How America’s oldest mosque was built by Muslims from the Baltic

  • 2016-05-19
  • Tharik Hussain

The detached building at number 104 Power Street stands alone and out of place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a trendy district of New York City. The pointed roof, white wooden slats, and traditional facade, surrounded by modern houses, seem to belong to a different era.
You wouldn’t know it looking at it. But this former Protestant church is the oldest mosque in all of North America. There are no big signs outside to tell you this. No dome on top, no minarets, or Arabic inscriptions. In fact, the only clue sits high up on the roof: a small white hexagonal turret topped with a crescent.
In truth, the Brooklyn Moslem Mosque is more “little church on the prairie” than a mosque. But then so were the ones the founders once worshipped in.
When the Lithuanian Tatar Society purchased this building in 1931, there was no reason to change it. Born in villages and towns where mosques had been built in this very style for nearly 600 years, they simply added wooden panels inside and out, and put the little turret on the roof.
“It was only when I saw pictures of mosques in the Baltic that it all made sense. The wood inside and out, the turret at the top, I finally saw where it all came from. My ancestors made our mosque look like the ones they had left behind.”
Alyssa Ratkewitch is the Vice President of the Brooklyn Moslem Mosque. She is also the Caretaker and a third generation American-Baltic Tatar who can trace her ancestral roots back to the little town of Iwie in Belarus. Ratkewitch’s grandparents were part of the first community of Baltic Tatar migrants to make the journey to the US at the turn of the last century. Upon arrival, they began organising themselves as the Lithuanian Tartar Society (later known as the American Mohammedan Society), and like Muslims the world over they quickly set up a mosque.
“A lot of the people that came here sponsored one another, they lived in each other’s homes. They came not speaking English, and spoke a combination of Polish and Russian. It was very difficult for them to assimilate at that point, but the mosque helped. It was the ‘bridge.’
“This was a group of people determined to make a life in the United States, and this mosque’s original purpose was to help and support one another, religiously and socially,” explains Marion Sedorowitz, Ratkewitch’s aunt and the mosque Treasurer.
Sedorowitz is a second generation American-Baltic Tatar who grew up attending classes at the mosque. A 1952 article in The USA News Review paints a picture straight out of her childhood.
“The neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, in which the American Mohammedan Society’s mosque stands, is very much like thousands of other neighbourhoods all over the United States. On all sides are modest, comfortable houses in which families live. A few streets away is a small shopping centre where wives buy meat, vegetables, and other supplies. In the evening the children play games on the sidewalk, running laughing and shouting, as they do all over the world.
“But some Friday evenings are different. Twenty or 25 of these neighbourhood children are assembled in the mosque’s large, well-lighted lower room. Seated at long study tables, they are attentive and serious, for they are learning to read and write Arabic, so that they may understand the Koran, and follow the faith of their fathers. Before them are simple texts, and workbooks in which they are learning to form Arabic characters…”
The article contained several pictures, one of a young man studying, Ratkewitch’s “Uncle Sammy;” and another of an older man, Sedorowitz’s grandfather, teaching at the mosque.
“All the community would gather here. My mother didn’t drive and although we lived 40 kilometres away, we would take a cab, a train, a bus and then walk just to be here. My father, who worked in Brooklyn, would then join us. The adults would have prayers and then the younger people would have classes. In the 1960s when I was growing up this place was packed. It was just unbelievable. We were very, very close. Everyone was an aunt or an uncle, even though they were not blood relatives. It was a very tight community,” she recalls.
The mosque Sedorowitz studied in hasn’t changed much. The large first floor hall remains carpeted for worship, a wooden mimbar (pulpit) still regally sits at the front, and a tiny thatched screen remains in the middle of the hall, once separating the men from the women. Downstairs where Sedorowitz used to sit for her classes as a child, there are still reminders of those lessons. On the shelves of “Our Moslem Library,” books of religious instruction with yellowing pages stand alongside Arabic-Russian dictionaries.
“I couldn’t remember everything and so I would look in these books to know how to do the prayers and what to say, and I was fine with that,” explains Sedorowitz, referring to a pocket-sized book called “Fundamentals of Islam.” It was published by the mosque in 1947.
The mosque space is immaculate, largely thanks to caretaker Ratkewitch, as if still in use daily, but that isn’t the case anymore. There is no local Tatar congregation left.
“Many people assimilated and stopped practising Islam. It wasn’t as important to them. They married people of different faiths and moved away,” explains Sedorowitz.
The slowing down of immigration and the drawing of the Iron Curtain across the Tatar homelands stopped any new arrivals, so once the early community left, The Brooklyn Moslem Mosque lost its significance. Now it opens only for religious festivals like Eid and Ramadan as well as the odd cultural event, when the old members gather.
“They live all over the USA now, but when we have a gathering they all come back, because it is such a special place for them,” says Ratkewitch.
With the mosque’s original role now lost, and its recognition in American history growing, Ratkewitch feels the ancient building is about to enter a new phase in its illustrious life.
“This is an important place, to us and to America, and people should know about it, especially in the current political climate. It should be used to educate Americans about the nation’s Muslim history. We want to try and open it up as a heritage space so others can learn about the early Muslims of America through our mosque.”
Ratkewitch and Sedorowitz are now in talks with New York’s city authorities. Soon they hope their mosque will be telling its story to the public. The journey so far has led Ratkewitch to rediscover her ancestral roots in the Baltics, where mosques remain equally important.
“The mosques remind us who we are. They remind us of what we have been through.”
Fatima Stantrukova lives in the tiny village of Keturiasdesimt Totoriu — a 20 minute drive southwest of Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. Her mosque has a slatted wood exterior and a pointed roof with a small crescented turret at the apex. The resemblance to the Brooklyn mosque is uncanny, except mosques have been here since the 16th century, maybe even earlier. Stantrukova’s village is believed to go as far back as the Baltic Tatar’s genesis story, which begins in the 14th century. Back then the area was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a large empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It was ruled by the Grand Duke Vytautas, who, fearing the aggression of intolerant Christians from the west, looked east for help. In 1398, Vytautas brought a group of Tatars over from the Crimean region to help fight his enemies. The Tatars fought beside him and won.
“Vytautas rewarded our ancestors by letting them stay in the area where many of the Tatar families have settled. He also gave us his protection and religious freedom,” explains Ramadan Yaqoob, the Grand Mufti and leader of the Lithuanian Muslim community.
With Vytautas’ protection, the Baltic Tatar community grew, building their mosques and practising their faith. However, as rulers changed, so did the level of tolerance. Over time, persecuted, and isolated from the rest of the Muslim and Tatar world, they lost the Qipchaq Tatar language, and then later, under the anti-religious USSR government, they began to lose their faith too.
“It was really bad during the Soviet times. They destroyed many mosques and killed so many of our scholars and Imams. It was down to the mothers to teach their children about the faith,” says Mufti Ramadan, who received his own religious education in Lebanon, graduating after the fall of the Iron Wall.
“During the Soviet era we nearly lost all the mosques. They tried to destroy ours, but we fought to keep it and practised our religion in secret,” recalls 70-year-old Stantrukova.
Before the Soviet era, there were 25 wooden Tatar mosques in Lithuania, but now there are only three. One in the village of Nemezis and the other in the village of Raiziai. Like the Brooklyn mosque, none of them open for daily prayer. Two more can be found in the eastern Polish villages of Kruzniyani and Bohoniki and a further two have survived in the Belarusian towns, Navahrudak and Iwie, where Ratkewitch’s ancestors are from.
“I want to go there soon to reconnect with that part of my heritage. Theirs is also an amazing immigrant story, and I want to see the mosque my grandparents left behind to come and build our one here in Brooklyn.”