NPR: The Mosque’s Synagogue

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Leon Bleckmann wearing his signature cap in his South Bronx apartment. Bleckmann was former treasurer of the Jewish congregation that lost their meeting place before being assisted by a local mosque. Photo by Lauren Benichou.

At first sight, Masjid al-Imam looks like a typical mosque. It’s an old, nondescript building on the corner of Westchester and Pugsley Avenues in South Bronx, New York, sandwiched between an aboveground subway and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Only on Friday nights, when men in broad-brimmed hats and black coats enter the building, would you give the place a second look.

That’s because this mosque is also a synagogue.

“This is the first place in New York State where Muslim and Jews worship on the same ground as brothers and sisters worshipping one god,” says Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the Imam at Masjid al-Imam and one of the main conspirators of this unlikely arrangement.

The building itself is actually the Islamic Center of North America. It houses both a mosque, located on the first floor and a space for Jews to hold services at the ground level. Both Muslims and Jews have been sharing this space since 2007.

It all started when the Jewish congregation Young Israel of Parkchester lost their own place of worship, a building also located in the South Bronx.

“The roof started to leak and the water was coming down on the electric equipment,” says Leon Bleckmann, the synagogue’s treasurer at the time. “It was getting dangerous.”

The small congregation lacked the funding to maintain the building, and the decline in membership also added to their struggle. Bleckmann said this decline reflected a general trend experienced all over the Bronx. According to a demographic survey from the North Jewish Data Bank, the Jewish population of the Bronx dropped by 45 percent between 1990 and 2000.

“All the way through the entire South Bronx, we are the only Jewish congregation left,” Bleckmann says.

Young Israel was forced to sell their building to the City of New York. With the money they received, they rented out a small storefront.

“They charged us $1800 for a hole in the wall,” Bleckmann says. “It was half of the space that we have now.”

With such high rent and almost no incoming funds, the congregation quickly ran out of money and lost their makeshift sanctuary once again. There was a moment, Bleckmann says, that they could not find anywhere to go.

After hearing about their struggle, Patricia Tomasulo, president of the Community Democratic Club and community activist, told Sheikh Drammeh about Young Israel, which was officially under the direction of Chabad of the East Bronx. Sheikh Drammeh received them with open arms.

“When a community activist came to me and said ‘I am just trying to help some Jewish folks who’d just lost their synagogue and they’re in need of a place to hold their services,’ my answer was immediately ‘welcome,’” Sheikh Drammeh says.

The Jewish congregation moved in, initially using the Imam’s office to hold their services before moving to a larger space in the back of the building. Bleckmann still hopes they will be able to have their own space someday, with the Torah and their own amenities. Even so, the two parties — Jewish and Muslim — are grateful and seem to get along perfectly.

Not everyone agrees with the move. Muslim scholars have complained to Sheikh Drammeh and some mosque-goers have decided to leave altogether.

But despite the controversy surrounding this little building, Sheikh Drammeh said he feels that they are setting a precedent in interfaith relationships and hopes his mosque might lead by example.

“I have absolutely no doubt that what started here in the boogie-down Bronx will not only be permanent but will be global,” he says. “Small things that come from good hearts have the potential to become universal.”

Sheikh Drammeh said that it is a Muslim’s duty to care for a guest, so for now, it is a match made in heaven.

This was first reported and produced for NPR’s Intern Edition Spring 2012.

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