Dr. Isma Chaudhry, left, chair of the board of trustees...

Dr. Isma Chaudhry, left, chair of the board of trustees at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury said: “This is the time people want to pray." Of the increased attendance this month, Rabbi Howard Buechler, of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, said: “There is a lot of feeling of loneliness, a lot of feeling of angst in the community." Credit: Howard Schnapp / Rick Kopstein

At Temple Beth Torah in Melville, the first Friday night service since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by militant group Hamas drew five times the normal crowd.

Synagogue leaders said they had not seen such a jump in attendance since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

People are “feeling like they need to be part of the Jewish community right now in a formal way,” said Rabbi Susie Moskowitz, who heads the temple.

The attacks inside Israel killed 1,400 people, including some Americans, and injured many others. Afterward, the rabbi said, "People I don’t usually see on a Friday night joined us.”

What to know

  • Long Island Jewish and Muslim leaders say they have seen a marked increase in attendance at services since Hamas militants attacked Israel.
  • Leaders of both groups say feelings of loneliness and isolation during the war are helping to spur the increase.
  • "We all share this county, this state, this nation," said Faraz Kayani, a member of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, "regardless of what is happening in the Middle East.” 

At the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, larger-than-normal crowds also are attending the main prayers of the week on Friday afternoons. They, too, worry about the bloodshed in the Middle East, including more than 5,000 Palestinians killed by Israeli bombings in Gaza as part of a counteroffensive. 

“Our parking lots are full,” said Dr. Isma Chaudhry, co-chair of the board of trustees at the Islamic Center of Long Island. “This is the time people want to pray. They find comfort and a sense of community when they come to the mosque to pray in congregation form.”

Sanctuaries during a time of war

The Melville synagogue and the Westbury mosque are not outliers.

Leaders of synagogues and mosques across Long Island have reported more people attending services since Hamas attacked and Israel responded with a declaration of war and a sustained bombing of Gaza. From Westbury to Selden, from New Hyde Park to Dix Hills, the houses of worship are serving as sanctuaries for members to pray for peace — and their own safety — and find strength through others over a conflict half a world away but personal to so many.

At the Chabad of Mid-Suffolk in Commack, attendance is up by 10% to 20%, according to Rabbi Mendel Teldon, who heads the Orthodox synagogue.

It's about the need for connection to others, said Rabbi...

It's about the need for connection to others, said Rabbi Mendel Teldon of Chabad of Commack, explaining why his synagogue has seen a surge in attendance at services since Hamas attacked Israel. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

“People want to connect,” he said. “People find comfort and safety and security in finding other members of the Jewish community that they can talk with and find encouragement and faith and trust that the future is brighter.”

One regular worshipper, David Gresen, 57, said he has noticed the uptick.

Attending services “is basically a direct line to God and to ask him for a quick resolution of this horrible war,” he said. “No more loss of life. Hopefully we can wipe out the evil over there and live peacefully among other human beings.”

Renee Pardo, 54, of Huntington, said she had fallen away from regular attendance of services at the Melville synagogue as work got busy and her children became adults, but has reengaged after the attacks.

“When something like this happens it's very hard sometimes to connect with people who aren’t in your community," she said. "They don’t feel it necessarily the same way that you do.

“So I think it becomes really important just to process what happened, to get information, to be there for each other," she added.  "And there’s nowhere else to do that than among people who are feeling the same way.”

At the Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park, Rohet Chowdhury, 22, said he has started trying to attend prayer services nearly every day instead of only on Fridays, Islam's main prayer day. 

“I believe it has become more important for Islam to be more heard and for more brothers to come to the masjid and pray," he said. “It is something that has opened up our eyes, now what we are seeing with Palestine and Gaza.

“When I come to pray I only see peace," he added. "I see brothers that are here that want to help each other. We are all regular people. The media is presenting Muslims to be radicalists or terrorists. So I think it is important for people to start seeing that Islam is a religion of peace and forgiveness.”

At the mosque in Westbury, Faraz Kayani, 34, said recent sermons have underscored similar themes to the growing number of faithful, including emphasizing that Judaism, Islam and Christianity share the same roots dating to Abraham.

"We are brothers, we are cousins” among all the religions, Kayani said. “You kind of find hope that there is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Fears of anti-Muslim bias

Mosques also are serving a critical purpose by providing services, including counseling and support groups, Kayani said. For many Muslim Long Islanders, he added, the Hamas attacks have rekindled memories of rampant Islamophobia and fears it will return.

“It’s almost like reliving life right after 9/11," he said.

Both Muslims and Jews said they've been concerned about the potential for violent attacks against their Long Island mosques and synagogues, but have faith that a higher power, and the police, will keep them safe.

But it's hard to ignore what already has happened, said Nayyar Imam, a leader of the Islamic Association of Long Island mosque in Selden. He cited the recent fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old boy in Illinois, allegedly by a 71-year-old man who targeted the child because of his religion, and as a response to the war.

“Everyone is sitting on edge,” Imam said. “Because anything can happen any day now. I hope and pray not.”

At the Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park, leaders are cutting daily prayers from the typical 15 minutes to 10 minutes. They want to minimize the amount of time crowds are in the mosque, said Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan, chair of the board of trustees of the center.

Still, more worshippers than normal are coming, Bhuiyan said.

 “This is the only thing right now left for Muslims to do, to turn to God," he said, adding that many who attend feel as if "everybody else turned against them." 

Fighting fear, isolation through services

"They're isolated," Bhuiyan added. "They’re very much in fear because of what is happening.”

Moskowitz said she has been encouraged by the larger crowds at her synagogue “even when one instinct would be to stay away from Jewish organizations because they were scared.”

Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center said it's not just one thing sparking more Jewish people to attend services. They want to show solidarity with Israel, the rabbi said. They want to express the deep emotions the attack provoked. And — like many Muslim Long Islanders — they want to combat a sense of isolation they've felt since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. 

“There is a lot of feeling of loneliness, a lot of feeling of angst in the community,” Buechler said. “By gathering in the synagogue, we are able to channel those emotions into what we can do together through prayer, song and camaraderie.”

Coming together also helps share the pain of seeing “horrific” images of some of the bloodshed they have viewed online, he said.

“One way to counter images," Buechler said, "is to be together within a community and feel support and unconditional love for one another and not feel in any way alone advocating our support for the people in the land of Israel."

Gresen, who lives in Commack, said the attack “is waking up a lot of feelings inside the everyday Jew that they may not have had before. What was done is just horrible, and it’s an attack not only on Judaism but innocent lives. It strikes a chord with everybody.” 

Kayani, who lives in Hicksville and counts Jews among his longtime friends, said going to his mosque gives him hope.

“The mosque is doing a great job in reminding you that at the end of the day we all share this county, this state, this nation, regardless of what is happening in the Middle East,” he said.

“We don’t want to welcome any sense of hatred on any side or either side for our country here,” he said. “What we have is beautiful.”

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