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Islamophobia? Not in This Quiet Neighborhood

December 23, 2010 By:
Carin Smilk
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Rabbi Yossi Kaplan of Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center (left) and Mohammad Aziz, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge, shortly before Friday Muslim prayers Photo by Jordan Cassway

The cars slowly turn onto the long driveway, their wheels occasionally crunching the adjacent ground frozen from the night before and speckled with the merest dusting of snow. Rabbi Yossi Kaplan and Mohammad Aziz walk side by side in the direction of the oncoming line of traffic. Several young, professional-looking Muslim men pass them in the opposite direction, pausing to shake the rabbi's hand and wish him a hearty "Shabbat Shalom."

It's Friday, right before afternoon prayers, and hundreds of worshippers are making their way to the mosque on North Valley Forge Road, in Devon, in the easternmost part of Chester County. Aziz soon turns to join them, and Kaplan heads next door to gather his van and pick his children up from school.

For a moment, the 15-vehicle-capacity lot in front of the Chabad Jewish Center of Chester County sits empty. But not for long -- within 10 minutes, nearly every spot is taken by those headed to the mosque next door.

The shul and the mosque not only share parking space, but a symbiotic relationship. It's based on their proximity, of course -- they are direct neighbors, land practically spilling upon land -- but it also owes to the fact that the two men have forged an obvious respect for one another, as well as a solid friendship.

With mosque projects across the United States being confronted with hostility -- in Temecula, Calif.; in Sheboygan County, Wisc.; and the one getting the most heat, the proposed Islamic community center near the site of the former World Trade Center -- the noncontroversial way that this Devon mosque came to be stands in stark contrast to other situations that have grabbed national headlines.

A 'Tangible Place'

Kaplan, 38, tells his story like this. In 1998, he was in Brooklyn, looking for a place to start a Chabad House. He had heard that Chester County had a burgeoning Jewish population -- even read a New York Times article about it -- and other local Chabad leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, director of the Lubavitcher Center in Philadelphia, felt that this would be a "tangible place."

He and his wife, Tickey, moved into the area with two babies in tow, rented an apartment, and used other available rented space for their programs.

"It started very slowly," the rabbi said, but by September 2000, they were able to rent what he described as a "huge building" on Waterloo Avenue in Berwyn for services and events. When the cost shot up two years later, they started looking for a more permanent space. Eventually, they found one -- a modest home and adjoining ballet-dance studio in need of major renovations, with an expanse of land in the back that bordered on a wooded Boy Scout camp.

Besides the disrepair, there was another reason the owner had some trouble selling: The property stood next to the Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge, situated in an unassuming, white-shingled building on a long swath of land. This was a year after Sept. 11, and sensibilities, even on this sleepy street, were up.

Kaplan said the property was purchased in December 2002, and it took about six months to get everything up to code. Their home would eventually accommodate six more children, and the studio became an attached synagogue -- complete with a finished basement for holiday functions, classes, Hebrew school and Saturday luncheons -- that could accommodate as many as 150 people.

Aziz, 57, an IT consultant by trade and the president of the Islamic society, recalled the day the rabbi and his family moved in. "The first time I saw the door open -- the rabbi there, with his lovely wife -- I ran over and said hello. We started talking."

Right away, Aziz said, on behalf of the society, he sent them flowers.

The Islamic society had similar humble beginnings, but over a much longer period of time. It was formed in 1984, and for a while met in local churches, colleges and hotel spaces. The white house, not 20 feet from the road, was purchased a decade later, according to fellow board member Rehana Jan.

"We always wanted to have our own mosque, from the very beginning," she said, noting that fundraising started from the get-go. Now that the goal has been achieved, the 59-year-old anesthesiologist added, "I still can't believe we have it."

That goal is in the form of a $1.5 million facility -- paid for by donations, stressed board members -- and set back nearly to the brink of the property, well behind the old facility, which remains the site of the children's religious school.

For a mosque, the facade is somewhat understated, with a cream-colored exterior, accented by green lines around the windows and salmon-hued semi-circles over the entryway doors. There is no dome or minaret, which saved the society some money, explained Aziz; plus, he said, "American mosques should take their own shape."

Still, he didn't rule out that they could be added some time in the future.

The building, with two floors of 5,000 square feet a piece, can hold up to 300 people. Inside is a spacious prayer area, with a low-level partition that separates men from women; state-of-the-art bathrooms with foot-washing areas; offices; a library that's yet to be filled; and an enormous multipurpose room downstairs. Construction began in August 2009, with the mosque completed, for the most part, by May 2010. It was inaugurated on June 5.

Between 60 and 80 family-unit members belong to the mosque, according to Aziz. They pay dues, and donations are collected in a box that gets passed around on Fridays and during other gatherings. Halal, the Islamic equivalent of kashrut, is observed there for all official business.

The mosque has no separate name, and there is currently no imam, but Aziz and Jan said the society is looking for one -- someone who could be present for the five daily prayers recited in Arabic, and who could serve as a resource to answer religious questions.

No Cause for Concern

So was the rabbi, now a neighbor for seven years, concerned about the rise of such a prominent building right next to his home and Chabad House? Was he worried about crowds, potential noise, a constant stream of cars next door?

Not in the least, replied Kaplan.

"There have been no problems at all. We're normal neighbors having nice relationships; we're two religious centers," he said. "People like to make a big deal out of things; they're always looking for the man-bites-dog story. But it makes no sense not to get along. We're both believers."

So, too, are members of the old Baptist Church in the Great Valley, directly across the street. That building was erected in 1805; the congregation was formed nearly a century earlier, in 1711, by Welsh families. A historical marker out front says it's the third oldest Baptist church in the state of Pennsylvania.

While Chester County appears different in its attitude toward varying ethnicities and cultural practices than other suburban locales nationwide, like any significant project, some obstacles arose.

"We had to jump through quite a few hoops," acknowledged Jan, referring to township plans and what the society felt were certain permits being delayed. "And about two years ago, there was some noise, but it didn't go anywhere."

She quickly added that "the noise was not from the neighbors."

And she also noted that "we've been here long before there ever was a 9/11 or New York mosque controversy."

In fact, said Jan, after 9/11, supporters sent food, flowers, letters. She remembered one woman saying if they ever felt threatened, to call her for support; even if they needed someone to accompany members to the grocery store, locals were willing to be there for them.

All three neighbors -- Chabad, the church and the property on the other side of the mosque, Duncan's Farm, a 40-acre parcel that sells seasonal fruits, vegetables and flowers, and has operated since the 1940s -- spoke only favorably of the Muslim organization and its members.

Cliff Duncan, 60, who runs the farm with his brother Stephen, both of whom belong to the Baptist church across the street, said of the mosque: "We didn't have any idea what it would be like."

"But they're fairly nice people," he said, noting that they have been invited to various functions next door, though haven't gone to any. "There have never been any problems."

"Look, we're all so busy trying to raise our kids and hold on to our jobs, we really don't have time for any hatred or anything," he said, warming himself by a small metal stove, and intermittently selling batches of firewood to a few people who stopped by.

"All neighbors take a bit of getting used to," he added, but "my philosophy is: If you need help, I'll try to help you if I can."

In fact, those at the farm annually do some snow-plowing for the mosque grounds.

And for their part, mosque-goers offer assistance as well.

Mohammad Jan, 72, the husband of Rehana and, like her, an original society member, said that during one of the Jewish holidays -- when Shabbat followed on the heels of Sukkot -- Kaplan came to them for help turning on the synagogue lights. Jan recalled them thinking, "If he can't turn them on, then how will we be able to?"

They didn't realize, he said, that sundown had already arrived, and the rabbi was forbidden from doing such work. So the mosque sent over a young man to flip them on.

Marcy Barth of West Chester, who's been a regular at Chabad for 12 years now, has her own anecdotes. Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah, she said, she and her husband, Roger, parked in the Islamic society's lot, as the shul's was full. But when services were over, they saw that all the society's parking was also filled; a large event was taking place there at the same time.

Barth said Aziz started waving them over, and said she expressed concern to her husband that maybe they'd overstepped their boundaries. But upon approaching him, she went on, he wished them a "Happy New Year" -- and promptly handed them plates of picnic food.

"He brought it over to our car," said the 59-year-old. "It just goes to show you that the more you get to know each other, the less tension there is going to be."

Truth be told, no one's really talking politics here; they're talking relationships, face to face and one on one.

Aziz, a father of five who lives in Paoli, and Jan, a mother of two grown sons who lives in Gulph Mills, originate from India and Pakistan, respectively. They made it a point to say they belong to city and suburban interfaith groups, and often speak at communal meetings about Islam. They said they focus on religion and understanding, education and mutual commonalities, and now use the mosque as a venue for such programs.

One event they used for hospitality fell at the end of Ramadan this past September. The society invited members of the synagogue and church to join them for dinner, and folks from both showed up.

The Barths were there, and remarked that Aziz had kosher food brought in, wrapped in cellophane, with plastic utensils on the side. Aziz himself said he wanted to make sure that their Jewish guests, in particular the rabbi, could actually sit down and eat with them.

Carol Claypoole, one of 10 deacons at the Baptist church, also attended the feast.

"They were very, very welcoming," she said, adding that they toured the mosque, took off their shoes to enter the prayer room and had many of their questions answered.

"This was all new to me," she said while milling about before the start of a church dinner Sunday night. "It was a great experience."

Claypoole, soon to be 50, has been affiliated with the church since 1976, and has lived here all her life. She said that, sure, you hear things about people, but their neighbors "keep to themselves, and are very respectful and polite. It's quiet around here."

She noted that their parking lot, too, is open to Friday-afternoon mosque worshippers.

Pastor John Loring, 54, would also attest to that. While he's only headed the church since February, he has had the chance to meet Kaplan and Aziz -- "two very busy guys," he said.

"We all come from the same root. I think there's a lot I could learn from them. We haven't had the opportunity to explore that yet, but I look forward to it."

Loring and his wife, and another dozen or so church members, also went to the Ramadan festivities. Since he'd already been to a Muslim shrine -- the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, back in 1983 -- the experience wasn't as unusual as it was for others.

Next year marks the 300th anniversary of the congregation, and both the deacon and pastor said that plans are in the works to include their neighbors in certain activities.

For his part, Kaplan has welcomed Aziz at Simchat Torah celebrations (though Aziz made it clear that he and his congregation follow Islamic law, and do not drink) and at one of his son's upsherins, the first cutting of a 3-year-old's hair.

"I don't concentrate on the religion, but relationships between people. It's one person at a time; it's easy," said Aziz. "I want my children and his children to play together. Whatever's on the outside should not influence our inside."

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