Motivated by what he called “the Jewish obligation to welcome the stranger,” Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Montclair is leading a drive to support the building of an Islamic cultural center in Bridgewater, a plan that has met with strong opposition from some of its neighbors.
The Muslim center is seeking to construct the alFalah Center on the 7.6-acre site of a banquet hall called the Redwood Inn. Plans call for the center to include a mosque, religious school, and facilities for day care and after-school and senior citizens’ programs in a space that would accommodate 500 people.
In a Feb. 18 e-mail letter cowritten by Tepperman and cosigned by 20 other rabbis, one cantor, and five rabbinical students, the religious leader of the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet synagogue called on the people of Bridgewater “to affirm their commitment to religious freedom and to seriously consider options that would allow for the building of this mosque within its borders.”
The appeal was sent on the letterhead of the Jewish Voice for Peace. According to Tepperman, many of its signatories were members of the organization’s Rabbinic Advisory Council, and the letter was sent to New Jerseyans on the JVP mailing list.
The JVP was branded by the Anti-Defamation League in October as one of the top 10 “most influential and active anti-Israel groups in the United States.” In a Feb. 21 phone interview, Tepperman told NJ Jewish News he “would reject any claim that it is an anti-Israel group.” (See sidebar.)
Despite a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which gives wide latitude to the siting of houses of worship in residential areas, officials in Bridgewater are seeking to block the center’s construction.
On Feb. 8 its planning board unanimously agreed to a recommended change in the township’s master plan that would require such institutions as houses of worship, schools, and country clubs to be located on major roads or county roadways rather than in residential areas.
Those objecting to the center, such as Somerset County Tea Party leader James Lefkowitz, said they are “opposed to anything of that size being in that neighborhood.”
Lefkowitz, a Bound Brook resident, told NJJN in a Feb. 20 telephone interview, “The fact that the center would contain a Muslim, rather than Christian or Jewish, house of worship doesn’t trouble me at all. The homeowner associations who have been leading the fight against this have been very much focused on a land-use issue only. Period. End of story.”
A spokesperson for the alFalah Center, Sara Wallace, told NJJN her organization “as a gesture of goodwill” agreed to withdraw plans for opening an elementary school and made sure its application “conformed to every existing law.”
“We completed traffic studies to ensure this would be an appropriate site for the size of our congregation, consulted engineers, and even agreed to widen the access road and install a traffic light — all to protect the safety of the community.
“So we’re really shocked and disappointed to find a campaign like this launched to change the laws from under our feet.”
To Tepperman, land-use issues pose “a reasonable question. I know one has to be careful with that because often potentially legitimate concerns are pushed up against much less legitimate concerns. In one breath, people say things very much deserving of consideration, like parking. Then, in the next breath, they say, ‘And we’re concerned if it might be a terrorist organization.’ When I hear those things side-by-side it makes me very suspicious that parking is not the main concern and the concerns are primarily being fueled by prejudiced assumptions about Muslims.”
“Certainly a Muslim mosque raises questions about where the money is coming from and the principals involved and any association with terrorism,” said the Tea Party’s Lefkowitz. “I have not brought that forward to raise opposition awareness to this mosque, but I am certainly not going to apologize for asking that question.”
Wallace called the issues of funding sources and association with terrorism “ugly insinuations” that “betray by their nature an anti-Muslim bias…. People of good conscience should not stand for this type of scapegoating or guilt by association.”
“Questioning the purpose of a religious institution and the source of funding is unconstitutional, and shames our American tradition of religious tolerance,” she wrote in an e-mail to NJJN.
Tepperman agreed. “If we are concerned with extremist violence, we have a lot of internal places to look before we start looking at the Muslim community. One good place to look is what happened to Rep. Giffords,” he said, referring to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) by an angry constituent who killed six people and wounded 13 others outside a Tucson supermarket on Jan. 8.
The rabbi said the Muslims involved with alFalah “are people who are coming here to build a community and uphold values that the majority of Americans would understand to be righteous, loving, and justice-seeking. It was not that long ago that Jews were having trouble getting congregations built and certain neighborhoods were not interested in having Jewish neighbors. That history and that memory are strong in the minds of many Jews and certainly is something I take very seriously.
“At a time like this when there are examples in our country of anti-Muslim prejudice,” said Tepperman, “we need to go beyond what we normally do to show welcome and support.”
“There is no reason in 2011 for anybody to be afraid of having a Muslim neighbor,” the rabbi added. “In fact, there is a need to welcome a mosque and to welcome in any community the opportunity to have religious diversity. I would be delighted to have local Muslim partners that Bnai Keshet could work with. Every community is enriched by having multiple faiths.”