Virginia synagogue doubles as mosque for Ramadan
Muslim congregation shares space with local synagogue to accomodate overflow crowds.
On Friday afternoons, the people coming to pray at this building take off their shoes, unfurl rugs to kneel on and pray in Arabic. The ones that come Friday evenings put on yarmulkes, light candles and pray in Hebrew.
The building is a synagogue on a tree-lined street in suburban Virginia, but for the past few weeks - during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan - it has also been doubling daily as a mosque. Synagogue members suggested their building after hearing the Muslim congregation was looking to rent a place for overflow crowds.
"People look to the Jewish-Muslim relationship as conflict," said All Dulles Area Muslim Society Imam Mohamed Magid, saying it's usually disputes between the two groups in the Middle East that make news. "Here is a story that shatters the stereotype."
Magid, who grew up in Sudan, said he did not meet someone who was Jewish until after he had moved to the U.S. in his 20s, and he never imagined having such a close relationship with a rabbi. But he said the relationship with the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation has affected him and his members. Beyond being tolerant, the synagogue and its members have been welcoming.
He said one member of the mosque told him, "Next time I see a Jewish person I will not look at them the same."
Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, who leads the Reform congregation of about 500 families, said the relationship works both ways.
"You really only get to know someone when you invite them into your home ... you learn to recognize their faces. You learn the names of their children," Nosanchuk said.
The actual prayers are held in the building's social hall, which is used by the synagogue for a range of activities from educational programs to dance classes and receptions.
Both the synagogue and the mosque have a history of sharing space with other religious groups. People coming to Friday night services at the synagogue sometimes park in an adjoining church's parking lot; on Sundays, sometimes churchgoers park behind the synagogue.
And the mosque has rented space from others since it was founded in 1983.
Members have prayed in a recreation center, a high school, an office building and, for a long time, a church. As the mosque has grown, however, it has needed more space. In 2002 the community opened its own building in Sterling, Va. It holds 900 people for prayers, but the community has satellite locations to accommodate more people: a hotel, a banquet hall and even a second synagogue, Beth Chaverim Reform congregation, in Ashburn, Va.
The community began renting space at the two synagogues in 2008. They began holding daily prayers at the Ashburn synagogue and prayers on Friday afternoons, the week's main prayer service, at the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation.
This is the first year, however, they have rented space at the synagogue for the daily prayers for Ramadan, which began at the end of August. More than 100 people come to the daily services, which are held from 9 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. except for Friday, when the services are in the afternoon. The society pays the synagogue $300 a day.
The partnership isn't entirely new. The two communities have held occasional events together going back a decade: dialogues and community service. Still, some members of both communities were unsure of how things would work at first.
"When they rented the place, I was surprised, but then after that when I came here and saw how nicely everything is set up and how well done it is ... I am very happy with it," said mosque member Ambreen Ahmed.
Now, mosque members sometimes greet the rabbi with the Hebrew greeting "Shalom"; he'll answer back with the Arabic equivalent, "Salaam." Nosanchuk spoke at Friday afternoon prayers recently. The imam spoke at Friday evening Shabbat services.
Both groups say the relationship won't be over when Ramadan ends in North America over the weekend. The rabbi and imam are talking about possibly even making a joint trip to the Middle East, and Friday prayers will still be held at the synagogue.
Magid says some mosque members, in fact, have permanently moved from the mosque to the synagogue.
"Where have you been?" he asked one man who used to pray regularly at the mosque.
"You saw me in the synagogue," the man replied.
"All the time?" the imam asked.
"It's cozy, it's nice. Your parking lot is overcrowded ... and I like to be there," the man said.
The imam joked maybe the man should stay for the Sabbath service.
Said the imam: "That shows you how comfortable they have become."