Updated 12:55 p.m.
Confrontations have flared up in the Middle East this month over Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but members of West Philly’s Jewish and Muslim communities are standing solidly in support of one another.
Before entering the Masjid Al-Jamia mosque last Friday, a man handed a card to Rachel Wener, who was standing outside with other members of the Kol Tzedek Synagogue. “Your friendly smile and helpfulness always make a difference,” read the front.
On the inside, one word was repeated in English, Hebrew and Arabic: “Peace.”
This week marks the start of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. It’s also the fifteenth week Kol Tzedek has organized in front of Masjid Al-Jamia to show support after a small group of protesters staged an Islamophobic anti-Muslim rally there in February.
Weather notwithstanding, there has been at least one synagogue member stationed between the mosque’s men and women entrances every week, with signs bearing messages like, “Jews support our Muslim neighbors.”
The synagogue consulted mosque leaders and the West Philly Coalition Against Islamophobia before organizing the weekly gatherings, members said.
On Friday, Wener and her colleagues greeted worshippers entering the mosque with “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (“Peace be unto you”). “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” Masid Al-Jamia members responded (“And unto you peace”).
Others nodded, smiled, shook hands with the supporters or simply thanked them. One brought out water bottles and strawberries to share.
“People really, really appreciate the affirmative sign that they’re welcome and part of the community,” Wener said. “That’s both very gratifying and also a really sad comment on how Islamophobic American society is right now.”
Peaceful rallies to diminish a hateful one
Shuja Moore, director at Masjid Al-Jamia, said West Philly and the city overall is very supportive of Islam — making the incident in February more shocking.
“We basically knew that responding would be the worst reaction,” Moore said. “We as a community decided just to basically you know ignore and just…have our services. It seemed as though they were trying to provoke us to do something, but fortunately we have enough patience to just bypass it.”
He added that the mosque completely supports and appreciates the synagogue’s efforts.
Jon Argaman, a member of Kol Tzedek, said he froze when he walked past the mosque in February and saw the Islamophobic protest. Then he immediately alerted others at the synagogue, asking how they should respond.
By the time he’d mobilized members to come out, several community residents had already arrived, telling the anti-Muslim protesters their views did not reflect West Philadelphia.
The synagogue decided to hold the weekly protests as an ongoing sign of visible support. The effort falls under Kol Tzedek’s Muslim solidarity committee, one of four social-justice focused groups that the synagogue formed in November 2016.
Combating a rise in xenophobia
Those committees were developed specifically because xenophobia has increased in the U.S. since the 2016 presidential election, said Zoe Cohen, the synagogue’s cochair of justice and action work.
Hate crimes in the U.S. have increased for two consecutive years, according to the FBI’s 2016 report on hate crimes, its most recent. The number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. tripled in 2016, and 114 of these groups are currently operating, per the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Cohen added that social justice work is integral to many people’s faith at Kol Tzedek — which translates to “voice of justice.”
“It was felt that this is an important stance for us Jewish Americans to take to support…another religious minority that is being targeted in ways Jews have been targeted in the past,” she added. “Being able to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters just felt like a very powerful thing to do.”
The current events in Israel and Palestine will have no impact on Kol Tzedek’s actions, Cohen said.
Wener, chair of the Muslim solidarity committee, said the group also organized an interfaith iftar dinner — the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan — last year, but the weekly protests are its most consistent effort.
The protests have been a symbol of not just the synagogue’s support, but also of the West Philly community overall.
Amy Cohen, who practices at Kol Tzedek, said the protests helped her connect with fellow parents at the Penn Alexander School, who she has greeted before they enter the mosque. Lee Garner, a Quaker, joined Kol Tzedek on Friday for the first time, as a supportive community resident.
Any person — no matter their differences — is welcome to join the weekly event, Wener said. But they all must share one commonality: support of the Muslim community.
“America is not a Christian country,” she added. “That’s something we very strongly believe. It’s a country for every religion and for the free exercise of all religions. This is something we stand up for.”