NEW YORK — In the aftermath of 9/11, Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn had the potential to become a powder keg. Home to one of the highest concentrations of Jews and Muslims living together, the city's largest mosque and its largest Orthodox synagogue sit just three blocks apart.
Dozens of FBI agents and immigration officials flooded the neighborhood. Muslim men were disappearing. Some were detained by the government. Others – many who understood neither English nor the way the US legal system worked – were so frightened that they stayed with friends and neighbors rather than go home.
Two men – one a Jew and one a Muslim, complete strangers – each on his own decided that real security lay in building understanding between their communities, ending the fear that had come to grip the neighborhood, and battling extremism of any kind.
Each transformed his life, dedicating it to affirming the American values that inspired their families to come to this country and the spiritual values of their faiths. They ended up close friends, political advocates, and catalysts of community cooperation.
"That's the beauty of this country; people can come together from different races and religions and work together," says Mohammad Ravi, now director of the Council of People's Organizations (COPO).
Mr. Ravi had been a leading businessman in the community. With his father and brothers he ran five stores on Coney Island Avenue. After the attacks, he helped the families of the detained. He opened COPO, then called the Council of Pakistani Organizations, and helped his neighbors discover where their brothers, fathers, and cousins were and taught them how to advocate for an attorney, bail, and due process. At the same time, he reached out law-enforcement officials, to help federal agents understand the damage they were doing to the community.
Late one night, after a long day of working at his businesses and his new nonprofit, he and a friend were in the COPO offices when a man in a yarmulke walked in and introduced himself. Rabbi Robert Kaplan, better known in the neighborhood as "Rabbi Bob," had seen the sign in the door and decided it was time to get to know his neighbors.
"You have to be willing to take risks. You have to, because it's easier to take the road to conflict than it is to resolution," says Rabbi Kaplan, a street rabbi for Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
The two hit it off immediately and decided to join forces. They made a list of issues that affected each community regardless of religion: hate crime, healthcare, women and domestic violence, education, and accomplishing the so-called American Dream. They dubbed their joint effort "We Are All Brooklyn" – and got to work.
For teenagers, they set up "Youth Bridge-NY" in which teens from different communities, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds work together to develop leadership skills. They raised supplies for the victims of the tsunami, the Pakistani earthquake, and hurricane Katrina. Each year, they organize a walk for peace through Brooklyn – the banner that leads the several hundred people as they walk from synagogues to mosques reads: "The Children of Abraham ... Walk for Peace."
"My spiritual path informs who I am, and just because we form these coalitions it doesn't mean I have to become like you, or you like me," says Kaplan. "But we do have to work together to make a better world."