From temple to mosque, a multifaith meeting place

From temple to mosque, a multifaith meeting place
(Saturday, January 30, 2016) 11:28

The rabbinic students had come to the mosque for a lesson on interfaith dialogue, and the West Oak Lane building was perhaps the perfect place.

Masjidullah, where Muslims pray daily, was built as a synagogue, later became a church, and now is a mosque.

Mimi Polin Ferraro, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, had her bat mitzvah there more than 40 years ago, when it was Temple Sinai. On Tuesday, she returned with her classmates, marveling at the building and its history.

"Those years were so formative to bringing me where I am now," said Ferraro, of Elkins Park. "I loved being Jewish and being in the community. I'm really grateful."


Ferraro and her schoolmates walked through a room that was once the setting for High Holiday and Easter Sunday services, and now hosts Muslims who kneel to pray in the direction of Mecca.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, director of the multifaith studies and initiatives department at the Montgomery County college, arranged the visit to help acclimate the future Jewish clergy members for their role in a multifaith world.

"Every day you read about interfaith conflict and cooperation," she said. "You need to understand something about what happens between religious groups."

Fuchs-Kreimer said her students will work in universities, hospitals, and social-justice groups. Even the synagogue qualifies as a multifaith setting these days, she said: The rate of Jewish intermarriage in the U.S. is higher than 50 percent.

"These people don't go away," Fuchs-Kreimer said. "They come back [to the synagogue] with their atheist, Muslim, and Christian partners."

The student group visited another mosque, Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in North Philadelphia, on Thursday. That mosque was recently desecrated when a pig's head was thrown outside its front door.

At Masjidullah, the students sat in a classroom that was once a chapel for a primer on the history of an African American mosque's community.

Masjidullah was founded in the early 1980s as a part of the black nationalist Nation of Islam but later became part of the more mainstream Sunni Muslim movement under the leadership of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, the son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.

"In 1975, God started evolving us" from a separatist group to a more open, mainstream Islam, said Imam Abdul-Halim Hassan, Masjidullah's assistant imam in charge of interfaith initiatives.

During the meeting, Rahimah Z. Abdullah, a retired social worker from Wyncote, talked about her evolution from Christian to Muslim after the murder of her brother.

Richard Hassan, of West Oak Lane, discussed working with Malcolm X in the 1950s when the Muslim leader was a minister at a mosque in North Philadelphia. "I am very honored to see you here today," Hassan told the students.

A longtime member, Hassan also recounted the mosque's history - from five families meeting in a house to its current building, purchased for $1 million from the former West Oak Lane Church of God in 2013.

The church had moved into the building in the 1960s after Temple Sinai moved to Dresher in Montgomery County.

A centerpiece of the visit was a talk by Lt. Col. Shareda Hosein, of Boston, an Army reservist who served in Iraq.

Hosein is a former Muslim chaplain at Tufts University and is a counselor at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. Fuchs-Kreimer said she wanted her students to hear from a feminist Muslim woman who is part of a faith often portrayed as sexist.

Hosein discussed her decision to wear a hijab each day, the racial divide between African American and immigrant Muslim communities, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She promoted the idea of women as empathetic leaders who can help "heal the world."

"There are some Muslims who can't sit at the [interfaith] table with Jews because they feel the suffering of the Palestinians has gone on too long," Hosein said. The topic is too emotional and volatile to broach in some conversations, Hosein said.

Israelis feel loss as well, said Ferraro, an assistant director of the Jewish Community High School and adjunct professor at Gratz College in Melrose Park.

"I hear a lot about the hostility toward the occupiers," she said. "But all Israelis can't be lumped together. There is a lot of pain on both sides."

The group continued to talk while sitting in a classroom that contains reminders of the building's past: stained-glass depictions of Torah scrolls on the room's double doors.

Such reminders will remain in place, Abdullah said.

"This is history," he said. "Why would we take down history?"

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