Woman Raises $1,180 to Replace Urinated-on Prayer Rugs in Queens Mosque


Sometimes, every now and again, someone does something nice. When that happens, we like to acknowledge it. Here goes. Remember Omar Rivera, the guy who stormed into the Al-Iman mosque in Astoria the day after Michael Enright stabbed a Muslim cabbie and not only shouted obscenities, beer bottle in hand, but also gave the bird and peed on prayer rugs?

Rachel Barenblat, a rabbinical student who lives in a small town in Western Massachusetts, heard about the incident via Twitter — she’s @velveteenrabbi — and immediately reTweeted that she was mortified. One of her followers, @stumark, Tweeted back, “Let’s get organized and buy them new prayer rugs.” Within three days, they’d come up with $1,180 to donate to the mosque. We spoke to Rachel about why she did what she did, and how.

Rachel, tell us how this all transpired.
After I got the Tweet from @stumark, the first thing I did was contact a Muslim friend of mine to ask if he thought it was a good idea, and if there was any way this could be construed as rude. He said no, it’s a nice gesture. We were going to try to find a Jewish synagogue in Queens to organize the effort, but I’m not in New York. A fair number of people read my blog, Velveteen Rabbi, and I thought, I’ll post, maybe we’ll raise a few hundred bucks.

I updated Twitter six or eight times as we got to different amounts of money. By Sunday afternoon, we’d gotten to $1,000, and I said, this is a nice number. Then another $180 rolled in, for a grand total of $1180.

How did you connect with the mosque?
I reached out to another Muslim friend who put me in touch with the caretaker of the mosque. We exchanged some emails. He told me the folks really appreciated it.

Has anyone else commented?
Along with a nice note of thanks from the mosque, Muslims from all over the country have gotten in touch. One left a comment in French saying, “Thank you for showing that that guy doesn’t represent all of America.” I think this really struck a chord with people. People wanted to do something nice, but didn’t know what they could do.

Any negative responses?
Astonishingly, no. Someone did say this is all touchy-feely and well and good, but it’s not substantive change, which we need. I’m kind of amazed I haven’t gotten negativity; I’ve had that experience before.

How many people donated?
There were 65. Not a huge number, but it’s more than would have donated if this were just my circle of friends. Donations came from people I’ve never met or heard of — a low-income guy living in Washington state, an evangelical Christian in a small town in the Midwest. People have continued to reach out, so I wrote a post asking them to give to to relief efforts in Pakistan, or their local food pantry, or Jewish-Muslim interface work.

In your mind, how does this relate to the proposed mosque near Ground Zero?
I think the wave of anti-Muslim behavior is connected, it’s all tangled up together. A lot of people are saddened and frustrated, wishing we could make it better. For all of us who can’t stand outside the site of the mosque and say we support religious freedom, this was a way to feel like we could do something, at a time when we should be engaging in a spiritual accounting of our lives. What I’ve come away with is the sense that even if all you have to give is $5, it adds up.

Update: Related to comments about whether this incident occurred, please see “Did Omar Rivera Pee in the Al-Iman Mosque in Astoria?”