As Jewish-Muslim tensions rise in Brooklyn, two communities try dinner, and tolerance.
Within days of the June 12 abduction of the three Israeli yeshiva students, Nourhan Elbassiony’s Facebook feed began to change. By the time the boys’ bodies were discovered two weeks later and a Palestinian was burned alive in an apparent revenge attack, the Sheepshead Bay college student’s social media feed had become a battlefield of its own.
Elbassiony, a particularly gregarious Egyptian-American 20-year-old, has a wide circle of both Jewish and Muslim friends. As tensions rose overseas, she saw the vitriol boil over on both sides.
“People were posting hateful remarks — it was just very negative, and I took it really personally,” said the 20-year-old Adelphi University exercise science major.
To stress to her friends on both sides that the people they were bashing are, well, people, she decided to organize a dinner for South Brooklyn’s Jewish and Muslim communities, and last Friday night more than 240 Jews and Muslims took part in the “Fast for Peace” Shabbat/Iftar dinner at the Kings Bay Y's Sheepshead Bay community center.
Nineteen-year-old Eman Elkomy came to the dinner to support Elbassiony, a cousin, but also to take a stand. Most of her friends are Palestinian and many have had cousins die in Gaza. Every day, on Arabic news channels and in person, she hears hatred directed against the Jewish community.
“All the Muslims, they really dislike all the Jews. They’re blaming them and they shouldn’t,” said Elkomy, who is studying to be a surgical technician at Kingsborough Community College.
“You see how people blame Muslims for what happened in 9/11, But they didn’t do anything. … That’s how I feel about Jews — they didn’t do anything, they’re here,” she said.
Elbassiony teamed up with Kilash Persad an Orthodox, Israeli-army-bound, 18-year-old who works with her at the Kings Bay Y’s summer camp.
He jumped at the chance to help organize the event. “I see people’s Facebook profiles changing to say: ‘Hate the Muslims, Hate the Jews,’ but at the end of the day we’re all people … we all have to coexist,” he said.
Then the Y’s teen program took up the cause, with about 15 Muslim and 12 Jewish teens pulling the event together.
The dinner took place as tensions between Jews and Muslims in Brooklyn climbed. Just days earlier, Muslims were harassed outside two Brooklyn mosques.
On July 18, a Friday evening, a 46-year-old man was pelted with eggs thrown from a car in front of the Thayba Islamic Center in Midwood. Someone in the car also shouted, “This is for your Allah,” before driving away, according to police.
Two days later, at about 4 a.m. on July 20, a car drove back and forth in front of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge blaring makeshift sirens and lights and waving an Israeli flag. Then a worshipper in his 20s threw a broken bottle at the car, grabbed the flag and ran. The bottle hit one occupant in the head and cut his face and a piece of glass cut another person on the wrist, police said. The NYPD’s hate crime unit is investigating both crimes, which police don’t think are related. As of Monday, no arrests had been made, police said.
But the tensions in Gaza and on the streets of Brooklyn were avoided during the dinner, which was aimed at introducing the two communities to each other’s customs. About two-dozen guests, equally split between Jews and Muslims, took up the offer to light Shabbat candles, and local Jewish and Muslim leaders led prayers. There was a video about Ramadan and later an impromptu singing of the Hebrew-Arabic peace song “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” during which Jewish and Muslim teens and children joined arms and swayed (see video on our Facebook page).
The crowd was about two-thirds Muslim and one-third Jewish. Although about a dozen people from Elbassiony’s extended family came, including her restaurateur parents who cooked the meal, she recruited most of the Muslim attendees by speaking at several South Brooklyn mosques. Rabbi Shlomo Segal, whose congregation, Kehilat Moshe, uses the Y for services, sent out announcements on listservs and Facebook. And while organizers feared not enough people would come to an event held on a summer Friday evening, in the end, the room was so packed that extra chairs and tables had to be brought in and the hosts nearly ran out of food.
Charlie Ulrich, 61, a federal claims representative who lives in Midwood, found out about the event through Kehilat Moshe’s Facebook posts.
“With all the negativity going on in both sides it’s very important for people to communicate,” said Ulrich. He’s Orthodox, but attends synagogues ranging from the Conservative Park Slope Jewish Center to a “shtiebel” in Midwood to Chabad. “There are too many walls between people … between Jews, too,” he said.
The dinner is part of the Y’s long-term effort to build relationships with Brooklyn’s Muslim communities. Three years ago, the organization’s teen program joined with youth from the Turkish Cultural Center of Brooklyn to create “Peace Builders,” a volunteer organization that meets biweekly, volunteering at soup kitchens and food pantries and with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
Adults joined the bridge-building effort as well, with leaders from both institutions traveling together to Turkey and then later to Israel. (Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, in which 10 Turks were killed when their boat, which was trying to run the blockade of Gaza as part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, was boarded by members of the Israeli navy.) Officials from both centers have each other over for dinner several times a year and they’ve held two annual community friendship dinners. The second, cohosted by Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights and the Universal Foundation, was held July 24, the day before Elbassiony and Persad’s dinner.
“It’s not the one-time, single events that are important,” said Daniel Zeltser, the Y’s assistant executive director. “We’re hoping to really make this a continuous building of relationships.”
Zeltser goes to dinner at the homes of friends from the Turkish community “every couple of months, as you do with any friend. We meet for coffee. … We can call each other when we need help,” he said.
“When it’s real, it’s different,” he added.
Elbassiony and Persad’s dinner adds Brooklyn’s Egyptian and Palestinian communities into the mix — and shows how much community building still needs to be done. With few exceptions, Jews sat on one side of the Y’s meeting room and Muslims on the other — until Elbassiony, eternally the camp counselor, led a get-to-know-you exercise that forced the crowds to briefly mix.
But despite the hesitancy to mingle, goodwill pervaded the event. At the end of the nearly-three-hour evening, person after person approached the Y’s Zeltser, suggesting ways to build on the evening, such as a Jewish-Muslim moms group and a cross-cultural cooking group.
“It took me 20 minutes to cross the room,” he said, not unhappily. “I was approached by six separate people.”
Kehilat Moshe’s Rabbi Segal, who brought his wife and two young daughters to the event, also felt it was a good start.
“It’s nice to hear some moderate voices,” he said. “It’s nice not to be just talking about tolerance but to actually break bread and learn about each other’s communities."
“I find that when you come together to learn about each other," he added, "we see each other in a new light. It’s a real relationship.”
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