Finding common ground a challenge for local Jews, Muslims

Imam Muhammed Mehtar stands inside the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley in Newbury Park.
Imam Muhammed Mehtar stands inside the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley in Newbury Park.

Women passed tissues during a recent Friday service at the Islamic Society of Simi Valley to wipe tears as Imam Sheikh Omar Jubran prayed for persecuted Palestinians in Gaza.

The following day, security guards kept watch over Temple Adat Elohim as worshippers arrived at the Thousand Oaks synagogue for a Saturday service.

In Ventura County mosques and synagogues alike, the Israel-Hamas war and the tensions it has inflamed on American soil loom over weekly worship.

As pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests have spread on streets and overpasses, local interfaith conversations have suffered.

“Our only interactions right now are on the corner of Westlake Boulevard and Thousand Oaks Boulevard," said Rabbi Barry Diamond, chair of the Conejo Valley Interfaith Association.

The heat of the moment grew clear after Nov. 6, when Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old Jewish man, died of injuries from an altercation during competing protests at the high-traffic intersection in Thousand Oaks.

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office has charged Moorpark resident Loay Alnaji, 50, with involuntary manslaughter and battery causing serious bodily injury. He has pleaded not guilty.

Some Muslims and Jews are asking themselves whether they can find common ground.

The day after Kessler’s death, Imam Muhammed S. Mehtar of the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley extended an olive branch. Mehtar, whose Newbury Park center is part of the interfaith group, wrote to Diamond that he and the center’s board were heartbroken over Kessler’s death.

“We stand firmly against any form of aggression or violence aimed at anyone, regardless of their background or faith,” Mehtar wrote.

The rabbi expressed gratitude to Mehtar in a written response.

Diamond said the letter exchange was shared with congregations in the interfaith association.

Despite that kind of dialogue, fear, skepticism and anger remain in the Jewish and Islamic communities.

Rabbi Barry Diamond stands in front of the ark at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks.
Rabbi Barry Diamond stands in front of the ark at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks.

Tense times

Jewish and Islamic advocacy groups in the U.S. — including the Anti-Defamation League and Council for American-Islamic Relations — say they logged spikes in antisemitic, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents in the weeks after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

RuthAnn Rossman, who has been a part of Congregation B'nai Emet in Simi Valley for 30 years and is on its board, said people aren't attending services in person and prefer Zoom because they are afraid.

She wishes nobody had reason to feel that fear but values her time at the synagogue.

“If I go to temple tonight and I get killed, was it worth me going? Yes, because it’s (for) my beliefs,” Rossman said.

Her husband, board president Steve Rossman, said with so much shared religious common ground, it's a shame there isn’t more understanding between the Jewish and Islamic communities.

Nashat Mshiael, president of the Islamic Society of Simi Valley board, said the county's Muslims also feel threatened.

“Our women are very scared even going outside because they are immediately identified as Muslims by wearing their scarves," Mshiael said.

Shajee Siddiqui, a board member at the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley, said some community members, especially women who wear hijabs, have felt increasingly unsafe in public spaces since Oct. 7.

The center’s community is ethnically diverse: Members have roots in countries across the Muslim world. The conflict has hit harder for members with ties to Palestine, Siddiqui said. One member, he said, lost a number of family members in the first week of Israel’s counterattack on Gaza.

“There are definitely folks that are very emotional about this issue,” he said. “We’re all humans at the end of the day. We come from the same creator.”

Siddiqui said he recognizes the gaps between Muslims and Jews in understanding the conflict.

“We’re not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “How do you recognize differences and also find common ground?”

Increased security

Local Jewish and Islamic clergy said their congregations are apprehensive. Security measures have been increased at some places of worship.

The security guards at Temple Adat Elohim aren't new, said Diamond, who leads the congregation, but the synagogue has beefed up other security measures since Oct. 7.

Synagogues throughout the U.S. have had security concerns in recent years because of attacks such as the 2018 shooting that killed 11 people and wounded six at the Tree of Life-Or L'Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh.

Muslims have reported an increase in violence. Wadea Al-Fayoume, 6, was fatally stabbed Oct. 15 at his home in Illinois. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the attack as a hate crime. In November, three young men of Palestinian descent were shot near the University of Vermont. A 48-year-old man was arrested and has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder.

“We’re concerned about our safety because there are things that happen all over the world,” said Rabbi Michele Paskow of Congregation B’nai Emet in Simi Valley.

The synagogue has added locks, panic buttons and a guard.

“It’s terrible to have to feel that way, but I’m there and I feel at peace. I feel I am with community and family,” RuthAnn Rossman said. “I would bet anything the Muslims feel exactly the same way.”

Mehtar said in terms of security, he felt reassured by kind messages from Diamond and Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, as well as support from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

Mamdouh Elalami, left, and Nashat Mshiael, the board president of the Islamic Society of Simi Valley, stand outside their mosque.
Mamdouh Elalami, left, and Nashat Mshiael, the board president of the Islamic Society of Simi Valley, stand outside their mosque.

Creating dialogue

Seeking conversation instead of confrontation, Diamond said the interfaith association is considering an event where a speaker explains the perspectives of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.

Mehtar said that event would benefit from having both Muslim and Jewish speakers.

Diamond said there could be a Zoom talk featuring Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who lives in Israel, and a Palestinian whom Schlesinger works with in efforts for peace through the rabbi’s organization, Friends of Roots.

It’s not too soon after Kessler’s death to talk, said Rabbi Ari Averbach of Temple Etz Chaim, the Thousand Oaks synagogue where Kessler was a member.

But Averbach said meaningful dialogue isn’t a screaming match or an expression of platitudes.

“We’re lucky to live in a place where we see ourselves as neighbors,” Averbach said. “I know we can be friendly, sit at a table and laugh and joke and share ideas. I wonder whether we can get to the point where we understand each other.”

Paskow of Congregation B’nai Emet said talks can help the Jewish and Islamic communities to heal. She added dialogue between Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and others can dispel stereotypes.

Calling for end of violence

But Rabbi Nosson Gurary of Chabad of Simi Valley said dialogue isn’t the ultimate answer. He said it's crucial that Muslim leaders condemn the actions of the extremists leading Hamas, whose organization's name is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement.

“So far, I haven’t seen Muslim leaders coming out strongly against the atrocities on Oct. 7,” Gurary said.

There have been condemnations. More than a dozen British Muslim leaders, for example, signed a statement saying they "unequivocally condemn the killing of civilians in Israel and Gaza."

Mohammed Deif, the leader of Hamas' military wing, said the attack on Israel was in response to the nation's 16-year blockade of Gaza and factors such as expansion of Jewish settlements on lands Palestinians claim for a future state.

Mamdouh Elalami, a Palestinian who immigrated to Simi Valley from Gaza in 1987, has been to protests in Ventura, Riverside and Los Angeles counties supporting Palestinians in Gaza. He was there on the day of the incident with Kessler and plans to keep protesting around Southern California.

“It's our right to voice our opinion against the genocide that Israel is doing,” he said.

He has hundreds of relatives in Gaza, many of whom he said have been killed and displaced during the war.

The conflict also hit home hard for Tarek Elneil. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1956, the year the Israeli military invaded the Gaza strip and Egypt’s Sinai Desert, followed by French and British troops.

Elneil said when he moved to Moorpark in 1978, he was “still suspicious of Jews” after two decades of intermittent war between Israel and its neighbors.

But in the U.S., he said, he found his issue was not with Jews, but with supporters of Zionism, the movement behind the creation and expansion of Israel.

“The problem is not between Muslims and Jews," he said. "The problem is between the leadership of Israel and everybody.”

In the middle of the debate are Diamond and Mehtar, who are calling for conversation instead of confrontation between Muslims and Jews.

“We both believe in God. We believe in similar prophets," Mehtar said. "We have and continue to have similar struggles.”

Dave Mason covers East County for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached at or 805-437-0232. Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star in partnership with Report for America. Reach him at or 805-437-0236 Dua Anjum is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Finding common ground a challenge for local Jews, Muslims