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May 11, 2012

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MAY 11, 2012 Abraham's children share an unlikely Bronx tent By Jonathan Mark New York Jewish Week "This is our prayer room," says Sheik Moussa Drammeh, as he'd show visitors around his Bronx mosque, the Masjid Al-Iman, in the shadows of the Westchester Avenue elevated tracks. "And this is our youth room," he'd say in a lilting Af- rican accent, as the fragrance of sweet incense wafts through the air. "And this is the syna- gogue." Synagogue? The Gambian- bo'm sheik, dark, tall and solidly built, dressed in the long robes of Islamic clergy, opens a door and there, atop a bookcase, sits a picture Of the Lubavitcher rebbe. Well, of course. Chabad has become skilled at establishingshuiswhere others insist that no Jews exist--be it in the Congo, Vietnam or Mon- tana, so why not on Desolation Row in the Bronx, where once there were dozens of shuls and now there are none, other than Beis Menachem of Parkchester in the Masjid Al-Iman? David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said, "I was looking at some of the numbers lately, and in Com- munity Board 9, which includes Soundview and Unionport, along with Parkchester, there are 1,100 senior citizens with Jewish names. The average age of the Jewish voter was 78.1." Beis Menachem is a rem- nant of the old Young Israel of Parkchester, which sold its building nearly a decade ago, moved into a storefront, andwas running on empty: No money, no rabbi, few people, no home. PAGE 15A Onecongregant, LeonBleck- whattheirneedsare.'Twoyears "the fellows from Brooklyn" happy,'; though he admits that TorahandhotfoodfromCrown man, an-elderly bachelor, once an hourly worker at Bergdorf Goodman, who'd been active in synagogue life for most of his 78 years wrote a desperate letter to "Chabad." Just Chabad--n0 name--at 770 Eastern Park- way, world headquarters for Chabad-Lubavitch. That wa about two years ago. Before too much longer, several young rabbinical stu- dents from Lubavitch began rising at 4:30 a,m. on Shabbos mornings, walkingthe roughly 15 miles from Crown Heights to Parkchester. All the while, Sheik Dram- rneh %vas like a brother to us," said Bleckman. "I used to do clothing drives twice ayear, and aside from the old clothing that we'd give to Jewish organiza- tions, we gave to him, because he'd be sending clothes to Haiti, to Africa. When we gave up our storefront, we gave him our metal chairs and some tables." And then, when the congrega- tion was homeless, the sheik invited them in, "like a brother." TheYoui,gIsraelofParkches- ter, founded in 1940, was once among the most vibrant, even exhilarating, lay-driven congregations in the borough. Now, close to communal death, who remembers? Who in these Bronx streets can grasp the loneliness of these elderly, iso- lated Jews who were conscious of having outlived their own lives? "Unfortunately," says the sheik, %re, all people, become so selfish, so unmindful of our neighbors, to the point where we don't know anything about them. We rarely pay attention to who our neighbors are and ago they needed ahome, and he gave them one. The congregation--on a good Shabbos 20 come to daven--pays no rent. "No," the sheik says, "I'm paying them. I'm paying back. I am an immigrant, from Africa. I'm running a school," the Islamic Leadership School, "I came here to New York in 1986," says the sheik, "and all the religious freedoms and ac- deptance, I don't have to fight for it, the Catholic and Jewish communities already fought, and now it's for my behalf. It would be very ungrateful if I don't play any role, especially for the bider folk, so they can benefit in turn from my being here. That's how I see it. It is my time to say, let me [pay back] at least a little bit for the neighborhood you made and the work you have done." His generosity has been echoed elsewhere. He had been told of how the Riverdale Jewish Center, a few years ago, welcomed in a Muslim girl to pray, complete with a prayer mat, during her school day when she was not allowed to do so in her public school across the street. In the Youth Community Report, a Muslim newspaper also housed in Drammeh's mosque, there was an item on a joint program involving the staff at the Museum of Jew- ish Heritage, two Jewish day schools (Riverdale's_ Kinneret and Manhattan's Solomon Schechter), and Drammeh's Islamic Leadership School. ' Yes, says the sheik, the work needs to be visible but some- times it was too visible. At first, were doing their davening near a window at the front of the mosque, and the local Muslims saw it and didn't like what they were seeing. "Oh,"says the sheik,'%vewere down to 10 peopIe; 90 percent of the people that used to come here leftwhen the Jewish people came. They thought that for a mosque to host a synagogue is anti-Islam." Parents pulled their children out ofhis Islamic school, a school that opened for the first time on the cloudless morning of Sept. 11, 2001, of all mornings. "The parents said we were 'anti-Islam.' But that attitude is precisely the reason why we're doing it. There are individuals and groups whose goal is to destroy other people they deem no t worthy of pre- serving. This is anti-Islamic, anti-religion, anti-common sense." There can be misunder- standings. When the Jews pray, he noticed, "they usually don't talk to anybody," he says laughing. "People walk in and say Salaam Aleikem, and they would not reply. It creates an awkward feeling, that they won't respond. So I was think- ing what to do, and I thought, it is our duty, when we have guests, to provide them with comfort. I said, let's empty out that other office room, and let the synagogue use it, because it isisolated, and they can have their own private entrance. They were happy. We were happy. The challenges were solved." Now, he says, the mosque and school have revived, "and the people who come here are not only accepting, they are the school only has 35 students in grades kindergarten through high school. He believes that religion can inoculate the young in" hard times, as it did for him as a new immigrant in the culture shock of New York. "I was born and raised in an orthodox religious household," says the sheik. "My background was very strong, so no matter how deceitful New York was, my background always played a role and kept me from other things." He needs money to fix up the mosque, a vast and drafty 25,000 square feet over two floors in what used to be a garage and auto mechanic's workshop. He's been there since 2003, but it is in such raw state that the old indoor parking-lot floor on the upper level still features the paintedyellow lines delineating the parallel spaces where cars may be parked. The Masjid Al-Iman rents out its largest hall for local "cel- ebrations and parties, such as Beis Menachem's recent Purim party that attracted more than 200 people, says Bleckman. "We had such a good time. We had a Chinese theme. The rebbetzin made Chinese food-- and hamantashen. She went to Flushing [Queens] to get decorations and Chinese hats for the guys. It was a beautiful affair. Kosher Chinese food, and she made everything herself. We went back for three or four portions. We had enough food for 300 people." Bleckman explains that Chabad's Rabbi Meir Kabakow and Rebbetzin Chana, a couple in their20s, arrive on Fridayaf- ternoons, or for holidays, with a Heights "that the rebbetzin cooks herself." Over Shabbat, the Kabakows sleep in aroom in the mosque. "They bring a lot of food," the sheik laughs. "I don't know where they get it, but they get a lot of food." (Calls to the Kabakows were not returned.) The congregation "doesn't have a penny," says Bleckman, but he allows himself to dream. "Hopelly, someday we could have a building with a dormi- tory that could fit- about 40 students who'd want to sit and learn. They could have a study hall here. We could have a mikveh." That's the beauty of cha- sidic messianism: old people are dreaming again. That's the beauty of Sheik Drammeh: the Bronx seems safe and loving again. Elderly Jews, feeling personally stalked by the Angel of Death, now believe in the revival of the dead, if only the revivalofaBronxneighborhood left for dead. Goodpeopleare even moving in, such as the Chabad volun- teers, if only on Shabbat. Once people were moving away, say the old Jews, but one thing they know about Chabad: they don't quit. Sheik Moussa Drammeh, he's staying, too. The old Jews who never left and were scolded by their children for not leaving, now live with glimpses of the holy, moments of grace. After all, God never left, either. He never does. Jonathan Markwrites for The New York Jewish Week, from which this artidewas reprinted by permission. The LifeCyclist: Bar mitzvah honors late father's wish, reflects son's creativity By Suzanne Kurtz (JTA)nIn his 2003 memoir "Lessons for Dylan," Joel Siegel, the late film critic for ABC's "Good Morning America," asked that his young son some- day sing the Shema prayer. "But, when you finish," he wrote, "think about applauding on the insideY Siegel passed away in 2007 after a 10-year battlewith can- cer. Had he lived, he would have been applauding at the recent early Saturday evening service when his only child completed, his nontraditional journey to becoming a bar mitzvah. Growing up in New York with his mother, the artist Ena Swansea, and stepfather, Antoine Guerrero, Dylan, 14, had no formal Jewish education (nor did the family belong to a synagogue) before beginning his bar mitzvah preparations a year-and-a-half ago. For Swansea, a Quaker, the task was especially daunting. "It's been a journey for us. We didn't know where to begin," she said. "Joel wanted very much for Dylan to have a bar mitzvah, and I promised him I'd do that. But it took awhile to find a way that suited Dylan." Swansea started by contact- ing Rabbi Larry Raphael, a childhood friend of Siegers in San Francisco, for assistance. Raphael put her in touch with Rabbi Kim Geringer of Con- gregation Sha'arey Hayam in Manahawkin, N.J.,anda faculty member at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. "I was really moved by what they wanted to do," said Geringer, who began Dylan's journey to bar mitzvah by assigning him, and Swansea, books to read, including "A Topical Bible," and several articles on Jewish ethics. During discussions about the material, the conversation would frequently come back to Siegel, who wrote in his book of the time he spent with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and working onbehalfofcivilrights in the South during the 1960s. "It was really wonderful to make the connection [between] the underlying ethics and Joel's life and his values," Geringer said. The plan was for the bar mitzvah ceremony to include a full Sabbath afternoon Torah service followed by Havdalah. But, the rabbi says, it was im- portant that the event remain "true to who Dylan is and his needs, yet still be true to the proper way to have a service." To prepare Dylan for the parts of the bar mitzvah that would be in Hebrew, the rabbi enlisted her daughter, Rachel Geringer-Dunn, a teacher at the Cathedral School in New York and a b'nai mitzvah tutor at the city's Central Synagogue, to help him learn how to read the language. For more than a year, she and Dylan met on Sunday afternoons, using the tried-and-true Hebrew primer "Aleph Isn't Tough." "It was really special to be a part" of the preparations, Geringer-Dunn said. "It pushed me to think about how we can make this happen, to make it meaningful and still be a bar mitzvah." The preparations culminat- ed with  April 14 service and reception, both in the family's New York loft. For his Torah portion, Dylan prepared a traditional speech, butalso tapped into his creative side by writing a play complete with "music, lights, actors and props." He cast his uncle and cousin to perform. "The play was the best," said Dylan, an eighth-grader at City and Country SchoOl-in New York. "I wanted to explain the story [ParshatShemini] inaway that people would remember and make it visual." Also during the service, Siegel's sister passed on to Dylan her grandfather's tallit, while another cousin read a text about the meaning of the prayer shawl. As a guide for the 125 guests -- a "marvelous mix of people," Swansea said -- a program was created for the service with the traditional liturgical texts interspersed with photos of fa- ther and son, and excerpts from Siegel's book, including his grandmother's brisket recipe, a "closely held family secret." "We wanted to put [the recipe] in the program because it meant so much to everyone and to Joel," Swansea said A photo of Siegel cutting a cake in the shape of a Torah at his bar mitzvah in 1956 was included too. And as a tasty tribute to Dylan's father, Swan- sea conimissioned a baker to make an identical vanilla Torah cake with passion fruit butter icing for Dylan. It was served at the reception follow- ing the service. "Honoring his dad's wishes and dedicating himself to doing this tells me that [Dylan] is a different kind of young man," saidAndy Clayman, aguestand family friend. "Inwardly he's showing that he is responsible beyond hisyears, and outwardly that he's very creative." Those present at the bar mitzvah "knew who we were honoring and thinking of," Swansea said: "It was very personal and unique, and also traditional, and affected a lot ofpeopleY And Siegel she adds, 'hsould have beenvery, very pleasedand proud of Dylan." The LifeCyclist column is dedicated to covering the ways that individuals and families are marking iraportant Jewish milestones in their lives. Please send suggestions for future cov- erage to Shabbat Joy Intimate Spirituality Complete Peace rl .r1-1 The Shabbat Groove service has grown over the years into a regularly anticipated event. Now, be the first to take part in something brand new: Shabbat Chavoyoh, Temple Shir Shalom's $habbat Experience. The all new Original music and full-scale production will lift participants to untapped connections with our sacred liturgy, our energized community and the ultimate Oneness of God. Give a Shabbat gift to yourself, or to a friend and join us. Friday , May I I th, UCUMC Main Sanctuary at 7:30 pm 1395 Campus View Court -Oviedo, FL 32765 407.366.3556