‘Building Bridges and Taking Down Walls’

I would like to invite you to a very interesting program that is being offered by our Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Dialogue of Southern New Jersey, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the G.I.F.T. Ministry of the Catholic Church of Saint Mary, Cherry Hill, on Thursday, Nov, 3, at 7 p.m., in their parish hall, 2001 Springdale Road, Cherry Hill. The program, “Building Bridges and Taking Down Walls,” features Capt. Jamiel S. Altaheri from the New York Police Department. Please register at www.jcrcsnj.org, the program is free and open to the public, refreshments will be served.

We are happy to offer this program in conjunction with our community partners, Camden County Human Relations Commission, Cherry Hill Police Department, The Catholic Church of Saint Mary, the Muslim American Community Association and the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association.

Capt. Jamiel Altaheri made history by becoming the first Yemeni-American to attain the rank of Police Capt. in the NYPD. He is the highest ranking Muslim in the NYPD. Altaheri is currently assigned as the Executive Officer of the 23rd Precinct in the upper east side of Manhattan, proudly known as “El Barrio.” Capt. Altaheri is passionate about bridging the communication gap between law enforcement officers and the Muslim community. He has conducted numerous lectures and discussions on the importance of diversity, community, policing, collaboration and religious tolerance. He has been interviewed on television about his important role and work, most recently on the CBS Morning Show.

There are approximately 36,000 NYPD officers and of those around 1,000 of them are professed Muslims. Capt. Altaheri has been on the force for 12 years. As a Muslim, he shares that, in order for us to do our job, “we have to have a better relationship with the community we serve.” We often hear that Muslims, especially Muslim-Americans, need to step up and condemn radical Muslims. Quite often they do just that but are not always heard by the wider community. Capt. Altaheri, his family, and what they represent speak to the experience that many Muslims have here in our neighborhoods with the specter and fear of terrorism so rampant.

His 10-year-old daughter, Nadine, shared an experience she had with a bully at her school. She said, “A boy in my class said that Muslims are terrorists and ISIS and they hurt people.” She didn’t even know what ISIS is. His wife, Sameha, another first generation Yemeni immigrant, said her daughter’s experience caused her pain. “Honestly, inside me, I was destroyed, that my daughter has to experience that,” she said. When asked by an interviewer how she handled speaking to her daughter about her experience, she said, “You have to be ready (to explain) because you hear it all the time. I hear it in the bus, I hear it in the train, I hear it in the park. I hear it every time I go out.” She added, “We need to have respect for each other, love each other, accept each other. We don’t need walls. We need bridges between us.”

Capt. Altaheri travels around the country speaking to audiences at mosques, synagogues and churches. It’s not an easy task, especially after the terrible events in Orlando, with so many innocents killed at the Pulse Nightclub.

“Terrorism has no place in Islam. Islam is soft. Islam is gentle. Islam is loving. Islam is peace,” Altaheri told the crowd. He added, “I want my family to be proud of their identity. Proud to be American, proud to be a Muslim. I don’t see myself as any different than an American-Jew, American-Catholic, a gay American. I’m just American. So I never introduce myself as Muslim. I think when they find out, they say, ‘Wow. You’re a cool guy, you’re Muslim?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, Muslims are cool, too.’”

He was recently recognized for his work in the community by the Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., who said of Capt. Altaheri, “He exemplifies everything good that it means to be a Muslim, everything good that it means to be an immigrant and everything good that it means to be an American.”

I do hope you are able to join us on Nov. 3 at Saint Mary Parish Hall to hear this nationally recognized speaker. Join us in breaking down the walls of fear and suspicion as we work to build bridges of peace and harmony.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.