by Sean Kirst/The Post-Standard
4 May 2012
A message for Shabbat: Love and mercy from the same God.
A quiet friendship breaks down walls: Photo (below) Imam Yaser Alkhooly (right), of the Islamic Society of Central New York, Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord in Syracuse and Mohamed Khater (left), president of the Islamic Society. They’re pictured here at the Islamic Society; Alkhooly and Khater will speak tonight at Temple Concord.
Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord was walking across a driveway last winter when he slipped and fell. While Fellman manages to laugh about the pain — leave it to him, he says, to find the only patch of black ice in Syracuse during an historically mild winter — the impact was no joke. It broke his back.
He soon heard from many worried friends, including Yaser Alkhooly and Mohamed Khater of the Islamic Society of Central New York. Alkhooly is imam – a religious leader and teacher – at the Comstock Avenue mosque, while Khater serves as president of the Islamic Society. Fellman was not surprised at their concern, even if that bond might be startling to Americans accustomed to supposed animosity between Muslims and Jews.
“I remember I brought some of the kids from our temple over here (to the Islamic Society) and they saw me put my arm around Yaser and Mohamed, and they were shocked,” Fellman said. “They were amazed, but I thought it’s good that we show them we can care about each other, as we want them to care about each other.”
The connection takes the spotlight tonight, when Alkhooly and Khater visit Temple Concord to speak during Shabbat, or the observance of the Jewish sabbath. Alkhooly said he intends to address the “two central components” of Islam, which involve the “oneness of worshipping one God” and the need for all Muslims to show mercy.
Those qualities, he said, provide a unifying factor for three great religions whose roots begin with Abraham — Islam, Judaism and Christianity. As for Khater, he intends to make a similar point: “We might have different laws, each of our religions might ask us to do different things, but in the end we have the same God and the values are really similar.”
Fellman said the friendship goes back for a few years, to the angry national dispute about the potential opening of an Islamic community center near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. Because the men who attacked the twin towers came from Muslim backgrounds, some Americans saw it as inappropriate to build a center for Islamic culture near a place of tragedy.
For his part, Fellman viewed those objections as baseless. He does not blame the millions of Muslims across the world for the actions of a few, any more than he would blame all Christians or Jews for the criminal actions of individuals raised within those faiths. Fellman made that point during an appearance on Central Issues, a WCNY television program hosted by George Kilpatrick. Alkhooly was a guest on the same show. Afterward, the two men found themselves sharing tales about their children.
“Yaser and I began to get to know each other,” Fellman said. The conversations became more frequent when Fellman, Khater and Alkhooly all served on ACTS, or The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse. That coalition of local religious groups is dedicated to helping those of any faith who suffer from need or neglect.
“We live in Syracuse,” Alkhooly said, “and we all want to improve the city.”
The three friends concede they have political differences about Israel, the fate of the Palestinians and the Middle East. But political disagreements, they said, should not be enough to shatter larger commonalities. Indeed, one way toward resolving seemingly impossible global stalemates may be through small steps in faraway communities.
Work together, they agree, and it becomes impossible to see each other as the enemy.
Khater and Alkhooly noted how fear of the stranger has applied to each wave of American immigrants. Those barriers were easier to overcome, they said, when groups from different nations attended the same church. The fact that Muslims go to a mosque and Jews to a synagogue can still trigger suspicions about the motivations of each group.
What’s important to remember, Alkhooly said, is that American Muslims have the same goals as anyone else: They want peace, security and education for their children.
With Khater, Alkhooly will bring that message tonight to Temple Concord. While the three men say it will be a significant event, Fellman said it is only one result of the outreach that Khater and others within the Islamic Society have been doing for a long time.
“This is really nothing new,” Fellman said. “Mohamed has spent years and years building bridges in this community. If you ask me, for the rest of us, the real question is: Why has it taken this long?”
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard