Minyan in the mosque

A look at Marc Schneier’s work in building bridges between the ‘Am’ and the ‘Umma.’

King of Bahrain, March Schneier (photo credit: Courtesy)
King of Bahrain, March Schneier
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the Dan Accadia Hotel’s beachfront dining room, Marc Schneier leans back and pontificates. However, he is not discussing issues of global import or tolerance, the topics that have brought The Jerusalem Post to this Herzliya resort to meet with the New York-based rabbi.
“What’s wrong?” he asks me. “You aren’t eating your breakfast.”
Showing his concern that this correspondent eat a hearty meal while we speak, Schneier exhibits a bit of the charisma that has drawn so many of the rich and famous to his congregation in West Hampton, Long Island.
However, he does not appear overly rabbinic, at least not as currently dressed. While he is usually seen in a formal suit of stark and conservative lines, he now lounges, one leg perched over the other, in a pair of khaki shorts below a pink, short-sleeved shirt. His dark hair is slicked back in a rakish style reminiscent of gangster movies, and his black crocheted kippa hides on the back of his head where it cannot be seen from many angles.
A somewhat controversial figure – he recently divorced Tobi, his fourth wife, and announced from the pulpit that he suffers from bipolar disorder – he is nonetheless a formidable presence, as well as, he says, an 18th-generation rabbi. He has agreed to speak with the Post over breakfast to discuss his latest high-profile venture, a program of his Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) aimed at bridging the gap between Jewish and Muslim communities throughout the world.
Schneier – a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, which actively works with his foundation – is currently collaborating with King Hamad Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain to organize the first international interfaith conference between rabbis and Muslim clerics in the Arab world, which is to take place in Manama. He tells the Post that while he came to Israel for a holiday, it is still a working vacation: He met with President Shimon Peres for a private consultation almost immediately after his arrival last week.
Having worked for years with hip-hop producer and Def Jam Records founder Russel Simmons – his co-chair at the FFEU – on African-American- Jewish relations, he recalls that there came a point when Simmons “told me that there is not much left to do regarding bringing about black-Jewish reconciliation. Mission accomplished.”
LOOKING FOR his next task, Schneier decided that “the No. 1 challenge in inter-religious dialogue for the Jews” and “one of the great challenges facing the world” was bringing about “a reconciliation between Jews and Muslims worldwide.”
While Islamic communities in the United States are markedly different from the mainstream African-American community, he says that many of the same elements arise and that the techniques that he has learned in his tolerance efforts in one community extend to others as well.
While his father, Arthur, is famous within the Jewish community for his work within Christian-Jewish relations and for hosting Pope Benedict XVI at the Park East Synagogue, Schneier says that there is a great difference between Christian-Jewish dialogue and his own work.
“Judaism and Islam are more similar than Judaism and Christianity,” he explains. “Speaking as an Orthodox rabbi, it is [in some ways] much easier to involve Orthodox colleagues in this dialogue because you don’t have the same restrictions – [we] can walk into a mosque [whereas Judaism forbids entering a church]. In many respects it’s more inviting and welcoming, at least from the point of view [of Jewish law].”
This is a fact that he says he finds an “ironic twist,” given many American Christians’ affinity for Israel, and the antipathy toward the Jewish state prevalent in many Islamic communities.
Recalling the first meeting of imams and rabbis that he organized, at the imposing edifice of the Islamic Cultural Center on New York’s wealthy Upper East Side, the rabbi says that as “the first rabbi to speak in this mosque,” he was “overwhelmed by the number of Orthodox Jews, haredi Jews, who came to the mosque to hear me speak.”
However, he says, many members of his congregation were at first reluctant to enter the mosque. Congregants asked him about issues of security and whether they would have a guard accompanying them.
Ironically, he notes, many of the Muslim worshipers asked the same questions regarding the Orthodox visitors.
At a certain point during the meeting, the Islamic hosts decided that it was time to pray one of the five daily services mandated in the Koran, leaving the Jewish participants to their own devices.
One rabbi, Schneier wryly recounts, noted that the time for the afternoon Minha prayer had arrived as well and, citing Jewish legal authority and philosopher Maimonides, stated that it was permitted to hold Jewish services in a mosque.
As the Muslims prayed, so did their Jewish guests, only feet away.
Before getting into more details regarding the programs that stemmed from this beginning, Schneier feels obliged to point out that the famous ban that his own rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, placed on theological discourse with Christians does not apply to Islam.
From the start, Schneier understood that much of his work would at first involve identifying those Muslim clerics and rabbis upon whom a foundation for future efforts could be erected. Avoiding Islamic radicals, such as community groups like the Council for American Islamic Relations, he sought out what he calls “mainstream” religious leaders.
“It is all new territory, how to define who is mainstream,” he says. “I had to identify the ones who would even agree to sit down.”
In 2007, he convened the first major summit of imams and rabbis from major cities in the US and Canada.
“We were building up this whole foundation of Muslim-Jew involvement [and] needed to identify imams and rabbis who would be committed to this ongoing activity. That was [only] step one.”
At the conclusion of the inaugural conference, the united clerics called for an initiative in which 25 mosques would “twin” with synagogues. This program, which ended up beginning with over 50 mosques, enabled rabbis and imams to exchange pulpits and to introduce their communities to each other on both a leadership and a grassroots level, Schneier believes.
Calling Muslims and Jews “family,” he recalls that at his first meeting with the king of Bahrain – arranged by the kingdom’s Jewish woman ambassador to Washington, Houda Nonoo – the king told him he saw the Jews as “cousins” and called the Middle East conflict a “family spat.”
The king, he says, has indicated his interest in bringing more Jewish tourism into his country.
THE RABBI is also co-authoring a book with the Islamic Cultural Center’s Imam Mohammed Shamsi Ali, provisionally entitled Jews and Muslims: Can We Trust the Other? It is trust, he asserts, that must be the basis for any future peace between Arab and Jew.
While saying that he does not wish to sound Pollyannaish, he does believe that “you can have all the overtures for peace between Arabs and Jews, and Muslims and Jews, and you can sign treaties tomorrow, but how do you implement and execute them if you don’t trust the other? The first step in the process is for Muslims and Jews to meet one another.”
His second goal, he says, is to make such dialogue chic and in vogue. When it becomes a popular cause celebre, people will begin to ask how to get involved, and his efforts will snowball. This, he believes, has already begun.
However, understanding is enough without reciprocity, he says.
We have to get “way beyond dialogue,” and “that is our sign of success,” he continues. “The barometer of how true and authentic the dialogue is, is if Muslim leaders speak out against [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and other anti-Semitic leaders.”
When he saw imams, graduates of the European expansion of his North and South American programs, marching in solidarity with leaders of the Jewish community following the recent massacre that a radical Islamist wrought at France’s Ozar Hatorah school, he believed that his efforts had begun to bear fruit.
“The essence of my work is not about dialogue. I have little patience and tolerance for an exchange of pleasantries,” he explains. “My work is about fighting for the other; Jews fighting for Muslims and Muslims for Jews.”
Several times during our conversation he repeats the same mantra: “[A] people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as those who fight for the rights of all people.”
As such, he explains, he expects Muslims involved in his initiative to speak out against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, just as he expects Jews to speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry.
During his conferences, for example, he says that “you have to come in with a report as to what your community has done. It’s not just being invited to a conference.”
One example of his program’s results, he says, occurred several years ago, when a group of students from the Palestinian Authority on an educational trip to the US visited a Holocaust museum, and both Fatah and Hamas protested to the United Nations agency that had arranged the trip.
After contacting the Islamic Society of North America – a group that itself has been accused of ties to terrorism – Schneier says that he was able to convince the Islamic organization to protest directly, on behalf on American Islam, to the various Palestinian factions that took issue with Holocaust education.
Meanwhile, as his organization’s efforts at “twinning” mosques and synagogues and bringing communities closer together have expanded to South America, Europe, and soon Australia and New Zealand, he is now turning to Israel.
During this trip, he tells the Post, he plans on meeting with senior Druse members of the government to see about twinning mosques and synagogues here in Israel.
While the Druse are not, strictly speaking, Muslim, “they love the concept,” he says. “The concept makes so much sense, even if minimally you have a rabbi speak at a mosque and an imam at a synagogue, this is in itself a significant development.”
Returning to his larger goal – the organization of his upcoming Bahraini conference – he concludes that “what I’d like to do is identify 10 leading rabbis around the world and 10 leading Muslim clerics and go to Bahrain, but I haven’t begun to think about the composition of the group yet.”
However, with the king’s blessing, he likely will soon.