Jews open wallets, hope for more dialogue after mosque arson
As arsons go, the fire at a mosque in New Tampa on Feb. 24 was not a blazing inferno, but the criminal act stoked an outpouring of support by the local Jewish community that could promote stronger ties between Muslims and Jews in the Tampa Bay area.
“There is a strange silver lining in all of this. I find it is so beautiful that these acts of hate are responded with acts of love and friendship – the perfect response to those trying to be divisive,” said Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa.
He was speaking about how the local Jewish community, as well as people of other faiths, have responded to the arson at the Daarus Salaam mosque, which in Arabic means House of Peace. Informally known as the Islamic Society of New Tampa, the mosque usually draws 500 to its Friday service and more than 700 during Ramadan, according to Bilal Saleh, a member of the mosque’s executive committee.
The day after the fire, another member of the mosque, Adeel Karim, set up a fundraising page on LaunchGood.com with a goal of raising $40,000 to apply to the cost of repairing damage, caused more from water than flames.
A curious thing happened when, without organization or prompting, individual members of the Jewish community began making donations to the fund. Then, as leaders of local Jewish organizations talked to one another about the arson, they concluded the act of hatred required a united response from Jews throughout the Tampa Bay area.
In a rare act of collaboration, the Jewish Community Relations Councils from the Tampa Jewish Federation and from the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties joined with the Tampa Rabbinical Association and the Pinellas Board of Rabbis to craft a letter of support to the Islamic Society of New Tampa.
Additionally, a number of rabbis from both sides of the Bay agreed to tap into their discretionary funds to help with repairs to the mosque. Collections aren’t complete but more than $1,000 has been raised as of presstime.
The letter, mailed March 1, states that the groups, “express our sympathy and outrage … over the arson, which we consider a hate crime.” The Jewish community “views this crime not only as an attack on the Islamic Society of New Tampa, Tampa’s Muslim community, but as an attack on all of Tampa Bay and its religious institutions,” the letter continues.
The letter noted that the Bay area’s Jewish community “condemns this criminal act,” views it as no different from an attack on a synagogue and stands beside the Muslim community.
A lesson on chai
Quickly after Karim set up the fundraising site, he noticed something curious about some of the donations and commented on it on his Facebook page: “I couldn’t understand why people were donating in what seemed like weird amounts to the cause. There are sums of 18, 36, 72.00 dollars etc. then I figured out after clicking on the names Avi, Cohen, Goldstein, Rubin, Fisher .... Jews donate in multiples of 18 as a form of what is called “Chai.” It wishes the recipient a long life. You learn something new every day. The Jewish faith has shown up in force to support our New Tampa Islamic community. I’m floored.”
In Hebrew the word “chai” means “life” and its two letters have a numeric value of 18.
In less than a week donations had reached about $60,000 and as of March 10 were at $77,137. Mustafa Ameen, a spokesperson for the mosque, said people of many faiths contributed, but about 60 percent of the 2,001 donations seemed to be from Jews.
Ameen said the response to the fundraising effort and act of arson has been “overwhelming” and he hopes it leads to better relations with the Jewish community.
The show of support in recent weeks has been a two-way street as Muslims in St. Louis and Philadelphia responded to vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in those cities with their own outpouring of funds and demonstrations of support for those Jewish communities. Both Karim and Ameen, as well as Muslims across the nation, also noted the recent waves of bomb threats to JCCs throughout the country and condemned them.
Call for more dialogue
While several area rabbis expressed pride in the Jewish community’s response to the arson attack, they feel what should come next is a greater dialogue between local Jews and Muslims, pointing out that both religions are no stranger to acts of hatred and bigotry. Several saw the fire as a catalyst for forging new relationships.
“The best case scenario” that could result from the arson attack, “is a coming together in friendship and learning opportunities, so the next time something like this happens, we do not have to scramble to respond,” said Rabbi Danielle Upbin, chair of the Pinellas Board of Rabbis. She and her husband, Rabbi David Weizman, lead Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater.
Rabbi Betsy Torop, chair of the Tampa Rabbinical Association, expressed similar sentiments.
“Our hope,” Rabbi Torop said, “is this [arson] will not only create a dialogue, but we hope this act of mutual cooperation and shared fight against hatred and the broader societal situation – in which hate and intolerance has found an expression in many ways” can bring about a united response.
Rabbi Rosenberg at Beth Am had already started building bridges with local Muslims before the arson took place. He said that the election season seemed to generate a lot of hate speech and that soon after President Trump issued his initial travel ban, the level of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the news and elsewhere seemed to be getting worse, so he called the mosque and said he and a group of his congregants wanted “to come sit with them at prayer time – to sit and show a sign of solidarity with them and to learn what their prayer life was like.” The visit was “was phenomenally well received,” he said.
Within just days of that visit the arsonist struck at the mosque, in the early hours of Friday, Feb. 24, Rabbi Rosenberg and a group of congregants attended an interfaith service with members of the mosque that evening, even though it meant getting a lay leader to take over the Shabbat eve service at Beth Am.
Many Muslims came up to him and others in his group to thank them for their support, he said, and one woman, in tears, recalled how alone she felt as a young girl after the 9/11 attacks when no one would talk to her or smile at her.
Rabbi Rosenberg said his congregation intends to keep developing bonds with the members of the New Tampa mosque and that since the arson he has heard many conversations in the Jewish community that he hopes will “expand to a community effort and hopefully the engagement will as well.”
As for the fundraising efforts by Muslims for repair to the cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, Rabbi Rosenberg said, “It has been fantastic. It has been more of the same. Responding to hate with love.”
Ameen noted that a luncheon was set for Sunday, March 12 to thank the many donors who gave to the mosque fund.
Surveillance video shows the attacker tried to break a window to get inside the mosque, but could only make small holes in it, then started a fire outside the entrance. Ameen said the fire did not do a lot of damage, but smoke seeped through holes in the window and set off water sprinklers, flooding some areas with 3 to 4 inches of water.
Enough damage has been repaired by now to allow worship in the mosque, but some areas are still sealed off, Ameen said, adding that he hopes in about two weeks, all repairs will be done.
He said the funds raised will go for three things: “One is to rebuild, two is to enhance security and three is to use the funds to increase interfaith dialogue. We plan to host people and have events for interfaith gatherings.”