Former Synagogue Transforms into Mosque

A sign of changing Philadelphia

By Sarah Glover
|  Thursday, Jun 20, 2013  |  Updated 11:58 AM EDT
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Mosque in the Making

Sarah Glover

Imams Muhammad Abdul-Aleem (left) and Mikal Shabazz outside the new Masjidullah complex at 7401 Limekiln Pike.

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First it was a synagogue, then a church and now the property at 7401 Limekiln Pike will be transformed into a mosque.

The former West Oak Lane Church of God complex in Northwest Philadelphia has a new owner. Masjidullah Inc. (pronounced Mass-jid-Allah) purchased the church building and office annex for $1 million last month.

“All of us are in shock we were able to pull it off,” said Nafeesa Malik, Masjidullah assistant treasurer and Sunday school director. “I find it very exciting. It literally happened overnight.”

The Muslim population continues to grow throughout the greater Philadelphia area and the new mosque will be the largest center in the region for Muslims to gather.

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According to Temple University’s Khalid Blackinship, there are about 30,000 Muslims and 50 mosques in Philadelphia. Blackinship says those numbers double when considering the suburban population. 

“Fifty plus years ago there weren’t any Muslims in Philly. The purchase of the building is a major step and it will be a showcase building,” said Blackinship.

The building at the corner of Limekiln Pike and Washington Avenue has been a place of worship for the surrounding community for decades.

The 1947 structure was first home to Temple Sinai, which in the 1970s moved to Dresher in Montgomery County, Pa. The building was then converted to a Christian church and will now house a mosque, school and community center.

Rabbi Adam Wohlberg of Temple Sinai has not seen the inside of the former temple and soon-to-be mosque, but frequently drives by. 

"The people who invested time and energy in the building think of it with great fondness," said Wohlberg. "I'm happy it's going to be occupied by another faith community."

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The former temple was the hub of the neighborhood and people who attended the synagogue typically lived right in the neighborhood. Jewish families moved into the area after World War II, according to the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection. The neighborhood continued to see change over the years. People moved to the suburbs as did the temple, according to Wohlberg. Today, the West Oak Lane neighorhood is predominantly African American.

In the 1970s, the West Oak Lane Church of God community moved in and remained active until the building's sale last month. The church outgrew the building according to Linda Sheppard, the pastor's wife. Since the sale, the West Oak Lane Church of God community has moved their church services and events to rented space at New Covenant Campus in Germantown. 

Resident Imam Mikal Shabazz said a member of the non-denominational church's board of trustees said during the settlement, "When I look across the room and see who's buying the building, I'm glad it's in your hands."

"We wish the mosque well," said Sheppard.

Masjidullah leaders sat around a table last July and discussed how they’d come up with the money to purchase a new mosque to expand their reach. The community had been nestled in their current location, a storefront at the corner of 77th and Ogontz Avenue, for the past 30 years. The $1 million purchase was financed through United Bank, with $432,477 in donations raised in less than a year and $300,000 still needed for the renovations.

“Our vision is to provide a first class center for education and vital community services that will uplift and enliven all of Philadelphia,” said Shabazz, a retired Army reservist. 

“Obviously prayer is important, and our prayer hall will be large enough to accommodate Muslims from all over the city.”

Masjidullah expects to open a daycare, Sunday school and an after school program this fall. Then, it will open a full Islamic school, welcoming both Muslims and non-Muslims, in 2014. Renovation to the 25,000 square foot building has already begun. 

Pike’s Seafood co-owner Lisa DiLeonardo is looking forward to her new neighbors moving in across the street. “I welcome them,” she said.

The Masjidullah planning committee is spearheaded by Michael Rashid, president and chief operating officer of AmeriHeatlh Caritas, formerly known as AmeriHealth Mercy Family of Companies and a national leader in Medicaid managed care. 

“I’ve been blessed to become a CEO of a major company in Philadelphia. We have to step up as business people,” said Rashid. “I’m inspired by the effort of Muslims and non-Muslims working for the common good to solve community problems.”

Former police commissioner Sylvester Johnson, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and State Representative Ronald Waters are among Masjidullah’s members. The community has 200 families on its present rolls but expects to double or even quadruple that number in the coming year. The new facility will become one of the largest Islamic institutions in the city.

The prayer area can hold 1,500 people. The building has 14 classrooms, a banquet hall, a playground, gym and a separate office building with space available for lease. 

“This facility will allow us to educate our children by providing a safe, Islamically-based education program,” said Rashid.

“The new facility will enable Masjidullah to serve as a city-wide masjid or ‘grand mosque’ that works for the unity of the Muslim community; and be a unifying force in building alliances with other faith and community groups.”

Long standing Imam Muhamad Abdul-Aleem points to the Masjidullah’s “long history of interfaith dialogue” as a fixture for the community’s success since its formation in the 1970s.

Wohlberg would like to develop a relationship with the West Oak Lane Church of God and Masjidullah communities, bringing together all three congregations who once occupied the same building on Limekiln Pike. 

"I'd like to dialogue, worship together and show appreciation for the greater community we are all a part of," said Wohlberg.

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