So Long… But Not Farewell: A Letter Upon My Retirement from CAIR-Philadelphia

A Note from Ahmet Tekelioglu, CAIR-Philadelphia Executive Director:

Dear friends of CAIR-Philadelphia, 

You will read below an insightful note from our beloved Jacob Bender. Last weekend, we were at Jacob and his lovely wife Katharina’s home, celebrating Jacob’s wonderful career standing up for civil rights, as well as many other milestones of the Bender-Feil family, including Jacob’s retirement from CAIR-Philadelphia. I remember the first day I met Jacob when I was interviewing with CAIR-Philadelphia at what was then called the Villanova Masjid. He asked me if I was comfortable joining protests. At the time, I took a few seconds to think about it and only understood once I joined CAIR-Philadelphia why Jacob asked that question: he was always on the forefront of standing up for what is right, standing with the oppressed, and speaking truth to power.

His many successes and legacy at CAIR-Philadelphia includes many benchmarks that are impossible to list fully here, and I would love for you to read Jacob’s narrative below. Please know that as Jacob goes into a much-deserved retirement — although we will keep calling him for his unmatched experience — his years of work helping to build CAIR-Philadelphia into what it is today is deeply appreciated by both Pennsylvania Muslims and a national audience. Thank you, Jacob, we love you and your wonderful family! – Ahmet

So Long… But Not Farewell: A Letter Upon My Retirement from CAIR-Philadelphia

By Jacob Bender

Friday was my last day on the staff of CAIR-Philadelphia. Thirteen years ago, on a cold October morning, I left my apartment in Manhattan, pushed myself into an already jampacked NY Subway car to Penn Station where I boarded an Amtrak train to Philadelphia.

Arriving in CAIR’s Philadelphia office that morning, I knew that both CAIR and myself were entering into a relationship teeming several difficult questions confronting us:

  • Would the Muslim community in Philadelphia accept a Jew as the local leader of America’s leading Muslim civil rights organization?
    • Thirteen years later, I am honored to report that I was welcomed with open arms by the Muslim community, and the number of times encountered, or heard of, any opposition to my hiring by CAIR could be counted on one hand. There were times when I imagined myself walking in the Andalusian gardens of Cordoba, forging an interfaith delight and home to philosophers and physicians and poets, mathematicians and musicians, astronomers and agriculturists.
  • How would the mainstream Philadelphia Jewish community respond to my hiring by CAIR?
    • Unfortunately, the American Zionist groups, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) were less than welcoming to my presence in Philadelphia, and the ADL was openly hostile, sending out an email that urged all local Jewish organizations to not meet with CAIR or me.
    • Even more shocking and bigoted, during my tenure at CAIR, our office received several hate emails directed at me, labeling me “a self-hating Jew,” “traitor,” and even “Nazi-lover.”
    • On the opposite side of the spectrum, CAIR found in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College a willing and joyful partner, openly collaborating with us in creating interfaith holiday celebrations for Ramadan iftars, the two Eids, the Passover Seders, and the annual Philadelphia Interfaith March.
    • On a personal and spiritual level, CAIR’s interfaith work led directly to my family becoming active members of the wonderful Reconstructionist Synagogue Mishkan Shalom and friends with its wonderful Rabbi Shawn Zevit.

In a parallel vein, I was blessed to have worked with several imams throughout the Greater Delaware Valley, including Mikal Shabazz at Masjidullah, and Kenneth Nuriddin at Philadelphia Masjid, and several Muslim community leaders, including Adab Ibrahim at Al-Aqsa, and Baba Kenya, Michael Rashid and Raheemah Shamsid-Deen Hampton at Masjidullah, Abdul-Rahim Muhammad at ICPIC, the Farooqi Brothers at FrameLogic A/V, and Geoffrey at Millennium Art Gallery.

Working for CAIR also enabled me to utilize my artistic, media, and theatrical background in the production of the CAIR Banquet program; our Annual Banquet soon become the gold standard at CAIR Chapters around the country. And please note as well that CAIR-Philadelphia’s fundraising and budget more than doubled from 2013 until today.

I was also fortunate indeed to work with a most amazing staff, including the indefatigable Dr. Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, my more-than-worthy successor as Executive Director; Timothy Welbeck, Esq, the brilliant legal brains of CAIR and rapper extraordinaire; and Master Organizer Leena Jaffer, CAIR-Philadelphia’s institutional memory, as well as the inspirational Asiyah Jones.

CAIR’s strength is due to its communal leadership, including the heroic Osama al-Qasem, the scholarly Iftekhar Hussain, the dedicated Sally Selim, and the brave Mohammed Zubairu. It was they, and others, together with my family, who provided the support I was seeking after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2015. I am thankful that to date, I have only a mild case of PD, Alhamdulillah. I have learned that with communal, medical, and family support, one can live a productive and fulfilling life, even with a neurological disability like PD.

And then there is Gaza.

Described by many before Oct. 7th as the planet’s largest outdoor prison; Gaza has now been bombed and burned into a pile of rubble, a vast wasteland with tens of thousands on the brink of starvation. It has been estimated that 13,000 Arab children have been killed in Gaza while the total number of Palestinian dead approaches 35,000. Add to this the 1,200 Israelis killed on the first day of the war and for who I also mourn (“And whoever saves one life, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” Surah Al-Ma’idah, 32.)

And still the fighting continues, with the indicted war-criminal Netanyahu still refusing a ceasefire. And still the fighting continues. When will one side learn that there can be no peace without a total end to the Occupation and the emergence of a Free Palestine? And when will the other side learn that there is simply no military solution, no end, to this conflict, short of mutual annihilation?

Finally, this has been a painful and difficult time for many of us, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jew. The former president of these United States is now a convicted felon, and have so many pointed out, both American and Israeli democracy is in danger.

A great man, not without his terrible shortcomings, once wrote that this nation of ours, emerging from a brutal civil war, was the “last great hope of mankind.” Given the racism and violence of American history, I doubt that this is true. What I do know, however, is that ten centuries ago, in a land called Al-Andalus, Jews and Muslims and Christians lived together in peace and “Convivencia,” creating the most advanced civilization on the entire European continent. May it happen once again, Inshallah.

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