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Post-Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, N.J. Jews and Muslims seek stronger bonds

In the aftermath of the deaths of 11 Jewish people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, vigils and other events in South Jersey are strengthening connections between Jews and Muslims.

Afia Yunus of Cherry Hill, a lawyer well known among South Jersey Muslim-Americans, addressed an interfaith gathering in Pennsauken the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. The event drew hundreds of people and was arranged by Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, of the Nefshanu Jewish community of South Jersey.
Afia Yunus of Cherry Hill, a lawyer well known among South Jersey Muslim-Americans, addressed an interfaith gathering in Pennsauken the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. The event drew hundreds of people and was arranged by Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, of the Nefshanu Jewish community of South Jersey.Read moreAVI STEINHARDT/For the Inquirer

The day after 11 Jewish people were shot dead at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Afia Yunus — a prominent South Jersey Muslim American — spoke at an interfaith community vigil in Pennsauken.

"The moment I heard [the news], my heart broke," she said, standing before several hundred people at the Camden County Boathouse in Cooper River Park.

"I'm a human … and pain and suffering [are] a human experience," said Yunus. "On behalf of the Muslim community and myself … we feel with you, we hurt with you, we stand with you."

A lawyer who lives in Cherry Hill, Yunus is friends with Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, the spiritual leader of the Jewish faith community in South Jersey called Nafshenu ("our soul"), which organized the event.

"It's nice to say that South Jersey has no place for hate," Sernovitz told me. "But it means nothing if we don't do anything about it."

Amid the normalization of a virulently us-against-them political culture that has many Americans on edge (and other Americans cheering), the collaboration between Sernovitz and Yunus, and their communities, is heartening.

It's reassuring that despite the divisiveness preached and practiced by the Trump administration,  ordinary —  if very different — citizens can still work together, as the public stands taken after Pittsburgh by South Jersey Muslim American leaders demonstrate.

"We are concerned about the risk to all communities, especially the minorities — Jewish, Muslim, African American, Hispanic, and others," said Eajaz Rawoof,  a Mount Laurel software consultant who is board chairman of the Muslim Federation of South Jersey  I wrote a column about this new organization last April.

"We feel horrible about this," said Asim Shafi, a sales executive and Cherry Hill resident who is the federation's general secretary. He described the Pittsburgh victims as "our brothers and sisters … who were going about their business, praying," when they were gunned down.

Said Muqaddas "Mookie" Ejaz, an active member of GCLEA (Gracious Center of Learning and Enrichment Activities), a Cherry Hill mosque: "The nature of hatred is, it can go in any direction. It could happen to anybody."

Ejaz belongs to one of the three Cherry Hill chapters of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization of Jewish and Muslim women. She hosted a special meeting last week at her home because "the sisters were disturbed" about the Pittsburgh massacre.

Also last week, about 400 people gathered at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton for an interfaith service of solidarity.

"It could not have been more powerful or beautiful," Rabbi Nathan Weiner said of an event marked by prayer, song, and inspiration from faith leaders and others.

"I spoke about the day after the attack, when I went into our fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms  to assure our children that [we adults] take great care to make sure the synagogue is a sanctuary," Weiner said. "When I asked them what sanctuary meant, a student said, 'Like a bird sanctuary, where birds can fly free without being harmed.' "

Although a representative of the Islamic Center of South Jersey in Palmyra was unable to be at Beth Tikvah, a statement provided by the mosque was read during the event. It decried the "heinous act of murder and terrorism" at the Tree of Life synagogue.

"American Muslims, like all Americans, reject extremism and violence," the statement said. "We stand together with [the] Jewish community … Racism and hatred have no place in America."

Meanwhile, a separate statement issued by the Muslim federation said: "We are horrified and saddened by this tragedy and [the] continued trajectory of increased violence in our country. An attack on one is an attack on all."

Farhat Biviji, a Cherry Hill resident and a longtime Muslim community leader, said that while she's "not Mary Poppins," she does believe "most people are basically decent and believe in fair play. The bigoted voices are bigger than ever, but it's not because they've all of a sudden become bigoted. They always were bigoted, and now they're just voicing that."

Indeed: Pittsburgh's aftermath locally has hardly been all about interfaith events and statements of unity. On "Mischief Night" — the same night as the event at Beth Tikvah — the side windows of a car parked on a residential street in Audubon were defaced with the words "Stupid Jews Die."

Noting that the car's owner is not Jewish, borough police — who also notified the Camden County Prosecutor's Office about the incident — determined the shaving-cream streak and scribbled-in-soap words were more of a juvenile prank than a hate crime.

But outraged reactions on social media suggest that, juvenile or not, the hateful scrawl upset many people, especially coming as it did just three days after the mass shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue.

"If the perpetrators were kids trying to get attention … they need to learn there are limits," author and Rabbi  Ilene Schneider of Marlton told me in an email. "And if they were adults, it's further proof of how vigilant we need to be."

Not one to mince words, Sernovitz called out  "a culture that incites hatred and an administration that has fueled the fire. Everybody is a target. Every day, there's something new."

"What I would like to see coming from the event we did at the boathouse is a movement," he said. "A humanity movement that's inclusive of everyone. Kumbaya moments only last a little while."

Yunus told me she regretted not challenging people in the audience at the boathouse "to imagine whether they would want to listen to me had the perpetrator in Pittsburgh been a Muslim."

"Those uncomfortable questions and situations are where true growth comes from," she added. "We all need to figure out if we're willing to really change. Are we willing to stop painting huge communities of people with the same brush?"

Including, she insisted, the millions of other Americans with whom we may disagree.