NYC Muslim Day Parade to Be Led by Jewish Rabbi Marc Schneier

A school group carries flags during the 27th annual Muslim Day Parade on September 23, 2012, in New York. The 32nd annual event on Sunday will be led by the rabbi Marc Schneier. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

This year's Muslim Day Parade in New York City will be a little different than those of years past. For the first time since the annual event was founded in 1985, a Jewish leader will be at its helm. Rabbi Marc Schneier will serve as honorary grand marshal on Sunday, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reports.

"This year's parade is more important than ever before due to the climate we live in," Imam Shamsi Ali, the parade organizer, is quoted as saying in a statement. "Racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate are on the rise in our country." He chose Schneier because "having pioneered the field of Muslim-Jewish relations over a decade ago, he has demonstrated his dedication and devotion to the American Muslim community."

Schneier is the founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding—a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting racial harmony and strengthening relations among different ethnic communities (its chairman is music mogul Russell Simmons). He also was once vice president of the World Jewish Congress and was the founding rabbi and leader of The Hampton Synagogue, a post from which he resigned last year after more than two decades with the congregation. In a letter he wrote at the time, he said he wanted "to dedicate more time and resources to my work to strengthen relations between Muslims and Jews."

The rabbi and the imam have long been partners in interfaith outreach and activity. The two met more than a decade ago at a television commemoration for Pope Jean Paul II, according to a 2013 BBC Magazine profile of Ali. They gave sermons at one another's houses of worship, visited New Orleans together after Hurricane Katrina, organized a summit of rabbis and imams in 2007 and co-authored the 2013 book Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.

Both leaders—while prominent in their respective communities and high-profile advocates of interfaith engagement—have courted divided opinions. In 2011, the Indonesian-born Ali left or was fired (accounts differ) from his high-profile role at the Islamic Cultural Center. Some of the mosque's leaders and worshippers were unhappy with the political stances he expressed in his sermons, including support for the Arab Spring protesters, and with the time they said he spent reaching out to other communities rather than serving his own. He went on to serve as chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria and the director of Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens. Schneier, meanwhile, was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America after an ethics inquiry into an extramarital affair and has made tabloids for his alleged affairs and his six marriages.

Though both Schneier and Ali have left their big-name houses of worship, they continue their focus on interfaith work. This Sunday's parade is dedicated to the plight of the Rohingya, a mostly-Muslim minority who lived primarily in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to bordering Bangladesh and other nearby countries as a result of what Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of the U.N. human rights council recently called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Ali was counting down the days ahead of the parade, which will begin at 12:30 p.m. ET at 38th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. "5 days to go!" he wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday. "Building bridges, because we are one and united despite diversity. We will make our voice heard in solidarity with Rhohingya [sic] people," he added. "Let's continue our struggle till bigotry, hate, Islamophobia, Ant semitism [sic], and racism are defeated. And they will be defeated!"