NEW YORK — Anyone passing by the Islamic Center at New York University on Friday afternoon and observing a small group of people standing outside with signs could easily mistake the gathering for a protest.
But a closer look at the handwritten messages outside this mosque by Washington Square Park tells a different story.
“Jews stand with Muslims,” says one. “Jews support our Muslim Friends,” reads another.
Those holding the signs — a group of about a dozen Jews brought together by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah — show up every Friday to greet Muslim worshippers, rain or shine.
“My Shabbat practice really starts when I come down here; I stand outside, it’s generally nice, right near the park, and I have people for almost two hours saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘Bless you,’” says Harold Levine, co-chair of the initiative. “It just feels like the right thing to do.”
The idea came exactly three years ago, the day after Donald Trump was elected president. After an election campaign built on talks of a Muslim ban, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum at CBST felt the need to do something for the local Muslim community.
“I think there were just five people that first Friday,” recalls Rabbi Marisa James, CBST’s director for social justice programming, as she stands on the sidewalk. “They scribbled quick signs on the train on the way here,” she adds.
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“In the wake of a tragedy, everybody says 'We stand with you' — the Jewish community experiences this all the time — but three weeks later, what’s going on?” she asks, occasionally interrupting herself to greet incoming worshippers with a “Salaam alaikum.”
The group, which refers to its initiative as The House of Peace, braved freezing temperatures to show up on Friday. With strong winds buffeting them, they were quickly invited to continue their display of solidarity inside.
Although they are here every week, their presence had a special significance on Friday.
This weekend marks the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis conducted a violent pogrom against Jews in Germany, torching synagogues and vandalizing Jewish-owned businesses and homes. Officially, 91 Jews were killed (scholars now put the figure in the hundreds), while tens of thousands of Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
“My parents fled Hitler, that’s my direct connection,” says Steve Lippmann, who comes here almost every week. “I was the victim of persecution at various times as a Jew here in the United States, so I have great sympathy for what the Muslims are going through.”
Levine adds: “To be here on Kristallnacht is to say we can do for Muslims in the United States what the Germans in Germany did not do for us. We’ve seen what can happen in a nation if one religious group is demonized and we don’t show up for them; we learned our lessons as Jews.”
Among the regulars at the House of Peace weekly gathering is Rick Landman, a retired lawyer. His father was arrested by the Nazis on Kristallnacht and sent to Dachau concentration camp at age 18.
“Can you imagine if in 1933, when all of this anti-Jewish hatred was being shown, if people would have stood in front of synagogues? Or, even better, on Kristallnacht if people would have stood in front of synagogues?” he told Haaretz in a phone interview earlier this week. “That is why almost every week I go there.”
When he is not taking care of his elderly mother, Landman’s week is spent volunteering for many social justice causes. On Mondays, he donates his time as a lawyer in housing court; on Wednesdays he helps asylum seekers at the CBST legal clinic; on Thursdays he serves people in a soup kitchen; and on Fridays he joins his peers at the Islamic Center at NYU.
“It’s silly for me to just stay home and go to plays and movies and go on vacation,” he explains. “If you’re a child of two Holocaust survivors and you grow up with just images, memories of people whom you have never met,” you want to volunteer, he says.
Landman, who also identifies as gay, grew up hearing stories about his family during World War II and considers them to be a defining part of who he is.
“I have an upbringing of knowing that you have to stand up immediately and fight when people start down the road of dehumanizing people,” he says. “As a gay person and a Jewish person, I wouldn’t have lasted very long in Nazi Germany. And even in America there are many people out there who hate me even before they met me.”
As worshippers walk into the Islamic Center, they nod at the Jewish group and smile. Some even exchange a few words, as they have become acquainted over the past three years.
“It means a lot,” a Muslim man passing by tells Haaretz. “I don’t think we can really pay back what [they] have done for us. It’s heartwarming.”
The man, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that hearing about the experience and history of Jewish people makes a big difference for him, as “they understand the pain.”
“It’s an emotional connection,” he adds. “We have become good friends now.”