Mosque, Chabad near Philadelphia are happy next-door neighbors

The cars slowly turn onto the long driveway, their wheels occasionally crunching the snow on the frozen ground.

Rabbi Yossi Kaplan and Mohammad Aziz walk side by side near the parking lot. It’s Friday, right before afternoon prayers, and hundreds of worshippers are making their way to the mosque in Devon, Pa., about 20 miles outside Philadelphia.

Some of the young, professional-looking Muslim men pause to shake the rabbi’s hand and wish him a hearty “Shabbat Shalom.”

In short order, all 15 parking spots in front of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Chester County are full — taken by those headed to the mosque next door.

Chabad Rabbi Yossi Kaplan (left) and Mohammad Aziz walk in front of the Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge’s new mosque. photo/jta/jordan cassway

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

With some mosque projects being confronted with hostility, this Pennsylvania mosque stands in stark contrast to the controversial projects that have grabbed national headlines.

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, Pa. had a burgeoning Jewish population. With their two babies in tow, Kaplan and his wife, Tickey, moved into the area and rented space for their programs.

“It started very slowly,” the rabbi said, but within four years they needed a bigger space, and they found it: right next to the Islamic Center of Greater Valley Forge. Because of its location, the owner was willing to sell it cheaply; also, it was in a state of disrepair.

Kaplan purchased the property in December 2002, just a year after 9/11. The home eventually accommodated six more children, and the studio became an attached synagogue — complete with a finished basement for holiday functions, classes, Hebrew school and Saturday luncheons.

Aziz, 57, an information technology consultant by trade and the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge, recalled the day when 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,” he said. “We started talking.”

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

Six months ago, the Islamic Society completed work on a new mosque, which does not have a minaret. The society, which has between 60 and 80 member families, is currently seeking an imam, someone who would be present for the five daily prayers.

Kaplan said he had no concerns about a mosque rising next to his Chabad House.

“There have been no problems at all,” 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. We’re both believers.”

Mohammad Jan, 72, an original society member, said that Kaplan has come to them for help with turning on the synagogue’s lights after sundown on Shabbat.

Two years ago, Chabad regular Marcy Barth of West Chester parked in the Islamic Society’s lot during an overpacked Rosh Hashanah service. When Aziz signaled to them, they thought perhaps they had made a faux pas, but when they approached him, he wished them a “Happy New Year” and handed them plates of picnic food.

“It just goes to show you,” Barth said, “that the more you get to know each other, the less tension there is going to be.”