U.S. Muslims Raise $190,000 for Burial of Jewish Pittsburgh Victims

Islamic Center of Pittsburgh head tells Jewish families: If it’s guarding the synagogue, if it’s walking to the grocery store, we’ll be there to support you

Wasi Mohamed from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh is hugged by a rabbi during a service to honor the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at the Tree Of Life synagogue, October 28, 2018.
AFP

NEW YORK – After the tragic events had unfolded at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, the director of a local mosque thought of an added burden the families of the 11 victims would have to face: funeral costs.

“Jewish and Muslim burial practices are very similar, so we thought we could do something,” said Islamic Center of Pittsburgh Executive Director Wasi Mohamed. So they decided to help raise money for the funeral costs.

Suspected shooter Robert Bowers’ attack at the synagogue in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill has been termed the deadliest anti-Semitic crime in U.S. history. Soon after the shooting, explained Mohamed, his Islamic center tapped into the national networks of two other U.S. Muslim nonprofits – MPower Change and CelebrateMercy – to help raise money.

They set up a crowdfunding page, called Muslims United to Help Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Victims, and soon went beyond their initial target.

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Members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York stand outside the NYU Islamic Center on October 30, 2018.
Harold Levine

“The original goal was $25,000, which is a lot of money, but [for] funerals it’s very expensive and it’s really not a lot,” said Mohamed. So they increased the target to $75,000, but by Sunday evening – following a well-publicized speech by Mohamed about the need for the community to come together – Muslim contributions had poured in from all over the country.

As of Tuesday afternoon, they had raised nearly $190,000 for the victims’ families.

“It’s a very tragic time and we don’t want them to worry about any bills, any [other] stresses, and just [be able to] mourn and grieve and take their time,” explained Mohamed.

“Whatever the community needs, we’ll be there for them,” he added. “If it’s guarding the synagogue; if it’s walking to the grocery store; if it’s to help them do anything they need to do in the city that they don’t feel comfortable [with] – we’ll be there to support them.”

Mohamed’s offer came after the American-Jewish community’s own actions on behalf of the Muslim community since Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016.

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“[Since the] Friday after the [2016] elections, I gathered members of my community and … we stood in front of [a New York] mosque and said, ‘Jewish New Yorkers stand with our Muslim neighbors,’” said Sharon Kleinbaum, a senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. “We’ve been there every Friday since the inauguration of Trump because his anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant rhetoric has unleashed forces of hate in this country that are frightening.”

Screenshot of the crowdfunding page for Muslims Unite to Help Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Victims.
Screenshot

Ayisha Irfan, an organizer in the Muslim community in New York, has seen Kleinbaum’s troop of supporters outside the Islamic Center at New York University for the last two years.

On the morning of the synagogue attack, Irfan was about to embark on an annual trip with friends when she opened Twitter and learned about the shooting. “I personally have been targeted in the last two weeks,” she said, “so [I felt] just sheer horror, realizing that this is bigger than myself – all our communities are getting targeted.”

While she was unable to attend a vigil in New York on Saturday evening, along with a friend she organized a solidarity event for this Friday. They plan to stand outside Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and join them for Shabbat services in the evening.

“What’s become really clear is that white supremacy impacts our communities in different ways, but the root of all this violence against our communities is the same,” said Irfan, adding that she has seen Muslim and Jewish groups work together against prejudices since she began organizing eight years ago.

Kleinbaum echoed those sentiments. “I’m proud to be a Jew, and the most important response to anti-Semitism is to be more Jewish,” she said. “And part of my being more Jewish is bringing more light and love to the world, and making sure those who are likewise targeted – like Muslims and immigrants in this country – feel the Jewish presence in the face of hate.”

Irfan isn’t sure how many people will attend Friday’s solidarity event. But communities have been banding together in light of such attacks, indicating there might be a positive turnout – similar to the response for Mohamed’s fundraising.   

“Obviously, you can’t expect a tragedy like this, but then the response was also really unexpected,” said Mohamed.

“The issue is not really how much something costs,” said Kleinbaum. “The issue is how much Muslims have come together to raise money to support the Jewish community, which is breaking the narrative of hate that many people in both of our communities want us to accept.”