Synagogue in the Mosque Project

Interfaith programming at the Islamic Cultural Center in Parkchester, New York began in the wake of 9/11. Seeking to “promote peaceful coexistence,” Sheikh Moussah Drammeh and his wife Shireena Drammeh, principal of the Islamic Leadership School housed at the Center, began by working with the nearby Museum of Jewish Heritage to foster interfaith dialogue among elementary and high school students through an “Interfaith Living Museum.” Today, the Islamic Cultural Center’s interfaith initiatives have expanded and taken root even closer to home with the housing of a synagogue within its building and the coordination of the Synagogue in the Mosque Project with several local partners.

Since 2001 the Islamic Leadership School (ILS) has partnered with the Museum of Jewish Heritage to create an “Interfaith Living Museum,” in coordination with two local Jewish schools, Solomon Schechter and Kineret Day School, and Al-Ihasan Islamic School in Queens. Through this program students visit various places of worship and socialize with one another. Each student is also asked to create an exhibit that displays objects with cultural, religious, or other significance to them. This exhibit is housed at one of the participating schools where students also attend an exhibit opening event at which they present each other’s selections, thereby learning about each other’s traditions and values.

Students of the ILS have also participated in the Interfaith Center of New York’s “Debate in the Neighborhood” program in which they learn and practice debate skills with students from other New York City schools. According to Principal Drammeh, the goal of these activities is to “break down barriers” between students of different faiths and have students bring these values back to their parents and local communities.[1]

Situated along Parkchester’s busy Westchester Avenue, the Islamic Cultural Center makes its home in a former auto body shop and is home to Masjd Al-Iman. Parkchester, once a largely Jewish neighborhood, has seen demographic shifts in recent decades. In 2007 Sheikh Drammeh learned from some local Parkchester, Bronx community activists that the neighborhood’s remaining Jewish population, small in number and mostly elderly, had no place to pray. The sheikh immediately offered them a space and Beis Menachem has made the Islamic Cultural Center its home ever since. Beis Menachem hosts prayer services every Friday and Saturday and during the week on holidays. Members of the mosque, school, and synagogue collaborate on logistical issues like scheduling and facility renovations, but also celebrate some Jewish holidays together, sharing both music and food.

The synagogue is located on the first floor down a hallway that branches off of the Center’s main space, a large open area used for large interfaith and religious events. While the synagogue functions as a classroom during the school week, the ark (used to house Torah scrolls), mechitza (a room divider used to separate men and women during prayer), and bookshelves lined with Jewish texts, remain in the room throughout the week, inspiring some students to label the room “the Jewish classroom” in the absence of classroom numbers.[2] The synagogue can be accessed both through the Center and through an external entrance. Two additional classrooms are on the first floor, next to the synagogue. Upstairs is another open space used for large events as well as additional classrooms and the mosque, Masjid Al-Iman, which consists of a large space with separate entrances for men and women.

The co-existence of Beis Menachem and the Islamic Cultural Center inspired the Synagogue in the Mosque Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by Marti Michaels of the Riverdale Y and Rabbi Bob Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY). The project began when Michaels reached out to Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, director of Manhattan College’s Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center, and Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn, rabbi of Congregation Tehilla in Riverdale, for help organizing clean up and restoration efforts at the mosque and synagogue.

Initially, the initiative brought together members of the mosque and school, students of Manhattan College, and the members of Congregation Tehilla. These efforts continue today and happen a few times annually. Programming has also expanded to include facilitated interfaith dialogues covering topics like, “Charity in Islamic and Jewish Law” and holiday celebrations. In 2014, Congregation Tehilla hosted members of the mosque for a Chanukah celebration at their synagogue in Riverdale. During Ramadan 2015, the mosque hosted its first interfaith Ramadan iftar dinner with members of Congregation Tehilla. According to Rabbi Shriner-Cahn, the goal of these projects is “de-mystification,” that is, helping youth and adults become familiar with each other’s customs and ways of life, thereby building mutual understanding.[3] The Center also hosts social events with members of Congregation Tehilla and Manhattan College, including a screening of the movie Arranged, a trip to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, and tree planting at the Riverdale Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture.

The Synagogue in the Mosque Project is led by Wendy Levinson of the Riverdale Y, who serves as the official Project Manager, Rabbi Kaplan, Rabbi Shriner-Cahn, Dr. Afridi and Sheikh and Mrs. Drammeh. All decisions regarding funding and programming are made collaboratively. In recent years, the Synagogue and the Mosque Project has also expanded its list of partners to include student groups from Queens College and Baruch College. In the future, organizers of the Synagogue and the Mosque Project hope to expand their list of partners by bringing in more groups of students and visitors. They also hope to bring together interfaith groups to help install and sustain a new “green roof” at the Center.

These interfaith efforts have not gone unchallenged. Principal Drammeh and Levinson note some initial resistance from both the Islamic and Jewish communities involved.[4] [5] Despite this resistance, the Center’s interfaith programming has continued to evolve. What began with participation in one interfaith program for elementary and high school students has blossomed into consistent, daily relationship with a Jewish congregation and extensive partnerships with individuals of all ages across all five boroughs.

 [1] Shireena Drammeh. Interview with author. 11 August 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn. Interview with author. 13 July 2015.

[4] Shireena Drammeh. Interview with author. 11 August 2015.

[5] Wendy Levinson. Interview with author. 15 July 2015.