Guided by History, a Jew Tries to Unite Two Faiths Divided by War in Gaza

August 9, 2014

NEWARK, Del. — Shortly after the latest cease-fire expired in Gaza on Friday, Jacob Bender gingerly climbed the steps of the mimbar, the pulpit at the Islamic Society of Delaware here. A Jew in a mosque, his hands palpably quivering but his reedy voice steady, he read some brief comments to close the afternoon’s worship service, called Juma’a.

Mr. Bender offered both hope and censure, twinned: Muslims and Jews could still be “partners for peace and justice,” he said. Israel and Hamas bore shared responsibility for the current carnage, he added, and more hatred would lead to more violence, while love would lead to reconciliation.

After he finished those words, he intoned the Judaic funeral prayer, El Malei Rachamim, adapting its English translation to remember the victims in Gaza. He closed the prayer by saying “amen,” and the several hundred men and women replied in kind. Then, unbidden, they joined in sustained applause.

It was an emblematic moment for an unusual man. For the past 10 months, Mr. Bender has served as executive director for the chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Philadelphia — the first non-Muslim to ever hold such a high-ranking position within CAIR, as the council is commonly known.

Much of Mr. Bender’s day-to-day work involves domestic issues — a Muslim pupil bullied in his school, a local mosque vandalized, a Muslim security guard forced to remove her hijab while being photographed for a gun permit. Yet the Middle East conflict is not merely the proverbial elephant in the room, but a stomping herd of them.

In the Jewish religious community, Mr. Bender’s fierce critique of Israel has found willing listeners only among the left-leaning fringe, primarily the small Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. The moderate mainstream, while less vituperative than the online antagonists in criticizing Mr. Bender, has treated him as a pariah.