“Kane Street Synagogue,” it says, in large Hebrew letters, engraved over the top of the stately, red brick building. Also known as the Mother of Synagogues in Brooklyn, The Kane Street Synagogue is the largest in the borough, and has a century’s history of being an inclusive and safe space for immigrants—including some Muslim immigrants who have fled violence and persecution over the last three decades and become part of the synagogue community. The last four months have been different, though, at least for some.
Several Muslim families, and some Jewish families as well, say they have felt a difference in attitude at the synagogue since the arrival of a new executive director, who some say has displayed discomfort in the presence of Muslim immigrants in the space. The discomfort has not gone unnoticed.
“My parents used to go to the synagogue all the time,” said Faizan Ali, 27, a second generation Muslim Iranian-American from Cobble Hill. His parents came to the US in 1986, fleeing violence in their country, including an incident in which one gang member threw acid at his mother’s sister’s face. Faizan never knew why his family was targeted; he just knew that there was a point where the urgency to leave became paramount.
Ali is one who takes issue with some of the ways that Mick Dobbs, the new executive director, has behaved towards non-Jewish members of the Kane Street community. “It’s the little things,” he said, “and it’s a pattern.” According to Ali, when the community would gather in the main room for an event, Dobbs would generally address only those of the Jewish faith in the room, and not the non Jews in the room.
The synagogue has a significant number of members who do not practice Judaism, including some who identify as atheist or agnostic, though the exact number remains unclear. But Kane Street Synagogue members say it’s not uncommon for those who do not identify as Jewish to take part in the communal aspect of the synagogue. Lately, during such events, more than once, according to Ali, Dobbs singled out Muslims present in the room, in part by questioning their faith, engaging them in a “debate” about it.
Noor Pahlavi, 68, also an Iranian immigrant, said she is not a devout Muslim. She is, in fact, agnostic. But she likes going to the synagogue. She has a lot of friends there, she says, and she occasionally goes to events where you come to know the newest members of the community. “It was an oddly welcoming place,”she said. “I thought of it less as a religious institution than as a place which facilitated certain friendships—does that make sense?” But she said Mick Dobbs told her that he thought it was extremely odd that she was not involved in the religious aspect of the synagogue—and more than once. “At first it was weird,” she said. “Then it was uncomfortable.”
In an interview, Dobbs, the executive director, and Sam Weintraub, the Synagogue’s Rabbi, neither denied nor confirmed such events. Asked if he has done anything to make non-Jews who frequent the synagogue uncomfortable, Dobbs blamed the “politics of interpretation” for the Muslims’ discomfort, and “perceived slights,” especially amongst the Muslim community, that do not constitute factual evidence.
A rabbi came into the picture only in 1905, and over the years a number of charitable and social organizations were started by the Jewish community to address the needs of the community. The presence of the synagogue in the neighborhood’s imagination over the subsequent years began to increase.
Cobble Hill, meanwhile, is a neighborhood of migrants, with people from Ireland, Israel, Germany, as well as Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt, to name a few. Zahra Ali, who works for the Arab-American Family Support Center on Pacific Street, told me that most of these immigrants were fleeing persecution of some form or the other. “It is important to remember that they did not want to come, they had to.”
In the wake of 9/11, in a move that could be considered an anomaly in the rising Islamophobia in the aftermath of the attack, the Kane Street Synagogue sponsored a march in solidarity with Muslims, condemning bigotry against them. “This is why I live in this neighborhood,” Dr. Burt Goldberg, a biochemistry professor at NYU and a member of the synagogue, told me, citing the incident as an example of his synagogue’s special qualities.
The migration from the Middle East to Cobble hill increased over the last three decades. Some people fled civil war and persecution, and some came for better economic prospects. Often they coalesced around religious institutions. Cobble Hill has several Catholic churches, but there is only one mosque and one synagogue. Some migrants decided to stay within their “own” community; they had fled the country not out of choice but out of helplessness, and liked the comfort of what was familiar.
Others, like Ali’s parents, wanted to branch out, to have a community outside of their familiar community, in his parents’ case the Iranians. The Kane Street Synagogue was a great place to start. “One of the good things about the Jewish community is that they understand persecution more than anyone does,” Ali said. “That was one of the reasons my parents automatically gravitated towards the synagogue. They not only welcomed them, they told them basically everything they needed to know to how to adjust and put roots in the new country they were a part of.”
It is the Kane Street Synagogue’s liberal history of warmly welcoming all the immigrants in the area that at least some members of its community now palpably feel is in danger of shifting since the arrival of the new executive director.
However, one thing to be noted is that even some of those who agree there has been a change in attitude, not everyone perceives what has been happening as an offense. The Brooklyn Ink spoke to six Muslim families and two Jewish families, and even though they all said the last four months have been “different,” their interpretation of the change varied widely. Out of the six families, three of them agreed with Ali. Yusuf Qazwini, 70, another Iranian immigrant and a member of the synagogue, did not. He said he doesn’t understand why a suggestions to convert should be construed as an insult. Every religion wants to preach that their religion is their way to the Lord, Qazwini said. What was offensive about this approach? Ali, who was sitting next to him at a local diner, said that it is more important than ever for immigrants to feel safe and accepted. After a short verbal spat, Yusuf wanted to agree to disagree and Faizan, though unconvinced, let it drop.
Adam Goldberg, 79, also a member of the synagogue, took a diplomatic approach to the issue. “You have to understand, who is to decide what is right or wrong? I bet not everybody was willing to take up an issue with what Dobbs is doing. Now tell me this, why would you give precedence to one who is taking offense over the one who is not? What is the moral prerogative here? Religion is a weird weird thing, the deeper you delve into the issue, the more you realize the futility of moral absolutism. That is all I am going to say.”
But Matt Davidson, 47, another synagogue member, told me that he can completely sympathize with the Muslim community. “The central tenets of Judaism propagate free will, and never coercion,” he said. “That is not how this works, or supposed to work.”
It is true, meanwhile, that Muslims have likely become more sensitive to perceived slights under Donald Trump’s administration, one in which immigrants from the Middle East were systematically targeted under what was popularly known as the “Muslim ban.” So it becomes important to some of them find spaces that do not ask them to compromise aspects of themselves that are crucial to their identity.
Kane Street Synagogue was exactly that kind of place for many of the immigrants who came to the US over the years, and still is for some, like Yusuf. Ali, though, is still searching for a safe place that provides such shelter.