Rabbi Yossi Kaplan came home recently to find several men surveying the front of the Chabad House he runs. When asked what was going on, they replied that they were measuring. And they were doing so at the behest of local resident Dr. Gulamnabi Vahora in what was supposed to be a surprise: a newly paved parking lot.
To understand the reasons behind this gesture, it’s necessary to backtrack just a bit.
Kaplan, co-director of Chabad Jewish Center of Chester County with his wife, Tickey, lives on a busy thoroughfare on what was once a country road in Devon, Pa., a suburb about 20 minutes from Philadelphia. The Chabad center and synagogue adjacent to their home sit next door to a mosque—the Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge. The Islamic Center had worked out of an unassuming white house since 1994; the Kaplans settled on the property next door in December 2002.
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A new mosque was constructed from the ground up on the Islamic Center’s property four years ago, with two floors of 5,000 square feet each and an enormous parking lot to boot. Still, it never seemed to be enough for the overflow of worshippers every week on Fridays and on Muslim holidays, like Ramadan, which ends on the evening of July 28.
So from the start, the rabbi invited mosque-goers to use the synagogue lot whenever they needed to, which they promptly began to do. For its part, the Islamic Center offered Jewish drivers the use of its sizable lot for Chabad classes and events. And while the Chabad participants sometimes park there, it’s never to the extent of their Muslim neighbors, who come by the hundreds each week to pray.
The lot has been used regularly for years by members of the mosque next door, the Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge.
The continuous use of wheels on pavement, coupled with a record snow-filled winter, roughed up the lot visibly and physically; it was riddled with holes and cracks. Vahora aimed to fix the problem.
“I saw the condition of the parking lot, and I also happened to have just had work done on my own private home driveway, so I took the crew over there to look at it,” explains Vahora, a 65-year-old pathologist and father of four. He talked it over with his wife, Aabeda, who also felt it was a nice thing to do. “I wanted to surprise the rabbi and pay for it. We are neighbors; we work together. I wish all people would work together like this.”
‘Something Good Happens’
So last Thursday and Friday, the Chabad House parking lot got professionally paved. “They did a very good job,” affirmed Vahora, who is originally from India.
Community member Roger Barth, a professor, was one of the first congregants to see the new look.
“It was nice that they noticed,” he said. “These things make a difference in the world. The rabbi has a very good relationship with the mosque, and it shows. In fact, he brought a challah over to the imam about a week ago, something for him to help break the fast with that night.”
In the end, the doctor split the cost of $6,500 for the work with the Chabad House.
Kaplan, 42, and a father of eight, noted that congregants hadn’t been focusing on the lot because the center is closing on a nearly two-acre empty parcel of land on the other side of the Chabad property to expand space for programming, services, the Hebrew school and more. Even though funds are tied up right now, the rabbi said it was only fair to go 50-50 with the doctor.
He even cited a Talmudic story related to this decision.
Kaplan with the mosque's former president, Mohammad Aziz. The two men and their religious establishments fostered relationships from the get-go. (Photo: Jordan Cassway)
Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach once purchased a donkey. The original owner had neglected to check the saddlebag before he made the sale, and inadvertently left diamonds in the bag. When they discovered the treasure, Shimon ben Shetach’s students were exuberant, for now, they were certain, their teacher would be able to teach Torah without the constant financial worries that had been plaguing him. Shimon ben Shetach did not join in their excitement though. “Do you think I am a barbarian?” he exclaimed. “I bought a donkey, not diamonds!” He promptly returned the diamonds. When the owner received them, he cried out: “Blessed is the G‑d of Shimon ben Shetach!”
About the lot itself, Kaplan said: “It’s clean; it’s nice. It had to be done, and he got it done.”
Vahora has his own anecdote to tell. “Muslims are buried in a white sheet, and my mother used to say, ‘There’s no pocket in your coffin, no drawer in the grave. You’re not going to take your money with you.’ And so, I spent some.
“The Kaplans are very nice people, and it is a good organization. I have a lot of Jewish friends and know a lot of Jewish doctors. What you spend here—for the poor, for the needy, for humanity—is going to come with you.”
This past winter, with its record cold temperatures and snowfall, took a toll on the parking lot.
Beforehand, the lot was riddled with holes and cracks from wear-and-tear and a harsh few months.
Afterwards, there's an even, smooth surface in front of the Chabad House.
The finished lot drying; to the right is a glimpse of the Islamic Center's parking area, full of cars as mosque-goers attend Ramadan prayers and the daily breaking of the daylong fast.