The cars slowly turn onto the long driveway, their wheels occasionally crunching the adjacent ground frozen from the night before and speckled with the merest dusting of snow. Rabbi Yossi Kaplan and Mohammad Aziz walk side by side in the direction of the oncoming line of traffic. Several young, professional-looking Muslim men pass them in the opposite direction, pausing to shake the rabbi’s hand and wish him a hearty “Shabbat Shalom.”

It’s Friday, right before afternoon prayers, and hundreds of worshippers are making their way to the mosque on North Valley Forge Road, in Devon, Pa., Aziz soon turns to join them, and Kaplan heads next door to gather his van and pick his children up from school.

For a moment, the 15-vehicle-capacity lot in front of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Chester County sits empty. But not for long – within 10 minutes, nearly every spot is taken by those headed to the mosque next door.

The shul and the mosque not only share parking space, but a symbiotic relationship. It’s based on their proximity, of course – they are direct neighbors, land practically spilling upon land – but it also owes to the fact that the two men have forged an obvious respect for one another, as well as a solid friendship.

With mosque projects across the United States being confronted with hostility, the noncontroversial way that this Devon mosque came to be stands in stark contrast to other situations that have grabbed national headlines.

A ‘Tangible Place’

Kaplan, 38, tells his story like this. In 1998, he was in Brooklyn, looking for a place to start a Chabad House. He had heard that Chester County had a burgeoning Jewish population – even read a New York Times article about it – and other local leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, director of the Lubavitcher Center in Philadelphia, felt that this would be a “tangible place.”

He and his wife, Tickey, moved into the area with two babies in tow, rented an apartment, and used other available rented space for their programs.

“It started very slowly,” the rabbi said, but by September 2000, they were able to rent what he described as a “huge building” on Waterloo Avenue in Berwyn for services and events. When the cost shot up two years later, they started looking for a more permanent space. Eventually, they found one – a modest home and adjoining ballet-dance studio in need of major renovations, with an expanse of land in the back that bordered a wooded Boy Scout camp.

Besides the disrepair, there was another reason the owner had some trouble selling: The property stood next to the Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge, situated in an unassuming, white-shingled building on a long swath of land. This was a year after Sept. 11, and sensibilities, even on this sleepy street, were up.

Kaplan said the property was purchased in December 2002, and it took about six months to get everything up to code. Their home would eventually accommodate six more children, and the studio became an attached synagogue – complete with a finished basement for holiday functions, classes, Hebrew school and Saturday luncheons – that could accommodate as many as 150 people.

Aziz, 57, an IT consultant by trade and the president of the Islamic society, recalled the day the rabbi and his family moved in. “The first time I saw the door open – the rabbi there, with his lovely wife – I ran over and said hello. We started talking.”

Right away, Aziz said, on behalf of the society, he sent them flowers.

The Islamic society had similar humble beginnings, but over a much longer period of time. It was formed in 1984, and for a while met in local churches, colleges and hotel spaces. The white house, not 20 feet from the road, was purchased a decade later, according to fellow board member Rehana Jan.

“We always wanted to have our own mosque, from the very beginning,” she said, noting that fundraising started from the get-go. Now that the goal has been achieved, the 59-year-old anesthesiologist added, “I still can't believe we have it.”

That goal is in the form of a $1.5 million facility and set back nearly to the brink of the property, well behind the old facility, which remains the site of the children’s religious school.

For a mosque, the facade is somewhat understated, with a cream-colored exterior, accented by green lines around the windows and salmon-hued semi-circles over the entryway doors. There is no dome or minaret.

Between 60 and 80 family-unit members belong to the mosque, according to Aziz.

Jewish residents of Chester County, Pa., enjoy a Lag B’Omer barbecue in the yard between the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center and the neighboring Islamic center.
Jewish residents of Chester County, Pa., enjoy a Lag B’Omer barbecue in the yard between the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center and the neighboring Islamic center.

No Cause for Concern

Kaplan, now a neighbor for seven years, said that he was never concerned about the rise of such a prominent building right next to his home and Chabad House.

“There have been no problems at all. We’re normal neighbors having nice relationships; we’re two religious centers,” he said. “People like to make a big deal out of things; they’re always looking for the man-bites-dog story. But it makes no sense not to get along.”

Mohammad Jan, 72, the husband of Rehana and, like her, an original society member, said that during one of the Jewish holidays – when Shabbat followed on the heels of Sukkot – Kaplan came to them for help turning on the synagogue lights. Jan recalled them thinking, “If he can’t turn them on, then how will we be able to?”

They didn't realize, he said, that sundown had already arrived, and the rabbi was forbidden from doing such work. So the mosque sent over a young man to flip them on.

Truth be told, no one’s really talking politics here; they’re talking relationships, face to face and one on one.

For his part, Kaplan has welcomed Aziz at Simchat Torah celebrations (though Aziz made it clear that he and his congregation follow Islamic law, and do not drink) and at one of his son’s upsherins, the first cutting of a 3-year-old’s hair.

“I don’t concentrate on the religion, but relationships between people. It’s one person at a time; it’s easy,” said Aziz. “I want my children and his children to play together. Whatever’s on the outside should not influence our inside.”

The original story in its completion first appeared in the Jewish Exponent.