Pleasantville synagogue, Thornwood mosque members will break bread in fundraiser
PLEASANTVILLE — If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then how could a homemade dinner featuring chicken haleem with biryani and kasha varnishkas and gefilte fish keep the Jewish and Muslim communities apart?
“I am most looking forward to some Muslim cooking,” joked Rabbi Mark Sameth, of the Pleasantville Community Synagogue, talking about an interfaith dinner organized by Under One Roof, a charity founded by members of the synagogue and the Upper Westchester Muslim Society Mosque in Thornwood. The dinner, to be held on Sunday, is devoted exclusively to the two communities and is not open to the public.
Close to 80 members of the mosque and synagogue are expected to attend the event, a fundraiser for two international nonprofits. The proceeds will go to the Israel-based Birthday Angels, which provides birthday parties for orphans — both Arab and Israeli, and to support the work of Dr. Hawa Abdi in Somalia, who created a refugee camp for battered women and children.
Michael Gold, a member of the synagogue, who founded Under One Roof, said he was inspired by his daughter’s friendship with her Saudi Arabian college roommate.
“Seeing them overcome their religious, cultural and language barriers to form a very sincere friendship was a vivid reminder that we don’t have to be a stereotype that portrays us as constant enemies,” said Gold, an attorney who has lived in the village for 14 years.
Aside from volunteering to cook various dishes for the evening, participants also collaborated on a cookbook with more than 90 recipes featuring dishes like chicken korma, ras malai, quinoa salad and noodle kugel. The book will be sold at the fundraiser for $10 each.
“There is a common perception that the two communities do not see eye-to-eye,” said Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, a plastic surgeon who moved to the United States in 1977 from Pakistan. “Many people feel there is so much baggage there that things can never change. But that’s a very negative way of thinking.”
Hassan, a Pleasantville resident for more than 25 years, said that “writing books” and “being on TV” cannot achieve as much as sitting down for a meal together can. The Thornwood mosque draws people from many countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Turkey, she said.
Ofri Felder, who was born in Israel and has served in the Israeli Defense Forces, said she had lost family members in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“I have felt in my own life the need for some resolution to the conflict,” said Felder, a Katonah resident. “I want to reach out and connect and learn more about them, to get out of my comfort zone.”
Last year, the synagogue hosted a potluck dinner for Under One Roof, so members could get to know each other. Since 2010, when it was founded, the group has held food drives to help local food pantries, Gold said.
Wajeeha Mumtaz, who is originally from Pakistan and has lived in Pleasantville for 10 years, said one of the perks of living in a diverse society is the interaction it allows.
“To me, if we are living in a multicultural society, then we should not be staying within our culture or religion,” said Mumtaz, whose husband, Aamir Mumtaz, is the president of the board of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society Mosque. “We should be mingling with others, and getting to know each other.”
Rabbi Sameth said the group was formed because the community felt the need for it from within.
“It’s not a top-down relationship,” said Sameth, meaning it wasn’t initiated by the clergy or others in positions of power. “It bubbled up from within the two communities. Friendships are growing, relationships are growing and we are helping others.”