In March 2014, I was privileged to visit New York City for the first time in my life, when I accompanied my grandmother on a one-week visit to the Big Apple. My short visit to one of the most exciting cities in the world has proven to me once more that in creating great memories and experiences, touristic attractions are hardly what matter to me; the people that you meet and interact with are the ones who make a strong, memorable travelling experience. While I did get to visit some wonderful museums and to see a Broadway musical (Phantom of the Opera!) and so on, I made sure to create my own individual experience by following the advice of a dear friend: to visit a unique space of Muslim and Jewish co-existence at the Bronx borough.
I went on the train from Manhattan to the Bronx with a vague idea of how I was going to reach my destination. I got off at the station and started following the clues that were provided in this article from 2012 that was telling the story of how an ultra-orthodox Chabad community found its place inside Al-Iman mosque, which belongs to the Islamic Cultural Center of North America. After walking around for a little while and asking a few people, I managed to find the place.
I entered the Islamic center shyly, not entirely sure if I would be welcome there as an Israeli observer, showing up unexpectedly without coordination. Inside, I found several children hanging around after their Quran class. One of them led me to the manager, Amina, who apparently was her mother and also the wife of Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, who runs the mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center and many other projects in the borough.
Curious, yet cautious, Amina asked me to introduce myself and the reasons that brought me there, and so I did: Inbal, an Israeli Jewish student for History of the Middle East and Africa, a peace activist and advocator for refugee rights, blogger on African issues, visiting the city for the first time with my grandmother, who came all the way here because my best friend, who happens to be a Muslim, recommended that I would. During my introduction I felt the need to gradually add more and more titles, as at first she did not seem to understand what brought me to their neighborhood, which is far from being a tourist destination. When the collaboration with the Jewish community started in 2012, a year before, it attracted some local NY journalists, but I was the first Israeli person to visit the place, out of a personal interest, without looking for a story or business opportunity.
And so she showed me around – the offices, the praying hall and the small room that is used both as a classroom and as a religious and social center for the Chabad community, especially during the weekends. Nothing was too fancy, to say the least. The shabby building reflected in a way both the rather low budgets on which the communities rely, and the modesty that is practiced in their everyday lives.
After the short tour, I was offered the opportunity to meet with the Sheikh, who was busy with work at that time, and so I waited for almost two hours until he became available. I kept myself busy by walking around the neighborhood and later on, sitting and talking with Moussa and Amina’s 13 years old daughter. For me, it indeed felt like the best way to spend my last day in New York.
My meeting with Sheikh Moussa was great. He hosted me politely, even though I came to him as a surprise, and told me about the various purposes of the Islamic Center – what they do for the community in town and the way they work to promote peace and mutual understanding between Muslim, Jews and Christians in the city. For example, they work together with a Catholic school and a Jewish school in organizing communal inter-religious activities for the students. As a migrant from the Gambia, he was pleased to learn about my Israeli blog on Africa and discuss the situation of African migrants in Israel. We promised to keep in touch.
As an Israeli citizen and an activist I am familiar with multi-ethnic and multi-religious relationship, friendships and collaborations, but indeed, it was intriguing to witness and experience all of this in a place so far-away from my home country and region. For me, it brought up many questions about the conditions and environment in which co-existence can prevail, rather than conflicts and wars. It is also worth mentioning that Jamila, the Quran teacher at the mosque, was from Yemen. Amina, the manager and Sheikh’s wife, was a Muslim from Guyana. As I came to the Bronx to learn about Jewish-Muslim co-existence, it became very clear to me that this experience is also unique in many other ways, particular to Muslim societies and migrant societies. Indeed, I was expecting to enjoy my first time in New York, seeing and exploring new things, but for sure, I have gained from this trip more inspiration and spiritual uplifting and knowledge than I thought I would, and for that I feel grateful.