WASHINGTON, July 6, 2010 -- More than half a century ago, Teaneck, N.J., which sits in the shadow of New York City just across the Hudson River, became one of the first American communities to voluntarily integrate its public schools.
Now, the town that residents describe as a "progressive and multicultural" suburb once again has forged a new path, selecting a practicing Muslim as mayor -- and a devout Orthodox Jew to be his deputy.
"No where else is this possible," said Mohammed Hameeduddin, Teaneck's first Muslim mayor and one of only a handful of Muslims to lead cities across the country. "The opportunity to bring two communities together and break down stereotypes that have belittled our nation is both monumental and humbling."
Teaneck's non-partisan Township Council last week voted to appoint Hameeduddin and Adam Gussen, both current council members, to their respective posts, which they will hold for two years.
Together, they will govern what is Bergen County's second largest municipality and home to significant African American, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim populations.
Council members, residents and outside observers have called the pairing of Hameeduddin and Gussen "historic," particularly at a time when political leaders' religious views have been a source of divisiveness elsewhere around the country.
"With Obama the attack was, 'Is he a closet Muslim? Does he have ties to terrorism? Did he study in a madrasas?'" said Hameeduddin. "In Teaneck, it's about policy."
Hameeduddin and Gussen say their biggest challenge won't be bridging a personal religious divide or mending socio-cultural differences in their community. Rather, the two will face the dilemma of keeping the city solvent while working to control skyrocketing property taxes amid a recession-weary economy.
"In New Jersey right now, we have trying times and tough choices to make economically," said Hameeduddin, "and economics cross all barriers."
"Everybody feels the same financial pain no matter your color or creed. Everyone feels the same concerns of poorly maintained roads or whether park equipment is functional or not," said Gussen. "We can go on and on talking about the things that make us different, or we can dig a little bit deeper and uncover all of the tremendous things we have in common."
In Teaneck, Devout Muslim and Jew Form Government Tandem
Hameeduddin and Gussen, who are both devout and hail from very religious families, attended middle school together in Teaneck and later Rutgers University. They both credited their hometown as a "nurturing incubator" of acceptance and tolerance -- and a model community for the rest of America.
"What the country can learn and what everyone needs to learn is be open to growth experiences," said Hameeduddin, "because you might be pleasantly surprised with what happens."