by Andrew M Rosemarine
An unprecedented event in the history of human prayer has set souls alight with inspiration. As a hazzan, a cantor, who has led synagogue prayers around the world, it would be remiss of me, not to share it with you.
When a Canadian town’s only mosque was fire-bombed the night after the recent Paris massacres, the local synagogue volunteered to share facilities with the mosqueless Muslims. The president of the Beth Israel synagogue in Peterborough, Ontario, approached his board to suggest they help the Masjid al-Salaam (mosque of Peace). They unanimously agreed, and told the Muslims, “Whatever you need, we will support you.” Kenzu Abdella, the head of the mosque, was taken aback by the offer to share premises. He’d never thought of Jews coming to his assistance, but he accepted. The shul board welcomed him and his flock to the shul for the following Friday Muslim prayers and a dinner. The Muslim leader said “We are working together. We have more similarities than differences. We have so much in common – the details of worship and the ceremonies. Even the stories we hear are similar. At the end of the day, it’s another House of G-d.”
My Canadian colleague, Leon Litvack, serves this shul as its High Holidays’ hazzan. He is pleased by the solidarity shown between the two communities, and struck by the wider implication of this co-operation: “If we all took more time to treat those around us with sensitivity and understanding, we too could do unique things and show how well we could stand together.”(British Jewry can be proud of its connection with the shul through him, for he studied under London cantors Stephen Robins and Jacky Chernett, and is a professor at our Queen’s University in Belfast.)
My own reaction is a little less restrained. Jews and Muslims sharing a shul! Wow! This is wholly unprecedented in 14 centuries of Jewish-Muslim interaction. Abraham-Ibrahim, Father to both religions, “Thou shouldst be living at this hour!”
Jewish help to Muslims has been common in history. When Islam’s Prophet Mohammed fled his persecutors in his native Mecca, Jews in Medina welcomed him. When Berber hero Tariq bin Ziyad crossed the Straights of Gibraltar and invaded Spain, it was the Jews who opened the gates of the cities, keen to throw off the noose of their Visigoth persecutors. Shmuel HaNagid, the great rabbi and poet, served as both vizier and the head of the army of Granada’s Berber prince Badis, (surely one of the Goodies, in spite of his name.)
Muslims have also helped Jews often. Beyazid II gave refuge to Jews expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella, and Ataturk welcomed Jewish professors fleeing Hitler. The rector of the Paris mosque gave hundreds of Jews refuge there during the Shoah.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, the head of Islam in that country, showed himself a paradigm of true religion, during the rededication of a synagogue, the Slat al Fassiyin, in Fez, two years ago. An extraordinary address by the king, delivered by his Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, was overlooked by much of the world’s press, but deserves repeating. He said “We call for the restoration of all synagogues in our Kingdom…We are invested with the responsibility of ensuring Freedom of Religion including for Judaism. Its loyal devotees are citizens whom We care for constantly and solicitously.”
It’s particularly appropriate that Jews help Muslims now, when both communities are under fire. Most of the murders in the Paris massacres were at the Bataclan concert-hall, believed by the terrorists to be Jewish-owned (as it was, until September,) and targeted for that reason. Now Jews are showing Muslims, that they want to help, when Muslims are under attack.
Peterborough’s shul President, Larry Gillman, showed us the path to improved relations, with wisdom. saying, “We have to stick together. I hope this can be some kind of example to others.” Gillman and mosque leader Abdella had never met before the firebombing. Now their relationship has since blossomed, and the synagogue is helping Muslim refugees from Syria.
Britain’s leading hazzan, Gedalya Alexander, reacting to the shul’s hospitality, told me “This is truly a wonderful thing. For our prophet Isaiah said “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.””
The shul’s and the mosque’s solidarity is the best message to give to Jihadis and other religious bigots – we won’t let the Jihadis divide us. Let Leviticus’ “Love thy neighbour” triumph over their hate.
Former scholar of Israel’s National Academy of Hazzanut, and former Fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for Peace, Jerusalem, Barrister Andrew M Rosemarine runs an international law office. InternationalLawForYou@gmail.com