Weekly Letter: Visiting a Synagogue and a Mosque

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I remember 9/11 well. 

It was my 40th birthday. I had a party planned. We weren’t sure what to do, braced for war, but we proceeded.

October 7, the day that Hamas attacked Israel and began a killing spree of mostly civilians, felt similar. Tragic. Ominous. Not sure what to do, braced for war, but we proceed.

On Wednesday, October 11, I received a text message from my friend and school board member Dana Schallheim, inviting me to pray for peace at Temple Beth Shalom that Sunday. I’d been to that synagogue after the Tree of Life shooting that killed 11 Jewish worshippers in 2018.

Temple Beth Shalom is led by Rabbi Ari Goldstein, a man I’ve come to respect as a spiritual leader, and through his work for justice alongside the Black, the Christian, and the Muslim communities in our county. His vulnerability and his strength, and the vulnerability and strength of the 400 people who attended on Sunday moved me.

But it was the visit during the service via teleconference of a young man in Israel who’d grown up here in Anne Arundel County that shook me and everyone else during that service. The trauma was in his eyes, in his voice, and in his words, and we felt it. It was uncomfortable, but I am glad I was there.

The next evening, I got a text message from Sara Chaudhry, the Vice Chair of our county Immigrant Affairs Commission and a member of our county’s largest mosque, asking to connect. I immediately replied and scheduled a call for the following morning. I was glad she had reached out.

The next morning Sara told me that her Muslim brothers and sisters have friends and family in Gaza who have died or can’t be reached. She also told me that this feels like post 9/11 when being Muslim in America was dangerous and lonely. 

She wanted to know about security at mosques and synagogues. She asked about mental health services. She mentioned the Palestinian boy in Chicago who was murdered last week by his landlord.

Sara also reminded me that we have Afghan refugees in our county who may have relatives lost or missing in the earthquake that killed 2,700 people. 

I asked if attending her mosque would be helpful. I’d been welcomed there each year, alongside community leaders of every faith and nationality, to share their evening meal at the break of their daily fast during Ramadan.

Sara checked in with the elders from the mosque and reported back that yes, they would welcome my visit during Friday prayer. I write this an hour after returning home from that visit.

The Imam spoke of peace, and of patience during times of despair. At the end of prayer I was asked to speak.

I thanked them for having welcomed me, and so many others, to their mosque. I acknowledged horrors that their brothers and sisters in Gaza are facing, trapped without food, water, electricity, or fuel as bombs drop on their neighborhoods and as aid vehicles wait at the border for permission to enter, from those dropping the bombs. 

I told them that our police would work to protect them here in our county, and that we value them as a part of our diverse community. And I told them that my heart weeps when I read the news of conditions in Gaza.

Many approached me after with warm thanks for attending. One told me of his daughter asking why the world hates Muslims. Others expressed frustration with the messages coming from political leaders of both parties.

I was told that the mosque wanted to publicly recognize a Jewish attorney who had been helping them, to show an example of Muslims and Jews working together. I was asked what I could do to bring people together.

I don’t have clear answers to that question. You probably don’t either, although I’m happy to hear them if you do. 

What I do know is that the synagogue on Sunday and the mosque today was where I belonged, and that every one of us finds opportunities from time to time to step outside our comfort zone and support someone who is experiencing trauma, loss, or the loneliness of exclusion. 

If enough of us do that, it might just add up - to peace.


Steuart Pittman

Anne Arundel County Executive