Interreligious Community


 

December 17, 2015

As a community committed to tikkun olam, Jewish principles of justice and equality, we are gravely concerned by the increased incidence of anti-Muslim and Islamophobic rhetoric and acts of violence in our country. We are dismayed by the growing and blatant characterization of Muslims as “un-American”,  “terrorists”, and “violent”, not only because these broad representations are factually inaccurate and misleading stereotypes, but also because we know that ugly rhetoric can have dangerous consequences. We recall far too well when similar misrepresentations and hateful stereotypes became political rallying cries against Jews, and when solutions to the so-called problem of Jewish citizenry moved from political rhetoric to genocide.

 

While our local community has, thankfully, not seen hate crimes committed against Muslims as other parts of the nation have, we have seen the dissemination of Islamophobic literature in and around Burlington; we are not immune to Islamophobic vitriol, and we aim to work against it as committed Jews.

 

We stand alongside and behind our Muslim neighbors—alongside them as witnesses to our own history of persecution, and behind them as allies and supporters in the fight against anti-Muslim racism.

Ohavi Zedek Board of Directors

Senior Rabbi Joshua Chasan

Senior Rabbi Amy Joy Small

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NILI Public Statement – January 2013

Twilight of Hope for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Twilight has fallen on the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  As Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders committed to peace, we urge immediate, sustained U.S. leadership before darkness falls on the hopes for a peaceful resolution.

We recently witnessed shadows of dusk.  We mourn for the lives lost and shattered during the violence that gripped southern Israel and Gaza. What we have seen, recently and before, will keep happening if movement towards a viable two state-solution continues to stagnate.  The status quo is unsustainable and dangerous to both Israelis and Palestinians.  Now is not the time for another cycle of recriminations.  It is time to break the cycle of violence with bold initiatives for peace.

The current dangerous stalemate, including the legacy of past failed peacemaking efforts, undermines our security and that of others, destabilizes the region, amplifies the voices of extremists vying for power, legitimizes terrorists and extremists, allows continuing Israeli settlement expansion that is making a contiguous Palestinian state increasingly difficult to achieve,  and prolongs Palestinian disunity.    These realities and the absence of negotiations threaten to kill the prospect of a viable two-state peace agreement, the only realistic solution to the conflict.

As people of faith, we proclaim that we should never underestimate what is possible.  Egypt and the United States helped achieve a ceasefire in Gaza. With the support of the international community, Israelis and Palestinians can achieve a lasting peace.  A new dawn is possible.

As members of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), we affirm President Obama’s support for a negotiated two-state peace agreement that provides for a secure and recognized Israel living in peace alongside a viable and independent Palestinian state.

We know the challenges are daunting, but we believe a bold new initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement should be an immediate priority of the new Administration in 2013.  We fear the opportunity for a peaceful resolution is rapidly waning and the current stagnation fuels and legitimizes the rejectionists on both sides. Our nation has unique leverage and credibility in the region.  Indeed, no past progress towards peace has occurred in this conflict without U.S. leadership, facilitation or staunch support.   Once again, we need active, fair and firm U.S. leadership to help break the current deadlock and to achieve a two-state peace agreement now before it is too late.

The Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders of NILI are committed to mobilizing broad public support for U.S. leadership for peace, and, as we have done in the past, will mobilize the strong support that exists in churches, synagogues and mosques across the country to resound in the public square in affirmation of bold leadership.

Twilight is upon us; but the hope for a new dawn remains.  Let us together bring the new light of hope and work for negotiations leading to a final status agreement.

Fighting Poverty With Faith Event

I was privileged to be a speaker today (11/30/11) at the NJ Fighting Poverty with Faith: “Working Together to End Hunger” event. This was an inspiring interfaith program held at the NJ State House in Trenton, which included voices of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu faith traditions. The call to action was eloquently and forcefully delivered by Rev. Lisanne Finston, of Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in new Brunswick. The growing ranks of the poor and near-poor are in great need of our advocacy, activism and leadership. It is not just about feeding the hungry — though, of course it is first about that — it is about a society that helps those who are poor to find their back to independence.

The following were my remarks at the event today:

An editorial in the NY Times last week asked the question: “What is it like to be poor?”   Thankfully, most of us do not know how this feels from firsthand experience. But it is very close to home: “One in three Americans — 100 million people — is either poor or perilously close to it.” (NY Times editorial 11/23/11)

Jewish sacred texts struggle with the reality of poverty – throughout the ages our sages have wondered why there are rich and there are poor.  A midrash, an interpretive lesson from the text, commenting on Ecclesiastes 7:14, teaches:

“In the day of prosperity, enjoy the prosperity.” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyya said, “In the day of your fellow man’s prosperity, rejoice with him. And in the day of adversity, reflect. If adversity confronts your fellow, consider how to do him a kindness and save him… But why does God create both poor people and rich people?   In order for them to draw riches from each other, as it says, ‘God has made one for the other.’ (Pesikta deRav Kahana.)”

As Tevye said in the Jewish folk tale, Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s no sin to be poor, but it’s not great honor either.” We have mutual responsibility for each other, whether rich or poor.  We share this society – and through the sacred obligation of what Jewish tradition calls “tzedakah” – which means “righteous action” but is commonly translated as “charity,” we can change it.  Jewish religious law mandates the creation and sustenance of a just, righteous, and compassionate world.  We live for the greater good of all of us.

The growing divide between the rich and the poor in America is more than a crisis. It is a moral failing of our society. 49.1 million Americans are below the poverty line and 51 million more are considered to be “near poor” — with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.

“In 2010, just over half of the country’s nearly 17 million poor children lived in households that reported at least one of four major hardships: hunger, overcrowding, failure to pay the rent or mortgage on time or failure to seek needed medical care.”  The consequences of these conditions can be staggering, potentially impacting a family for generations.

The inequality in our country is a travesty. As wealth is concentrated at the top of the income scale, poverty spreads and suffering grows.

The quintessential work on the nature of suffering in the Hebrew Bible is the Book of Job. A midrash – an interpretive lesson on this book, imagines the following conversation between God and Job:

“God said to Job, “Which would you prefer – poverty or suffering?” Job responded, “Master of the Universe—I will take all of the sufferings in the world as long as I don’t become poor,  for if I go to the marketplace and don’t have any money to buy food, what will I eat?”… This shows us that poverty is worse than all of the other sufferings in the world. (Sh’mot Rabbah 31:12)

We are taught that we are no more worthy than anyone else, and our neighbors who are hungry deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.  The Torah commands us to care for the needy, leaving the corners of our fields, that those who are hungry may come and eat. “…Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. 11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11)

We share a responsibility to care for the needy and to help them to rise up out of poverty. This central spiritual value is a moral imperative.

As people of faith, we know that humility, kindness, and generosity shape a compassionate society. We are committed to working on behalf of those who are struggling. We can’t do it alone. This is the purpose of community, and indeed the value of government – to care for the welfare of its citizens.  There is no loftier or more essential purpose to being “One nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”   Together we shall lead the movement to fight poverty with faith, to become what we are created to be: caring human beings sharing our world in mutuality and loving-kindness.

To read more about the Fighting Poverty with Faith campaign:

http://fightingpovertywithfaith.com/f2/

To read my Fighting Poverty with Faith blog post on the Rabbis Without Borders Blog: 

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/tag/thanksgiving/

This past week we observed the celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I was wondering how many of us were noticing – or if the holiday had become just another chance to get a day off from school, a vacation, courtesy of a hero who is no longer with us.  Some annual national observances don’t necessarily rouse enthusiasm. How often do we really celebrate the life of George Washington on his “birthday”?  Of course, there is a difference – many of us lived through the civil rights movement and remember the trauma of MLK’s assassination.  Some of us remain involved in causes that Dr. King fought for.  Yet, how can we keep his memory alive in our day, doing honor to the message of the man? That’s the value of ritual; it facilitates a heart/mind/soul connection to the values and lessons that are represented by the annual celebration.

I feel very fortunate to live and work in communities that take the observance of Martin Luther King Day seriously.  I have gravitated to the program in Summit, where our congregation is located.  The Summit Interfaith Council shapes a wonderful interfaith community.  The awe-inspiring day of programming in honor of the dream of Dr. King is  capped off by the Martin Luther King commemorative worship service held annually at Fountain Baptist Church.  I had the privilege of offering the invocation at the service.

The service was mesmerizing; with beautiful, engaging music that brought together the voices of the congregation in heartfelt unity.  Here was the presence of God; the experience of holiness was palpable to me. Raising our voices together, I felt a bond with the whole congregation.

The speaker this year was an acclaimed African American historian, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who spoke passionately and thoughtfully about the importance of knowing and recalling historical context as we face the challenges of racism. As he recounted the painful experience of African Americans in narrative and number, we were gripped by the reminder of why Dr. King’s work was and is still so essential. Justice calls for honest reflection.  Change requires full understanding of the place from which we are standing.

Sitting on the bima (pulpit) with fellow clergy participants, facing the congregation, I watched the faces of the community as the grim details of their history were recounted. I felt the depth of sorrow that radiated through the room.  It struck me as I listened to the depressing and painful reflections of the experience of African Americans that I know — I  empathize with what they are feeling. I suddenly felt, quite viscerally, that as a Jew I could identify with the tragedy of their suffering. We too have suffered at the hands of those whose ignorance and hatred seemed boundless. I felt attached to this community in a bond of sorrow, and a passion for justice.

As we closed by singing “We Shall Overcome,” we locked hands, arms crossed in front of us, linking us tightly. On one side of me was the pastor of a local AME church, a friend whom I have come to greatly admire in the three years I’ve been part of the Summit Interfaith Council. We were flanked by other Christian clergy, Dr. Muhammad, Pastor Sanders of the host church, and another community rabbi.  We sang and swayed, and tears came to my eyes – everything seemed possible in that moment.  If we kept our hearts open and our minds focused (as the speaker exhorted), perhaps we really could overcome!

How meaningful that just this week we observed the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of President Kennedy. His famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” continue to call us to attention. It’s worth re-reading the full speech, which intones, “Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. “

We were blessed by great and inspired leaders in that fateful decade of the 1960’s. But their lives were cut short. Dr. Martin Luther King’s work won’t be complete if our generation does not own it now.  How can we keep the dream alive? How can we nurture the bond of mutuality between our communities?  We each have to ask ourselves these questions.

Our nation is gripped with too much hostility and division – and once again the ugliness of racism is given voice in the debates over immigration and rhetoric regarding our president.  Will we stand by idly? As Jews, we simply can’t. As American we simply mustn’t. As human beings we must do better.  I hope that in this year we will link arms and make progress on fulfilling the dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was just two years after 9/11 when I met Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, when we jointly served the new coalition dedicated to uniting American religious leaders in expressing a shared vision for peace between Israel and Palestine, the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (we call it NILI for short.)  I was immediately impressed with Imam Rauf’s gentle, quiet manner, his articulate and nuanced approach to Jewish-Christian-Muslim collaboration, and his progressive, peace-minded approach.  His leadership was evident to all of us, and was reinforced when we read his (then) new book “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right With America.”

Imam Rauf and I became colleagues and friends, and I was pleased to invite him to join my congregation for Shabbat worship and to address us, teaching an appreciation for the peace-loving, respectful, kind and universal messages of Islam. Coming from the Sufi Muslim tradition, a mystical strain within Islam that focuses on the shared love of all of humanity, Imam Rauf taught us of the perspectives of ASMA, the American Society for Muslim Advancement. Our community was warmed and impressed. We felt the political backlash against Muslims after 9/11 could and would be moderated through our partnership with communities such as those led by Imam Rauf. We felt hope in the face of our country’s fear.

I had the privilege of sitting with Imam Rauf and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, our friend through NILI, for a BBC interview. We chatted amiably as friends, expressing hope for a collaborative approach to a negotiated Mideast peace.  We weren’t being naïve; we understood the obstacles. But our friendship and shared concern emboldened us to feel optimistic.

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Imam Rauf very much since then, as he has been traveling the country and the world teaching this peaceful, inspiring message.  He has been tending to his community, long resident in Manhattan, as they grew and expanded their mission as peace-loving Muslims in a torn and traumatized city.

Imam Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, who is the Executive Director of ASMA, has made a significant name for herself as a teacher, leader and community organizer. She has many media credits, with a reputation for bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims together. As her bio says, “Khan frequently organizes and co-sponsors interfaith cultural events, including an interfaith banquet called The Cordoba Bread Fest in which Muslims, Christians and Jews — Children of Abraham – join to celebrate their common traditions as represented by a simple food: bread.”

Having been a friend and supporter of the work of Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy, I was particularly distressed to read reports of the opposition to their community’s efforts to build a mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. In a way toward promoting reconciliation and transformation, their community sought to bring the presence of loyal American, compassionate and peaceful Muslims to a place marred by the hateful people who used their distorted version of Islam to murder and destroy. This redemption is not for them alone; it is a contribution of neighborly friendship to a community emerging from mourning to rebuilding.

Yes, there are hateful, angry radical Muslims who threaten us.  This is a frightening, painful, difficult international problem. But Imam Rauf and his community are not them. They do not threaten us. On the contrary, they seek to work with us to wipe out hate. They offer friendship and a contribution to American society. This is reminiscent of the generations of immigrants, our grandparents, who made America the rich multi-cultural tapestry that we cherish.

Those who speak angrily of Imam Rauf are spewing the very hate they seek to suppress from others. It is my hope that we can work together to expose the fallacies of this opposition. It is hope that we can join hands with our brothers and sisters of different faiths to bring about a new era of collaboration, friendship and healing.

I quote below Imam Rauf’s letter to his mailing list after the Community Board voted to allow his mosque’s project to proceed.  Congratulations, my friend.  Let us know how we can help!

Cordoba House – Community Board One Approves Community Center

By Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

May 27, 2010

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As-Salamu Al-Aykum,

Many of you have been reading about the Cordoba House: our plan to build a world-class community center in Lower Manhattan.  I am pleased to announce that on May 26th, Manhattan Community Board One has given their overwhelming endorsement, with a vote of 29 to 1 (with ten abstentions) for the Cordoba House project. See images of Community Board meeting

Their vote of confidence represents a community that shares our excitement in assisting with the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan by providing a model for robust interreligious cooperation that will be open to all.

I have worked as the Imam of Farah Mosque in Lower Manhattan for 27 years, I am tremendously grateful to Community Board One and Chairperson Julie Menin for allowing us the opportunity to give back to a community that has given us so much over the past three decades.

The goal of Cordoba House is to help individuals move past mere tolerance and into a realm of acceptance, peace and interdependence.  The decision of Community Board One represents a watershed moment in acknowledging the important nature of religious freedom in America.

As our project continues to progress, I continue to share my deepest thanks to you for your support of a brighter future for all of us.  I am beyond thankful to have politicians such as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Councilman Robert Jackson, State Senator Daniel Squadron and Comptroller John Liu who have offered their unequivocal support for Cordoba House and the fundamental American freedoms for which it stands.

With Warmest Regards,
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org) He is the author of “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right With America.”

Echoes of last night’s Martin Luther King Commemoration have been reverberating in my mind all day. My Summit clergy colleagues who attended the event were having the same experience. Fortunately, the Summit Interfaith Council had our monthly meeting today and those of us who were present last night had an opportunity to share our reactions. We enthusiastically shared our learning with those who weren’t able to attend last night. It sparked a very deep and meaningful discussion, about problems that we rarely raise, but that reverberate just below the surface of our community’s culture. It was about issues of race and diversity.

Tim Wise’s powerful and provocative presentation called America to task for acting as if we have realized the dream of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. We may have made progress, but the inequities in America are still profound. Symbolism can’t replace the real quality-of-life issues that remain. Too many Americans are self-satisfied with language of diversity and are blind to the continuing injustices that hold African Americans back. And, as we allowed ourselves to admit, this dynamic even plays out locally within our largely prosperous suburban community.

One of our members of the clergy group observed that the community MLK commemoration at the Fountain Baptist Church was attended mostly by the church’s African American members, joined by a handful of local politicians (who are white) and a few other white clergy (myself included.) The rest of the community who attended community MLK events yesterday were largely self-selected, with most whites attending events within their corner of the community and mostly not interacting with their African Americans neighbors. A couple of churches have made concerted efforts to invite diversity, but most have not. It is not out of exclusion; rather it is a blind-spot in the way we go about our service to our congregations.

As we discussed these realities in an air of friendship and concern, we realized that Tim Wise’s talk afforded us an opportunity to open a more open conversation about race than we have had in our community in many years. It was yet another moment when I have been grateful to be part of such a strong interfaith community. We shared ideas about possible upcoming programs for our whole community. We have the potential to lead our community and model a vision for the just and compassionate society that we wish for America.

We acknowledged that the entire conversation was being held in the shadow of devastation in Haiti. The terribly poor nation of Haiti has been suffering from its troubled history in relation to the great Western powers, especially America, for many, many decades. We not only pledge our prayers and our funds to help the people of Haiti, that they may recover from this disaster, but we pledge too, to help our communities to honestly reflect on the problems Haiti faces. We hope this can open opportunities for a new age for Haiti. We will invest in doing what we can to help.

I close with prayers for justice and for healing.

Tim Wise offered inspiring words at our MLK service

I remember crying on the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. That seems like such a long time ago.

So much has changed since that dark day in 1968 when I was still in fourth grade, but so much is still the same. Racism and prejudice remain a great challenge. It is good to have sacred moments to mark both the accomplishments of the civil rights movement and the work that still awaits us. It is fitting to celebrate Dr. King’s life and to pray for the courage and strength to continue the fight for justice.

In this way, tonight’s annual community celebration on the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday was a powerful and very moving experience. I had never before been to a service on Dr. King’s birthday at the Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, as my congregation only moved to town two years ago and hadn’t yet gotten in the groove. But this year, as I planned to attend for the first time, I was honored with the privilege of offering the benediction. The text of my benediction is reprinted below.

It was a pleasure to do this, but quite honestly, I felt quite tongue-tied as I approached the podium. Following a musical presentation by the church choir that was utterly breathtaking, I was in tears. Then, the guest speaker for the evening rose to the podium observing how he had a “very hard act to follow.” He then proceeded to give one of most moving, courageous, provocative and inspiring speeches I have heard in a very long time.

The speaker was Tim Wise, author (among other titles) of the recent book, “Between Barrack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama.” He was amazing. He reminded us of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. Wise eloquently affirmed the feeling of the African-Americans in our community that racism is still very real and pervasive in America. The white minority at the service lent our voices to this affirmation and vowed by our applause to share the prayers and efforts of the congregation to continue to transform our nation toward justice and peace. I was proud to be a Jew in that moment, for our religious teachings that insist that we strive to transform our world in justice and righteousness. And I was humbled by the challenges, especially as a white American.

I can’t wait to read Tim Wise’s books and to teach his messages in my community. It is a painful and difficult subject, but it is so much more meaningful to be engaged in the fight for justice than to stand on the sidelines.

So, talk about a “hard act to follow” – several people told me afterward that they thought I had the most difficult job of the evening. Yes, but I wouldn’t have given up the opportunity for anything. This was a sacred moment of shared humanity. It was a privilege and an inspiration to stand before the assembled congregation at that moment.

I pray for more opportunities to reach out in friendship to the community at Fountain Baptist Church, and to work together for the sacred task of transforming our community.

Benediction For

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Celebration Service

January 18, 2010

Fountain Baptist Church, Summit, NJ

Rabbi Amy Joy Small

Hineh Mah Tov U’mah Na’im Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – How good and how pleasant for brothers and sisters to dwell together.

Holy one of blessing your presence fills creation, and your love surrounds us. We pray that the love abundantly filling creation may continue to sustain us as we work to transform our world. Be with us, God as we open our hearts to each other, melting the barriers of hatred and division.

May the inspiration of Dr. King’s life and accomplishments continue to guide us to complete the work of the civil rights movement that he prophetically inspired. With your gift of wisdom and courage, may we join hands together in building a world that is just and loving.

As Dr. King so beautifully taught,

We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

We know that we cannot merely pray to You to end prejudice, for You have given us the power to create a society that provides equal opportunity for all people. May we firmly, but lovingly, use that power to promote an ethic of caring and compassion throughout our culture – that our towns and cities, schools, and workplaces may be a place of friendship, compassion, generosity, openness and hope.

Our fount, our loving parent, caring one, help us to fulfill the vision of your prophet, that justice shall flow like water, and that we may swim in that mighty stream of righteousness – together.

We ask Your blessings upon us as we continue Dr. King’s work. Let us join hands in friendship, inspired by the Divine spirit. “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit shall we all live in peace.”

And let us say, Amen.