Partnership between shul and mosque a model for community

By Carin M. Smilk, Jewish Exponent, PHILADELPHIA

The cars slowly turn onto the long driveway, their wheels occasionally crunching the adjacent ground frozen from the night before and speckled with a light dusting of snow.

Rabbi Yossi Kaplan and Mohammad Aziz walk side by side in the direction of the oncoming line of traffic. Several young, professional-looking Muslim men pass them in the opposite direction, pausing to shake the rabbi’s hand and wish him a hearty “Shabbat Shalom.”

It’s Friday, right before afternoon prayers, and hundreds of worshipers are making their way to the mosque on North Valley Forge Road in Devon, Pa., about 20 miles outside Philadelphia. Aziz soon turns to join them, and Kaplan heads for his van and leaves to pick up his children from school.

For a moment, the 15-vehicle-capacity lot in front of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Chester County sits empty – but not for long. Within 10 minutes, nearly every spot is taken by those headed to the mosque next door.

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The shul and the mosque share not only parking space, but also a symbiotic relationship. It’s based on their proximity, of course – they are direct neighbors, land practically spilling upon land – but it also rests on the fact that the two men have forged an obvious respect for one another, as well as a solid friendship.

With mosque projects being confronted with hostility across the United States – in Temecula, Calif.; in Sheboygan County, Wis.; and the one getting the most heat, the proposed Islamic community center near the site of the former World Trade Center in New York – this Pennsylvania mosque stands in stark contrast to the controversial mosques that have grabbed the national headlines.

Kaplan, 38, tells his story like this: In 1998, he was in Brooklyn, looking for a place to start a Chabad House. He had heard that Chester County, Pa. had a burgeoning Jewish population, and other local Chabad leaders felt this would be a “tangible place.”

With their two babies in tow, Kaplan and his wife, Tickey, moved into the area, rented an apartment, and used other available rented space for their programs.

“It started very slowly,” the rabbi said, but by September 2000, they were able to rent what he described as a huge building for services and events. With rising rents, they needed to find an alternate space. Eventually, they moved to a modest home and adjoining ballet-dance studio in need of major renovations, with an expanse of land in the back that bordered on a wooded Boy Scout camp.

Besides the property’s state of disrepair, there was another reason the owner was willing to sell it cheaply: The property stood next to the Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge. It was just a year after the terror attacks of 9/11, and sensibilities, even on this sleepy street, were raw.

Kaplan purchased the property in December 2002. The home eventually would accommodate six more children, and the studio became an attached synagogue – complete with a finished basement for holiday functions, classes, Hebrew school and Saturday luncheons.

Aziz, 57, an information technology consultant by trade and the president of the Islamic Society, recalled the day when the rabbi and his family moved in. “The first time I saw the door open – the rabbi there, with his lovely wife – I ran over and said hello,” he said. “We started talking.”

Right away, Aziz said, on behalf of the society, he sent them flowers.

The Islamic Society had had similarly humble beginnings. Established in 1984, the society met for a while in local churches, on college campuses and in hotel spaces before purchasing its own space.

The mosque, which does not have a minaret, was completed six months ago and has between 60 and 80 member families. The society is currently seeking an imam for the mosque – someone who would be present for the five daily prayers recited in Arabic and who would serve as a resource to answer religious questions, according to Aziz.

Kaplan, now a neighbor of the Islamic Society for seven years, said he has no concerns about a mosque rising next to his Chabad House.

“There have been no problems at all. We’re normal neighbors having nice relationships; we’re two religious centers,” hesaid. “People like to make a big deal out of things; they’re always looking for the man-bites-dog story. But it makes no sense not to get along. We’re both believers.”

So, too, are members of the old Baptist Church in the Great Valley, directly across the street. Welsh families formed the congregation in 1711, and erected the church in 1805. A historical marker out front cites it as the third oldest Baptist church in the state of Pennsylvania.

While the Chester County community appears more accepting of such diversity than other suburban locales nationwide, the Islamic Society did confront some obstacles, according to board member Rehana Jan. There were delayed permits, and some opposition – though not from neighbors.

“We’ve been here long before there ever was a 9/11 or New York mosque controversy,” Jan said.

In fact, said Jan, after 9/11, supporters sent food, flowers, and letters. She remembered one woman offering support if society members ever felt threatened; even if they needed someone to accompany members to the grocery store, locals were willing to be there for them.

All three of the mosque’s neighbors – the Chabad center, the Baptist church and Duncan’s Farm, a 40-acre parcel that has sold seasonal fruits, vegetables and flowers there since the 1940s – speak favorably of the Muslim organization. When needed, workers at the farm plow snow from the Islamic Society’s grounds each winter.

And for their part, mosque-goers offer their neighbors assistance as well.

Mohammad Jan, 72, the husband of Rehana Jan and, like her, an original society member, said that during one of the Jewish holidays – when Shabbat followed on the heels of Sukkot – Kaplan came to them for help with turning on the synagogue’s lights after sundown.

Marcy Barth, 59, of West Chester, who’s been a regular at the Chabad center for 12 years now, has her own anecdotes. Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah, she said, she and her husband, Roger, parked in the Islamic society’s lot, since the shul’s lot was full. But when services were over, they saw that the society’s parking lot was also filled; a large event was taking place there at the same time.

Just then, Aziz started waving them over, Barth said, and she expressed concern to her husband that maybe they’d overstepped their boundaries. But when they approached him, she said, he wished them a “Happy New Year” – and promptly handed them plates of picnic food.

“It just goes to show you,” she said, “that the more you get to know each other, the less tension there is going to be.”