressed concern for his safety when they learned he would make the visit, says the rabbi, who leads Kehilat Sephardim of Ahavat Achim, a synagogue in Kew Gardens Hills.

But Sunday’s visit to the Jamaica Muslim Center turned out to be a safe one for Rabbi Nisanov and other leaders of the Bukharian-Jewish community in Queens, a population that numbers about 50,000, and chances are likely that similar meetings will take place in the future.

The meeting between the small delegation of Bukharian Jews and members of the Jamaica Muslim Center took place as part of the second annual "Weekend of Twinning" between mosques and synagogues. Sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based group founded by Rabbi Marc Schneier, the project began as a national one and grew this year to include Jewish and Muslim institutions in Europe.

More than 100 events, some scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, are part of this year’s "Weekend of Twinning," said Walter Ruby, a program director with the foundation. Nearly 30 programs took place in Europe, with the majority of those events in France, a country racked by tensions between Muslims and Jews.

The foundation also reached out this year to Russian-speaking Jews, many of whom hold more hawkish views on Israel-related issues than American Jews in general.

In Jamaica, Queens, where one of those programs took place, Rabbi Nisanov led a delegation that also included Rabbi Yitzhak Yehoshua, the chief rabbi of Bukharian Jews in North America, and Rafael Nektalov, editor of the Bukharian Times. Greeting them were leaders of the Muslim center, including Imam Shamsi Ali.

The imam, who also leads the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan and a mosque in Astoria, Queens, Masjid Al-Hikmah, spoke of the many commonalities he sees between Judaism and Islam but said that each community has its stereotypes of the other. Meetings like Sunday’s event are "critical" for clearing up misunderstandings, he added.

Known in Muslim circles for his moderate views, Imam Ali also addressed what he called "the elephant in the room" – namely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – saying that, in his view, both religions are "sincere" in wanting to solve the problem. The only question, he said, is whether people of both faiths can use their religions as a tool for doing so.

The center’s president, Khwaja Mizan, spoke in similar terms, saying that "some of us have taken religion to be a source of animosity, to be a source of hatred," both of which is "absolutely wrong." Instead, he, like others during the day, said religion was actually a source of love and peace.

Rabbi Yeshoshua, clad in a caftan and a traditional Bukharian gold-embroidered robe, addressed those in the room as "friends" and said he was happy to be there. He acknowledged that religion today was "mixed up" with politics and other issues, but said both communities should work together.

Echoing the imam, Rabbi Nisanov said the two religions had "more in common" than they differ on, although many people only see the divisions. He suggested the two communities "find the common ground" and work together on issues that cut across ethnic and religious lines, such as crime, unemployment and aid to religious schools. One project that could benefit both communities, he added, is the food pantry operated by his synagogue for local residents coping with hard times.

Interviewed after the program, Nektalov, a native of Uzbekistan who arrived in New York as an adult, described relations between the country’s Muslims and Jews as positive and even harmonious.

Even today, he said, when only a few hundred Jews remain in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, the area’s Muslims care for the upkeep of the local Jewish cemetery, which has suffered "not one act of vandalism."

Rabbi Nisanov, on the other hand, said he knew little of Muslim-Jewish relations in Uzbekistan, having moved to the United States at the age of 9, and he "didn’t know what to expect" when he walked into the mosque. But he learned from the visit, he said, and he was "happy [the meeting] worked out."

The rabbi, 38, expressed pessimism that such meetings would change the minds of Muslims who already have animosity toward Jews, saying that "a handshake and a hug" wouldn’t reverse that.

What interests him, instead, is reaching out to younger members of the Muslim community – those he called "the next generation."

Younger members of the Muslim and Jewish communities attended the weekend’s other event involving Russian-speaking Jews – a meeting between Generation R, a group for Russian Jews in their 20s and 30s, and Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT), a similar organization for young Muslim professionals. Generation R is associated with the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, while MLT is part of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which has participated in several twinning events.

The meeting, held at the JCC, featured a documentary about Al-Andalus, the caliphate in Spain during the Middle Ages known for both its acceptance of Jews and its achievements in science, literature and philosophy – an era revered by many Muslims today. The film, in turn, served as a springboard for discussion about the Muslim and Jewish communities.

One contentious moment took place when a member of Generation R, Leon Geyer, asked Muslims in the room if terrorism by Islamic extremists is leading to any internal changes within their faith. But the contention was among Russian Jews at the event – specifically, between one participant who suggested that Geyer’s question was inappropriate and another who said it was perfectly valid. Geyer himself said he felt "really bad for Muslims," who, he suggested, are placed in the awkward position of defending themselves each time an act of terror occurs.

Following the event, Helen Volshonok, another member of Generation R, said she wanted to hear more about how the Muslim community deals with such acts.

"What are they doing, ideologically, to curb terrorism?" she asked. "That’s what I didn’t hear and what I’d like to hear. How do people relate to the fact that brothers in faith are giving a bad name to their religion?"

Responding to those questions in an interview, Hussein Rashid, one of the event’s co-leaders and a visiting professor of religious studies at Hofstra University, called Geyer’s question "refreshing" and said he wasn’t alone in expressing those thoughts. Rashid said that Muslim scholars have begun to respond to violence against Muslim themselves – the overwhelming majority of terror victims – as well as to violence against non-Muslims.

Terrorism committed by Islamic extremists is "painful for me because my religion is being portrayed in this way," said Rashid, who grew up in Rego Park. It’s also painful "because the ideal of America, as a community of different people, is being ruptured by people who don’t know what that ideal means."

In another noteworthy twinning event, students at Queens College, including Muslims and Jews, each pledged themselves to a year of fighting hatred in honor of a Holocaust survivor. Organized by the college’s Center for Jewish Studies, the program at one point brought to stage six students, each of whom introduced a survivor, lit a candle and made the pledge, said Mark Rosenblum, the center’s director.

Erum Haleem, a Muslim student from Pakistan and a history major, said in an interview that one of her teachers recommended she participate in the program. She described the event as an emotional one, both for her and the survivor she introduced. As for her pledge, Heleem said, she plans to organize a twinning event in the next year.