Jews and Muslims, learning to live together

Especially since Sept. 11, New York's Midwood neighborhood has tried to foster cooperation and respect.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mehrba Kahn is dependent on his hands. As a barber, he makes his living with them.

But they're also his tools to help explain why his Brooklyn neighborhood – a bustling 10 square blocks where more Orthodox Jews and Muslims live closely together than in almost any other place in the country – works so well as a community. That, despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and heightened tensions in the Middle East.

"See these hands?" asks Mr. Kahn at his shop on Coney Island Avenue. "The Jews, the Christians, the Muslims here, they're like these fingers: They work together because they have to. We're all connected."

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Called Midwood, this is a place where Jewish and Muslim women shop side by side, wearing slightly different head coverings but often pushing the same brand of strollers. Admittedly, the community is sometimes tense. But through work, dedication, and a tacit agreement to disagree, it has, on the whole, remained productive and peaceful.

Indeed, many people here hope that their success can provide a model for a workable peace in the Middle East. "This could really be a good example for coexistence between the Palestinians and Jews back home," says Ghassan Daoud, a Palestinian with family in Nablus on the West Bank. "I'm not suggesting they have to live in one state – there can be two states. But we need peace. We need to talk to each other. We need to learn about each other and really understand each other's needs and respect them."

The cooperation that sowed the seeds of respect among the neighborhood's well-tended rows of single-family homes started in earnest two years ago, when the current unrest in the Middle East first kicked up. Several attacks, clearly related to the other side of the world, sent a chill through both Jewish and Muslim leaders in the community. They decided they needed to keep the violence in the Middle East from spilling into their own neighborhood. So they held a meeting, which spurred several more, and eventually the process grew into a series of ongoing joint projects – from educational outreach to healthcare initiatives.

"It's by these modalities that the long-term trust and relationships are clearly defined and maintained," says Rabbi Bob Kaplan, the director of intergroup relations and community concerns at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. "We talk to each other on a constant basis, so it doesn't fall into complacency. It has real substance to it."

Elana Grossman, an Orthodox Jew standing in line with her young daughter at the post office, believes that civility and simple courtesy also play an important role in making Midwood work.

"I see people all of the time giving information, opening the door for someone. That really helps a lot," she says. "Of course, we don't have the warlike conditions that are over in the Middle East, which makes it easier. And we're financially better off, and that contributes to less tension as well."

But when strife did come to New York's shores on Sept. 11, the community responded by intensifying the outreach between followers of its two faiths. Jews were encouraged to visit mosques, and Muslims were invited to drop by the nearby synagogue.

In the third week of September, Naji and Debbie Almontaser went to the Mormon Church on their corner for a neighborhood meeting. They decided to invite everyone there for refreshments in their yard. They put out coffee and tea and sweets, and made sure to have a separate kosher table so their Orthodox neighbors would feel comfortable. They expected maybe 20 or 30 people to come. More than 150 showed up, including some of their Hasidic neighbors they'd never met.

"We pull together on the things that concern us here. We don't try to change ideas and perspectives," says Mr. Almontaser. "But of course nobody agrees, whether they're Christians, Jews, or Muslims, with the violence going on there on either side."

As the situation has deteriorated overseas, opinions on both sides here are hardening, making it more difficult to keep the peace. When the story broke that Adam Shapiro, a Brooklyn Jew who's doing humanitarian work in the occupied territories, had breakfasted with Yasser Arafat in his compound after it was attacked, his family was besieged by hate-filled calls – including death threats – from other angry Jews. Mr. Shapiro was called the "Jewish Taliban." His family decided to leave their home until the anger subsided.

"Sides are hardening, and there has been more fear and anxiety," says Mr. Kaplan. "But we're working hard. It's important to maintain our relationships with our partners in our communities."

Mr. Daoud, who is also the outreach coordinator for the Arab American Family Support Center, agrees. He says he does the kind of work he does because he and his family back in Nablus "are starving for peace."

He hopes his outreach work here – he tries to create an understanding of who the Palestinian people are among policymakers – will help the Palestinian community in the Middle East.

But even among these peacemakers, the strains from overseas are sometimes evident. Kaplan notes that even as he reaches out, it's important to "fully defend the Jewish community." Almontaser says that if the Palestinian people had all of the rights and freedoms they have here, maybe there wouldn't be so much trouble over there.

But on streets and shops of Midwood, those stronger feelings are kept in abeyance. That's something that Rabbi Jacob Savitsky, who's lived in Midwood for 15 years, wishes could be translated overseas. "We have to go on and live together," he says. "They could take a good example from here in the Middle East – that we can get along, all of us, even from the different segments."

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