Jewish Leaders Back Ground Zero Islamic Center


Neither Leona Zeplin nor Joyce Gales had any desire to attend last week’s raucous community board hearing over plans for an Islamic community center near Ground Zero.

But both women, each of whom lost a child in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, have strong feelings about those plans.

“I’m not dancing in the street” over the proposed center, which would include a prayer space for about 1,000 people, said Zeplin, a Manhattan resident whose 33-year-old son, Marc, was among the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11. But she added that she’s “OK” with the idea.

“I understand we have to respect diversity,” Zeplin said, “and the people building it are not responsible for the tragedy. … They want to reach out.”

Just as “you can’t label all Jews bad because of [convicted swindler Bernard] Madoff,” she continued, it’s wrong to label all Muslims terrorists because of 9/11.

Gales, on the other hand, considers the location of the proposed center, two blocks from Ground Zero at the old Burlington Coat Factory building, offensive and disrespectful.

“This was going to be our place, where they were killed, where we could go and pay our respects,” said Gales, who lost a 35-year-old son, Peter Kellerman, on 9/11. But nine years later, she added, there’s no memorial at or near Ground Zero, not even a plaque with names. “And so now comes, in my opinion, another insult,” she said.

Gales wonders why Muslim organizations would choose a site near Ground Zero, calling the idea “a little suspicious to me,” and questions the planners’ claims of moderation.

Both Zeplin and Gales, members of a support group for Jewish 9/11 families, reflect the wide spectrum of opinion that has emerged over the Islamic center.

Much of it was on display at the public hearing held by Manhattan’s Community Board 1, which covers Lower Manhattan. Individuals, elected officials and representatives of various groups on both sides of the debate turned out for the meeting, where, at times, speakers in favor of the center could hardly be heard because of shouted objections from opponents of the plan.

The shouting, including hateful and bigoted remarks, led the board’s chairwoman, Julie Menin, to warn several times that anyone ruled out of order would be evicted from the room. It also led one board member, Bruce Ehrmann, to recall that his father’s family fled Nazi Germany and to liken the hatred he heard at the meeting to events in the 1930s.

Commenting after board members heard from the public and during their own debate on the center, Ehrmann offered a litany of what took place during the heated, four-hour meeting, including the spectacle of adults shouting at a crying 11-year-old girl, and called those who disrupted the session “a Brown shirt movement in the making.”

The Community Board endorsed the plan by a 29-to-1 vote, although its action is merely advisory and, therefore, considered symbolic. The center needs the approval of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which plans to meet as early as July to decide whether the building should receive historic protection.

Known as Cordoba House, the proposed center would rise as high as 15 stories and include a swimming pool, a performing arts center, a culinary school and child-care facilities. Opponents call the proposed center a mosque, but the project’s sponsors, the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement, describe it as a community center modeled after the 92nd Street Y and the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

The prayer space wouldn’t constitute a mosque, which has some very specific parameters, said Daisy Khan, ASMA’s executive director. A mosque, she added, would forbid eating or the playing of music, two activities that would take place at the center.

Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, both said they have received assistance from the JCC as they draw up plans for their center, comments confirmed by Rabbi Joy Levitt, the JCC’s executive director.

“They came to us because they felt the values we represented — diversity, dialogue, the education of children — were values they wanted to espouse,” Rabbi Levitt said. “They have the same kind of diversity in their community that we have in ours, and they were looking for strategies to bring [those different segments] together.”

Last week’s public hearing drew dozens of speakers for and against the Islamic center, including the families of 9/11 victims, members of the Jewish community, Muslims involved in interfaith dialogue and first responders who worked at Ground Zero. Statements also came from elected officials who have endorsed the center, including U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), State Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Manhattan & Brooklyn) and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Two Jewish figures who spoke, Walter Ruby and Yehezkel Landau, both praised the center’s organizers as moderate Muslims who have worked in the past for understanding and dialogue among people of every faith.

“I have no illusions about anything,” said Landau, a faculty member at the Hartford Seminary who, for many years, lived in Israel. “We have enemies. … But Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal are not enemies of anyone.”

Ruby, the Muslim-Jewish relations program officer at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and also a freelance writer for The Jewish Week, described both the imam and his wife as “unequivocally opposed to violence and terrorism, and deeply committed to the American values of democracy and pluralism.”

But others at last week’s hearing expressed different views.

Among them were the relatives of 9/11 victims, many of whom began their testimony by saying they weren’t hateful, but questioned why an Islamic institution should be built near Ground Zero, land they consider sacred. Many also wondered from where the center would receive enough funding to cover its estimated $100 million cost, with some speculating that money could come from Saudi Arabia, a country that has funded schools and mosques led by Muslim extremists.

But some opponents, such as right-wing activist Pamela Geller, came with what might have been different agendas.

“This is an insult, this is demeaning, this is humiliating that you would build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the attacks of 9/11,” said Geller, a blogger who could be observed trying to shout down some of the speakers. She also encouraged members of the audience to attend a rally at Ground Zero this Sunday sponsored by Stop Islamization of America, a group she created.

The group is the same one that has purchased bus ads in several cities, including New York, offering information to Muslims who want to leave their faith. Geller claims the ads are all about religious freedom, but others, including the Anti-Defamation League, have condemned the ads as an appeal to prejudice.

“Geller has a history,” said Ron Meier, the ADL’s New York regional director, “and that history is one of promoting Islamaphobia and conspiratorial views, often in the guise of fighting radical Islam and defending Israel.”

A number of rabbis also weighed in on the controversy.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and national president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, said he’d favor the Islamic center as long as it was peaceful. At the same time, he believes that Ground Zero is “holy ground” and that the clearest endorsement of “universal peace” would be to build “an interfaith center with separate and distinct ways for Jewish prayer, Christian prayer and Muslim prayer.”

Rabbi Weiss made headlines in 1989 for vehemently opposing a convent near the grounds of Auschwitz.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of the Jewish Values Network, advocated a museum, created by Muslims, portraying “the sins committed by Muslims” at Ground Zero and repudiating them. “This is not about implicating Muslims who had nothing to do with the attack,” he said, but about addressing “the abuse of a great worldwide religion.”

And Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the New York Jewish Healing Center and leader of the Jewish support group for 9/11 victims, said he, too, would have favored a multifaith center.

On the other hand, he added, some of his Muslim friends see the center as a Muslim voice for peace, which moves him greatly. “I haven’t heard that it’s being done to l’hakhiss — to provoke or offend.”

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