To organizers of the Children of Abraham Peace Walk, an annual event in which Jews, Muslims and Christians march through various areas of Brooklyn, the idea of wending their way this year through Sheepshead Bay — to the site of a proposed mosque — seemed like “a lovely gesture,” said one the planners, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann.
But to professionals in the field of community relations, some of whom have worked in the neighborhood to ease tensions around the proposal, the idea threatened to set back months of effort to prevent those emotions from getting out of hand.
The walk took place, as planned, on June 10, drawing about 300 people. But participants, most of whom came from outside of Sheepshead Bay, were greeted at the site by about 50 protesters, nearly all of whom live directly across from the now-empty lot or within a block or two.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the community to try to dampen down feelings,” said Robert Kaplan, director of intergroup relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“Our concern is that it’s a testy situation,” said Kaplan, whose work involves trying to prevent conflict at potential trouble spots around the city. “It’s one that needs a very thoughtful, strategic approach.”
Rabbi Lippmann, however, said she and other organizers planned this year’s route not to provoke neighborhood residents, but to make a statement that “it’s important to walk anywhere in Brooklyn, a home to so many people with so many religions and cultures.”
The rabbi, a founder of the walk and spiritual leader of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives in Park Slope, described the event as neither a march nor a demonstration. Instead, she called it, “at once, a multicultural tour, a walking meditation and a movable block party.”
One of the walk’s past participants, Rabbi Simkha Weintraub of the New York Jewish Healing Center, said concerned people “always have to make a calculation between [the possibility of] fanning the flames or contributing to healing — and, sometimes, it’s not very clear. … Some people feel that if you don’t stand up, then your voice won’t be heard.”
Meanwhile, the controversy over the mosque continues unabated, with one group of opponents, Bay People, exploring further action against the proposal.
As envisioned by its planners, an informal group of local Muslims and the Virginia-based Muslim American Society, the mosque and community center would rise to four stories and serve about 1,500 people. The site is flanked on all sides by private homes, none more than two and-a-half stories, prompting fears among local residents that a quiet neighborhood will suddenly become plagued by noise, a parking shortage and security problems.
Another concern focuses on the Muslim American Society, the group with which the mosque is affiliated and that reportedly is purchasing the property from local Muslims. The same organization that hopes to build a mosque on Staten Island, MAS has historical ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement of Islamic extremists.
Those ties and other activities by MAS have drawn the attention of the Anti-Defamation League, which earlier this year issued a damning report about the organization. The ADL points to literature and speakers at MAS conventions, which “have featured known anti-Semites and provided a platform for extremist rhetoric.”
Imam Mahdi Bray, executive director of MAS, said his organization doesn’t condone anti-Semitic or extremist rhetoric. At the same time, he said, his organization is unable to patrol every speaker and every vendor at its conferences.
Similarly, Alloway Ahmed, the Sheepshead Bay businessman who banded together with Muslim neighbors to create the mosque, portrayed the group behind the proposal as moderate. One reason they desire the mosque is to ensure that their children learn about Islam from people they know rather than from extremists on the Internet, said Ahmed, 60, a native of Yemen.
Such comments, however, have failed to allay the fears of local residents, a mix of Russian-speaking Jews, Italians and people from other ethnic groups. Several protesters last week said their opposition stemmed from quality-of-life issues, not religion, and that the neighborhood includes a healthy percentage of Muslims.
“My son goes to P.S. 52, right around the corner, and 30 percent of his playmates are Muslim,” said Gary Kleyman, 38, a native of Russia. “There’s nothing wrong with any religion.”
But interviews with others, like Stella Karpishin, revealed deep suspicions about the mosque’s planners.
“It’s no secret,” said Karpishin, a Ukrainian immigrant and grandmother: “Everyone remembers Sept. 11. I’m not saying those people made it, but we all know who did it.” Referring to the American flags waved by many of the walk’s participants, she added, “They’re now pretending they’re American.”
Alex Tenenbaum, 40, an activist with Bay People, said members of his group are discussing the feasibility of legal action against the proposed mosque. A Ukrainian immigrant, Tenenbaum said his organization was established only a few months ago, in opposition to the mosque, and already has about 600 supporters.
One community leader who has tried to ease tensions, Leonard Petlakh of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA, believes that local Muslims have every right to build a mosque, calling it “the American way.” But he regrets “the lack of communication between the mosque’s builders” — mostly immigrants from Yemen — and “the rest of the community.”
Petlakh described the mosque’s planners as “extremely religious people” who tend to be insular, not unlike some groups of fervently Orthodox Jews, and said their insularity creates “a lot of distance” between them and others in the area. “You take these polar opposites” — and you have a recipe for conflict. n
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