Teaneck—In this town’s leafy suburbs, a woman wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering, is certainly no cause for alarm. It doesn’t call to mind those terrible days after 9/11, when Muslims feared retribution from average Americans, and faced significant delays and encountered racial profiling in security lines in airports and elsewhere. Teaneck residents are rightly proud of their own positive record on integration, which was a leader in promoting anti-segregation. Today, Teaneck houses a Muslim mayor who sits convivially alongside Orthodox Jewish and African-American city councilmembers.
However, some in this community have felt the same kind of 9/11 targeting since Donald Trump began his ascent to the American presidency. Whether their feelings are simply a sneaking fear or a sensing of the tenor of segregation, an advocacy group has emerged and given a name to this perspective.
Twenty-eight women, who met for the first time the day after President Trump’s inauguration, were the prevailing forces behind an anti-Trump, anti-Islamophobia, pro-Muslim and pro-immigrant rally held in Teaneck this past Sunday. The group, which calls itself “Teaneck Together,” described itself in an email announcing the rally as “progressive women in and around Teaneck, building bridges within our diverse community to collectively take action in response to the Trump presidency.”
“We have a diverse group; we are making efforts that are representative of diversity. We are Muslim, Jewish and women of color,” said Shana Dworken, 35, of Teaneck. A public school teacher, Dworken shared that the group took the opportunity of the Trump Executive Order placing a 120-day hold on travel-as-usual for residents from seven Muslim-majority countries, to be proactive and rally the community around its anti-Trump cause.
“We have a community within Teaneck who potentially could be marginalized and we don’t want that to happen in Teaneck, and we are also opposing the Trump action on a federal level,” Dworken told The Jewish Link.
Dworken shared that when the group initially met, just a week before the rally, there were no particular plans for public demonstrations. “It was to get like-minded women together who might be feeling a lot of different things in response to Trump’s election.” However, after Shabbat last week, when everyone turned on their phones, “It became clear there was a need within our community to build bridges and to respond to each other’s needs. A lot of us began to reach out to the group,” she said. The rally was then organized in a little under a day, with reports of several hundred people in attendance. Speaking at the rally were Democratic Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, Congressman Josh Gottheimer, Councilman Henry Pruitt, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Freeholder Tracy Zur and several others.
“There is a rising license for people to look at me and tell me to go back to my country, or wherever I came from,” said Yasmeen Al-Shehab, 41, of Teaneck. Al-Shehab, a nurse, is the sister of Teaneck’s Mayor Hameeduddin and is, like him, a Muslim of Indian descent who was born in the Bronx. But, “because I wear the hijab, people ask, ‘Do you have your bag packed to Saudi Arabia yet?’”
“My daughter said it best,” Al-Shehab told The Jewish Link. “‘Where is my place in Trump’s America? The country and the military is supposed to protect us. Why do I feel like they are coming for us?’ These are the types of things we’re up against,” said Al-Shehab.
Other attendees at the rally felt it was important to show solidarity with immigrants and refugees. Dr. Larry Stiefel, a Bergenfield resident who is well known in the community as both a Jewish Link contributor (author of The Maggid of Bergenfield, a long-running column) and a local pediatrician, got right off a plane from Florida and and went straight to the rally with his wife, Chana, and two of his children. “At the rally I saw someone holding a sign that read “I am the child of refugees,” and suddenly it occurred to me, I am the child of refugees. My dad came in 1936 and my mom in 1940 from Germany. These people stopped at the airport were my parents 75 years later. It kind of choked me up,” Stiefel said. “The rally had people from so many backgrounds and lots of Orthodox Jews. It made me proud that we were standing up for the values we believed in,” he added.
Many of the organizers also felt is was particularly important to show their children that baseless or misplaced hate has no place in Teaneck. “It was incredibly important to us, as a family, to express our discontent with President Trump’s executive order on immigration,” said Teaneck mother and community activist Kate Davis. “As Teaneck residents, we stand with our neighbors whose families are affected by the order, and whose religion is being targeted. As Jews, we are grateful that our grandparents had a place to come when their lives were in danger, and feel it is our duty to maintain that opportunity for others. As citizens of the great United States of America, we feel a responsibility to speak up when we see abuses of power by our government.”
“I wanted my kids to see that our community is welcoming and inclusive. The diversity in our neighborhood is rich and beautiful,” added Elana Winslow, a resident of nearby Bergenfield.
Dworken noted that the rally was specifically designed to be family-friendly. “I thought it was great. The message was clear. People came there for that reason. they were very supportive, and there was a very positive response. Our Facebook group [Teaneck Together] has grown to over 300 members,” she said.
Chana Stiefel said, “It’s nice to be part of a diverse community in which Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of all backgrounds can come together peacefully for a common cause.”
By Elizabeth Kratz