That Time When I, a Rabbi, Prayed in a Mosque

How comfortable, I wondered, should I feel in this space?

A Jewish man draped in a tallit prays in a mosque at JFK airport, New York, April 2016.
Yehoshua Looks

When traveling, I usually don’t have the luxury of choosing where to pray. It’s usually my airline seat or in a corner of the gate area while waiting for my next flight. Last week, after flying all night from California to New York, I had six hours at JFK airport before my connecting El Al flight home to Tel Aviv.

I decided to find a place that would be conducive to praying the morning service and followed the signage to the airport chapels. Two were Christian and one was labeled multi-faith. Upon entering the multi-faith chapel, I saw two carpeted areas, separated by a wall. There was also a sign requesting no sleeping, eating, or drinking in the mesjid (mosque). Beneath the sign was a pair of shoes. Someone was inside praying.

Halakhically (according to Jewish law), it is not forbidden to pray in a mosque, as there are no visible symbols and Islam is a monotheistic religion. But, prayer requires a settled mind. How comfortable did I feel in this space?

A colleague of mine was recently considering hosting a group of Muslim high school students from overseas at his synagogue for Friday evening services. With the constant threat of violence from radical Islamic groups worldwide weighing heavily on some congregants’ minds, there was unease about bringing a potential danger into their building. But with Passover approaching, during which we welcome the stranger to dine with us as we retell our story of journeying from slavery to freedom, I wondered: To what extent are we required to compromise our peace of mind and sense of security to be welcoming of the stranger?

I believe the answer to this question can be found in the obligation to provide hospitality to guests in both Judaism and Islam. In the Torah, after his circumcision at the age of 99, Abraham, in pain, is sitting at the entrance to his and Sarah’s tent, on the lookout for potential guests. G-d appears to offer comfort and Abraham leaves to attend to three desert travelers. If Abraham breaks off an encounter with G-d, the commandment to provide hospitality to strangers must be great.

In Islam, the Prophet Mohammad is quoted in Sahih Muslim as saying, “Let the believer in G-d and the Day of Judgment honor his guest.” The obligation to provide hospitality is a triangular relationship among the host, the guest, and G-d. By providing hospitality to a guest, the host shows honor to G-d.

A sign requesting no sleeping, eating, or drinking in the mosque at JFK airport, New York, April 2016.
Yehoshua Looks

On Friday nights, my wife and I regularly host groups visiting Israel. Since, for most, it’s the first time they’ve experienced a traditional Shabbat meal, we provide full explanations; from Shalom Aleichem (the opening welcome to the Shabbat angels) to the blessing after the meal. Over the years, we have welcomed guests from a wide range of faith communities. With all of them, we take time to reflect and to answer questions in an environment of safe space.

When trust is established, our differences become much less significant as we discover together that what unites us in belief is much greater than what divides us. Just as our guests are appreciative of the hospitality we offer, their sharing of themselves with us in our home is a most precious reciprocal gift.

My colleague did proceed with his program with the Muslim high school students. After the conclusion of the traditional Friday evening prayer service, he gave his guests the opportunity to share with the congregation their experiences of being in America or anything else on their minds. One female Muslim student in a hijab very touchingly shared how moved she was reading the Jewish prayers and how similar some of them were to Muslim prayer. She expressed how it made her feel very connected to Judaism and to the Jewish people. 

Initially, standing at the entrance to the two prayer areas at JFK, I felt as an unexpected guest in another’s home. In deference to my host, I removed my shoes and walked tentatively onto the unoccupied carpeted space. I wrapped myself in my tallit (prayer shawl) and put on my tefillin (phylacteries).

A mosque is positioned to face Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed’s birthplace, Islam’s holiest city. From New York, it is in the same direction as Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest city, where we incline our hearts when we pray. I opened my siddur (prayer book) and began to pray the morning service. My head and heart were content as I settled into that holy space, my gracious host, feeling at home.

Over the course of my prayers, additional pairs of shoes were left and retrieved outside the space on the other side of my wall. As I was finishing up, a fellow Jew entered the chapel. He was also from Jerusalem and I recognized him from my neighborhood synagogue. Seeing me in my stockinged feet, he slipped off his shoes and entered the space to join me in prayer.

As Islam teaches, hospitality is based on a triangular relationship among the host, the guest, and G-d, engendering trust and understanding. When we allow ourselves to step out of our comfort zones, we walk in another’s shoes. In my case, it was when I stepped out of my shoes that I was reminded of my own Divine image in the other.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.