When members of New York City’s West End Synagogue were recently disinvited at the 11th hour from a long-anticipated Friday gathering with Muslims at Harlem’s Masjid Aqsa, some involved in organizing the meeting feared that hard-line mosque members were behind the cancelation.
But at the synagogue the next morning, the mosque’s imam, Souleimane Konate, showed up to take part in Sabbath services, fulfilling his part in the weekend twinning arrangement the two congregations had planned together. Furthermore, Konate informed the West End congregants that his followers’ decision to disinvite them stemmed not from anger or hostility, but from fear.
“Immigration [agents], what they are doing, is separating families,” Konate said. “We have many cases where a father has been deported leaving behind his wife and kids. We are not criminals. We are hard working people.”
Konate, a native of the Ivory Coast, explained that the majority of his 1,200-member congregation consists of immigrants from West Africa — many of whom are undocumented. The congregants include cab drivers and cart vendors who work tirelessly to send money back home to support their families and communities, he said. But many have had experiences with scam artists claiming to help with immigration paperwork. All of them have seen other members of the community deported, he said, resulting in distrust and fear of any outsider.
“It was a missed opportunity,” Konate said at the Sabbath service about having to withdraw the original invitation. “If only they were here to see how much opportunity there is. I want my congregation to see that people here want to help, not harm.”
The November 19 twinning between the West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Masjid Aqsa was just one of more than 100 twinnings organized this year by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding to bring together Jewish and Muslim communities worldwide. It is a project that has been marked by many successes and occasional controversy, such as one case in Buffalo, N.Y., when critics charged that a synagogue had been paired with a radical mosque. But according to Walter Ruby, the foundation’s Muslim-Jewish relations programs officer, Masjid Aqsa’s withdrawal of its invitation was the first of its kind.
In his guest sermon before West End Synagogue congregants, Konate explained that during that particular weekend, Muslims commemorate the death of Abraham — patriarch to Muslims as well as to Jews. Abraham’s death was an opportunity for his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, to come together to bury their father, he noted, adding that the weekend signaled opportunity for the two congregations, as well.
Synagogue members offered words of support in response. “It seems to boil down to being the stranger,” said Eileen Sobel, a congregant in attendance. “Gehr in Hebrew means ‘stranger.’ It’s very important to realize that at any time, we can become a stranger.”
Others from the congregation offered material support. Jerry Posman, who serves as vice president for finance and administration at City College, expressed his desire to collaborate with Konate in setting up scholarships for undocumented youth who wish to pursue higher education.
“As Jews, we try to understand our identity, which emphasizes an awareness of the outsider,” said Rabbi Marc Margolius, West End Synagogue’s spiritual leader. “The imam’s concerns really struck a chord with my congregation and even helped the congregation relate.”
At the entrance to the West End Synagogue, a large plaque reads, “A community is too heavy for anyone to carry alone.” But even Konate acknowledged that it remained to be seen whether his mosque will let down its guard and open its doors to the congregation of West End Synagogue, and perhaps in the process open its door to opportunity.
Contact Sumit Galhotra at firstname.lastname@example.org