By Francesca Norsen-Tate, Religion Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This week’s column focuses on both the Arab and Jewish communities in Brooklyn and on their efforts to promote good citizenship and respect for the different ethnic groups that live here.
* * *
Arab-American Heritage Music Festival Comes to Cadman Plaza Park
One of Many Ethnic-Culture Events in Brooklyn, Festival Has Support from NYPD, Borough President
The Arab-American Heritage Music Festival — a celebration of food, arts and crafts — is moving to Cadman Plaza Park in Downtown Brooklyn and will take place on Sunday, Aug. 10.
Organizers of the Heritage Festival, now in its ninth year, include the staff of the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC) on Court Street.
The Arab-American Family Support Center, which has operated in Downtown Brooklyn for 20 years, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, nonsectarian organization that, according to its website, “has taken the initiative in providing culturally, linguistically and religiously sensitive services to members of immigrant communities throughout New York City since 1994. We are a member of United Neighborhood Houses and Better Business Bureau and Guidestar certified.”
While Brooklyn has a significant Muslim population, Arabs comprise only a small number of Muslims (less than 15 percent) worldwide. Many of the Arabs who settled in Brooklyn since the mid-19th century are Christian, representing the Eastern Orthodox and Maronite Rite Catholic traditions, along with Presbyterian, Lutheran and other Protestant congregations here as well that have been historically Arab. The Heritage Festival is a celebration of Arab culture, cuisine and the arts — with the purpose of showcasing performers and vendors who have strong bonds to Brooklyn.
Until last year, the Heritage Music Festival had been held at Prospect Park and brought in crowds from all over Brooklyn and the other boroughs each July. It was moved to August this year out of respect for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which rotates around the seasons. In 2013, the Festival was not held due to Ramadan being in July and because of logistics with the park.
Rama Issa-Ibrahim and Rose Falvey of AAFSC explain that the festival was moved from Prospect Park to Cadman Plaza Park to be nearer to the people they serve in Downtown Brooklyn, even if they will be working with a smaller space.
“The space is more intimate — a smaller area, behind the Brooklyn War Memorial. There will be vendor booths — all Brooklyn-based — and a stage,” they told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Falvey and Issa-Ibrahim said, “The Heritage Festival is really to showcase Arab culture. The participants are from various, different countries. There are so many different cultures that are labeled ‘Arab.’ We want to showcase as many of them as possible.”
The performers will include Gaida, a Syrian woman who leads a five-piece band, with a repertoire of classic and traditional Arabic music; and a group that does pop and mainstream music, “more of what the kids are listening to.” Another singer/guitarist who’s Italian and Arab will perform a fusion of Arabic and more pop American music. In recent years, she won an Arab-American top talent competition.
What festival is complete without a wide sampling of cuisine? The main vendors are Sido Falafel & More and Juan Carlos’ Corn. The vendor selling herbs and spices is Alamani Organic Herbs and Beyond, which specializes in the traditional Arabic spices and herbs that fairgoers can purchase and enjoy in their home cooking.
The success of any New York City festival depends on cooperative effort and the support of city agencies. The main sponsor for this year’s Arab-American Heritage Festival is Maimonides Medical Center. Individual sponsors are local leaders Betsy Haddad and Charles Jebara, both of whom have been active with AAFSC for many years.
Planning this year’s Heritage Festival presented a few new challenges, particularly working with a new location.
“We try to start early,” Issa-Ibrahim said. “This year has been a little more complicated — it’s a new venue. And for the past three years it’s fallen right during Ramadan. This year, we had to change the festival to after Ramadan [which concluded during the last week of July]. It has otherwise been smooth, thanks to all the support we have.”
Issa- Ibrahim and Falvey praise the NYPD’s 84th Precinct, particularly Community Affairs Officer Salvatore Ferrante, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. They met with the 84th Precinct last week to complete the sound/amplification permit. The Parks Department helped them navigate the intricate process of other permit applications. Moreover, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has been supportive.
“Borough President Eric Adams actually was at our Iftar a couple of weeks ago,” Falvey said. “It was very nice that he was able to come out for us and show his support. He had five other events that night he had to go to, but he sat down and he ate with us! I think people in the community enjoyed seeing him there.”
And organizers got another special surprise.
“Two boys from the center and who grew up in the community have stepped forward to volunteer as emcees,” they said.
The Arab American Heritage Music Festival runs from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 10, rain or shine. It takes place on the North Lawn near the William Jay Gaynor Memorial. Fairgoers are encouraged to bring picnic blankets for seating.
* * *
Center Assists Immigrant Families Through Outreach, Arts, Youth Programs
The Arab-American Family Support Center that presents this year’s Heritage Music Festival in Cadman Plaza Park has a strong outreach to the immigrant communities around Brooklyn, including student partnerships with local schools.
Development associate and youth program assistant Rama Issa-Ibrahim told the Brooklyn Eagle, “The Center has been operational for 20 years, providing social services to the immigrant communities living around this area — mostly Arab, Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern. Classes include adult learning, youth programming, arts and a summer day camp.
Several websites that focus on Arab-American communities, in Brooklyn and beyond, point out that, unlike other racial and ethnic groups, Arab-Americans are not officially recognized as a federal minority group. Because of this, a demographic report is almost never exact. Moreover, the Arab world includes 22 countries, stretching from North Africa in the west to the Arabian Gulf in the east. Even though they descend from a common linguistic and cultural heritage (Semitic), Arabs are ethnically, religiously and politically diverse. Moreover, some Arabs are also Jews — such as Yemeni or Iraqi Jews that were part of the Diaspora. Thus, they could identify with more than one ethnic group.
The Arab-American Family Support Center continues to rise to this challenge. Staff members carry fluency and proficiency in 11 languages, including Spanish and Portuguese.
Rose Falvey of AAFSC’s communications office announced the upcoming launch of a school partnership program.
“We are about to start a fellowship that matches people who are learning Arabic with students at the center,” she said. “Students at the center will get one hour of homework help from a college student who is studying Arabic. During the second hour, the two converse together in Arabic.”
Moreover, the center is involved in community liaison with the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights: fourth graders from Packer come in and read with adults.
Replacing misperceptions and hatred with education and friendship is also part of AAFSC’s goal. Its members participate in the nationwide public education and social media campaign “Take on Hate,” along with 23 other sponsoring Arab-American organizations that are part of National Network for Arab American Communities. The “Take on Hate” campaign educates the public on the contributions to society that Arab and Muslim Americas make and works to end discrimination. “Take on Hate” builds coalitions and works for media advocacy and policy changes.
AAFSC’s summer camp, also in session right now, has given kids of all ages the chance to take part in boating and outdoor activities, theater and dance workshops and English-language workshops.
* * *
Saying Brooklyn Needs Its Own Israel Rally, Assemblyman Sponsors One
Hundreds of Brooklyn residents are expected to show their support at a Brooklyn Rally for Israel this week co-sponsored by state Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz. The rally will take place on Wednesday, Aug. 6.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Assemblyman Cymbrowitz (a Democrat representing Assembly District 45, which includes parts of Midwood and Gravesend, southward to Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island) said it is fitting that Brooklyn — home to the world’s largest Jewish population outside Israel — holds its own rally.
“Our collective voice needs to be heard — and it’ll be heard loud and clear,” Cymbrowitz said. “With Israel under the constant threat of rocket attacks, it is important that we come together as a borough and as a community to stand in solidarity for a democracy that has been an unwavering friend to the United States and a refuge for so many.”
Co-sponsors include the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY), the American Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, RAJE, the Zionist Organization of America/Brooklyn Region, DaNu Radio 87.7 FM and 105.1 FM HD2, Emunah of America and the Jerusalem Reclamation Project.
The rally is being organized in the wake of the increased violence in Israel, particularly in the Gaza strip. However, supporters of Israel and those working for an end to the warfare are not monolithic, as a New York Times news analysis showed on July 30. The headline by David D. Kirkpatrick, titled “Arab Leaders Silent, Viewing Hamas as Worse Than Israel,” is actually misleading, because the analysis proceeds to point out that a group of Arab nations in the Middle East actually support Israel. According to Kirkpatrick, Arab countries have formed a coalition —led by Egypt — that includes the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They are supporting Israel against Hamas and, more widely, against political Islam. They are also united against what they perceive as a nuclear threat coming from Iran.
The Brooklyn Rally for Israel runs from 6 to 8 p.m. in Asser Levy Park, at the end of Ocean Parkway, near the Boardwalk.
* * *
Jewish, Muslim Communities Break Bread Together in Brooklyn
Dinner Brings Together Communities for Ramadan And ‘The Three Weeks’ of Bein HaMeitzarim
Members of Brooklyn’s Jewish and Muslim communities broke bread together at a unique multi-cultural dinner on Thursday, July 24 at Congregation Mount Sinai.
The Ramadan Iftar dinner coincided with the Jewish period of Bein HaMeitzarim (The Three Weeks) and gave participants the chance to get to know each other and explore a religious tradition that may have been unfamiliar to them. The event featured music and dancing by Jewish and Turkish performers.
The importance of brotherhood and learning about each other’s traditions was the evening’s theme.
Rabbi Seth Wax gave the interfaith gathering some background on the tragic significance of both the 17th of Tammuz and the ninth day of Av in the Hebrew calendar. Jews believe that, on the 17th of Av, Moses broke the tablets containing the Ten Commandments in anger over the Israelites building and worshiping the golden calf. (The first two commandments forbade such worship of idols.) Rabbi Wax then led the gathering in a group study — a tradition common to Islam and Judaism. They also watched a video on fasting, a physical and spiritual disciplines shared by both the Jewish and Islamic Abrahamic faiths, as well as by Christianity.
Rabbi Wax said, “Like Ramadan, this three-week period is a time for a serious reflection —reflection on actions, how we treat each other. Because the ancient rabbis taught that Jerusalem and the Temple were not destroyed because of mere military power; it wasn’t just because the Romans had a more powerful army. But, rather, it’s because of Sinat chinam, senseless hatred. That was the real cause of the destruction of the Temple. And during this time, we’re called on to reflect on our actions and to think about how we can be better neighbors with those around us —not only Jews, but Muslims and Christians and those of other religious traditions. Because, as we know far too well, we’re in an especially difficult time in the world — in both politics and even in the borough of Brooklyn. But I’m convinced that gatherings like ours tonight are what enable us to create a different world, in which sinat chinam — blind hatred — gives way to tolerance, curiosity and genuine affection.”
Daniel Zeltser, assistant executive director of the Kings Bay Y, likewise spoke, greeting Rabbi Wax and Suleyman of the Turkish Cultural Center as “my brother.”
Telling a story of how he and Suleyman got together over Turkish coffee, Zeltser quipped, “If you drink coffee together, you have to be friends for the next 40 years.”
He added, “Enjoying a lifetime of friendship with each other, opening ourselves up — that is the goal of the evening.”
The Iftar included kosher and halal stews, chicken, salads and dessert.
Co-sponsors were the Kings Bay Y, Turkish Cultural Center of Brooklyn, Universal Foundation and Congregation Mount Sinai.
The Kings Bay Y has taken a leading role in forging a bond between Brooklyn’s Jewish and Muslim communities. The Young Peace Builders, an innovative program the Y started about four years ago in partnership with the Turkish Cultural Center of Brooklyn, brings together American Jewish and Turkish Muslim high school students for social action projects and events that foster dialogue and understanding between the two communities.