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Farmingdale synagogue building reopens as mosque

Farmingdale Jewish Center member Seymour Fruchter outside the

Farmingdale Jewish Center member Seymour Fruchter outside the old Farmingdale Jewish Center. It is now a Mosque. (Aug. 16, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

After 75 years of existence, but with a dwindling congregation, the Farmingdale Jewish Center did what a growing number of synagogues on Long Island have done -- it shut its doors and merged with another nearby synagogue.

And in another sign of Long Island's changing religious landscape, the former synagogue building on Fulton Street reopened in July as a mosque.

The mosque, called Masjid Bilal (or Bilal Mosque), is Farmingdale's first. It also is apparently the first synagogue on Long Island to become a mosque, said Habeeb Ahmed of the Westbury-based Islamic Center of Long Island, one of the largest and oldest mosques on Long Island.

Abdul Majid Khwaja, the new mosque's president, said about 35 to 40 families are using the facility so far. He said many used to pray at a Bethpage mosque, but wanted one closer, in part because Muslims pray five times a day.

"Rather than go into demolition, let it [the former synagogue] be used as another place of worship," said Khwaja, a native of Afghanistan.

Seymour Fruchter, 87, former president of the synagogue, said many congregants were sad it had to close, but realized there was no choice. He said the negotiations with the Muslim group went smoothly. The building was sold on July 17 for $2.3 million.

"There were no tensions and there was no problem," he said. "It was the most pleasant kind of relationship."

Khwaja said the mosque's congregants include immigrants originally from nations including Pakistan, India and Turkey, as well as some African-Americans. They began using their new mosque just as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan started July 19, laying prayer rugs on the floor of a huge room that used to serve as the synagogue's ballroom, which can accommodate up to 500 people.

One congregant, Dr. Syed Shibli, 50, a neonatologist at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, said it is better to have many small mosques spread around Long Island rather than just a few large ones.

"A mosque is needed in every locality" where significant numbers of Muslims live or work, he said. Smaller mosques also mean fewer parking problems on major prayer days, he said.

Long Island is now home to about 24 mosques, compared with perhaps a half-dozen two decades ago, Ahmed said. He estimated the Island's Muslim population at 75,000.

Farmingdale Mayor Ralph Ekstrand said he welcomes the mosque, in part because he thinks the faithful could provide a boost to local businesses. He also acknowledged receiving some complaints from fearful residents who have linked Islam to terrorism.

"People come in and say, 'Ralph, you have to do something,' " he said.

"I'm not going to do anything," Ekstrand said. "This is America. It's a melting pot."

Meanwhile, the changeover has worked well for the Jewish group that left, Fruchter said. Another synagogue, the Israel Community Center in Levittown, also closed and, like the Farmingdale synagogue, merged with the Wantagh Jewish Center. That reconfigured synagogue recently changed its name to Congregation Beth Tikvah.

The three egalitarian conservative synagogues merged into one say they have created a strong institution, one they hope will last for years to come. "With the consolidation, we now have a healthy synagogue," said Madeline Ross, co-president of Beth Tikvah.

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