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Standing With American Muslims, Upholding American Values

This post was originally published in the Jewish Exponent.

With news from Paris, Copenhagen, North Carolina and Iraq filling the morning papers these days, many of us are wondering: What is going on in the Muslim world? How are Muslims in America responding and, most importantly, how can Jews and Christians ally with Muslims to help uphold the values of religious pluralism on which America is based?
 
The Islamic Society of North America, known as ISNA, the largest membership organization of Muslims in America, has partnered with Christian groups and, more recently, with Jewish ones — including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — as together they address the challenges of integrating Muslim Americans into the religious landscape of our country.
 
Now, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has joined that effort, establishing a new partnership with the organization. For five years, RRC has been sponsoring retreats for emerging Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum.
 
Going forward, these relationship-building retreats will be co-sponsored by ISNA. Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the founder and former executive of ISNA, now in charge of its office of interfaith relations, was in Philadelphia recently to “shake hands” on the collaboration and to meet with our interfaith leaders and guide our thinking about these issues.
 
The meeting brought together rabbis, ministers, imams, professors of religion and interested citizens as we all pondered how to meet the challenge of yet another religious minority finding its place in the American story.
 
There are now some 6 to 7 million Muslims in this country, around the same number as Jews. Like Jews, they represent only 1 to 2 percent of the American population. A recent Pew study showed that only 38 percent of Americans actually know a Muslim.
 
Many Americans are left to rely on the media coverage of events outside this country, such as the rise of ISIS, a group that has terrorized Muslims themselves because they consider all Muslims who do not agree with them to be apostates.
 
But the media has been less effective at reporting the fact that these groups have repeatedly denounced ISIS and other Muslims who commit terrorist acts.
 
It is a sad irony that a recent tragedy — the killing of three Muslim graduate students in North Carolina last month — has had an unexpected side effect. Many Americans saw the story of these morally earnest, accomplished young people — committed to their faith and their lives as American citizens — and found a different face of Islam than that of the Middle Eastern fanatic with a gun. These three students were typical second-generation American Muslims and their stories are the ones more Americans need to hear.
 
A report from the Center for American Progress, “Fear, Inc.,” documents how a small but well-funded “Islamophobia Network” churns out much of what we hear about Islam on Fox News and other media outlets.
 
No wonder that in that same Pew study last summer, when Americans were asked to rate religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 1 to 100, the public viewed Muslims coldly. In fact, they received the lowest rating of all groups. The good news here is that these ratings can change over time. Jews may be surprised to learn that they were rated highest of all the groups. That would not have been true 60 years ago.
 
And there is more good news. Just as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, founded in 1927 to respond to anti- Catholic sentiment in this country, later did important work in combating anti-Semitism, so, too, allies from diverse religious traditions are striving to promote a more robust pluralism in this country today.
 
I am proud to join Jews from across the denominational spectrum as an active member of Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a project of ISNA that was established in 2010 with the help of a coalition of Jewish and Christian organizations in response to anti-Muslim sentiment expressed around the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero.”
 
As our meeting at RRC was concluding, participants were exchanging email addresses and making plans to educate themselves and their communities. A board member from Masjidullah, a mosque in West Oak Lane, just minutes from RRC, invited everyone to join them at their weekly Friday afternoon services.
 
Our high school students can meet one another through Walking the Walk, a project of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia. Scores of examples of successful Muslim-Jewish programs of engagement can be found in the online resource book Sharing the Well.
 
Meetings like this one are just a beginning. As Jews, our experience as a religious minority in this country makes us a valued partner. Even more importantly, our ethics and our religious teachings compel us to join the struggle.

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, April 17, 2015

Emergent Mind - Philip Clayton

If you are unable to attend our breakfast but would like to hear Philip present this program, consider attending the event at Chestnut Hill College on Thursday, April 16th from 7:00 until 9:00 PM.

Our breakfast is by invitation only. Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, April 7, 2015.

 

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Crime and Punishment in the USA Today

Co-Sponsored by Mishkan Shalom, the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives is pleased to offer a special course for the Spring of 2015:  Crime and Punishment in the USA today.  For more information, contact Nancy Fuchs Kreimer at nfuchs-Kreimer@rrc.edu.  Space is limited - register early at Mishkan Shalom's website.

Crime and Punishment in the USA Today

 

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon/Potluck Shabbat Dinner on Friday, March 6, 2015

The Multifaith Studies and Initiative department hosting events with Moriel Rothman-Zecher on Friday, March 6, 2015.  See the flyer below for details:

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

For more information about Mori's blog, please visit The Leftern Wall.

Here is the link to Mori's recently published Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled, Why I Won’t Serve Israel.

These programs are by invitation only. Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, February 24, 2015.

 

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, February 27, 2015

Breakfast Salon on February 27, 2015

 

Due to the overwhelming response, the  location of our breakfast salon has changed.  We are now hosting this event at the Reconstructionist Rabbincal College at 1299 Church Road, Wyncote, PA 19095.

For more information about ISNA, please visit http://www.isna.net/ or Shoulder to Shoulder, http://www.shouldertoshouldercampaign.org/

Our breakfast is by invitation only. Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, February 17, 2015.

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Seek Peace and Pursue It—a Multifaith Workshop

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

Seek Peace and Pursue It

Towards the end of the workshop he led on multifaith peace-building with Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Rabbi Daniel Roth, Ph.D., shared a joke he heard in his home synagogue years ago. Someone in the synagogue pointed to the line in the prayerbook, “The students of the rabbis [lit. sages] increase peace in the world,” and quipped, “This is evidence that the prayerbook has a sense of humor!” The subtext, of course, is the idea that religion is good for destroying peace, not creating it. Rabbi Roth told us that he has devoted himself to proving that, on the contrary, religion—in this case, Judaism—can help us to “seek peace and pursue it,” in the language of the psalmist (psalm 34).

It is too bad the person who told Rabbi Roth this joke couldn’t be at RRC this past Sunday, when Rabbi Roth, along with his colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg, brought together 30 adherents of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism for a workshop on peace building in our communities. I am pleased to report that no people of faith were harmed in the course of the workshop, and furthermore I’m confident that we all came out of it with new resources, interfaith understanding and a renewed commitment to pursuing peace.

This was due above all to our teachers, of course, and I’ll share some of what they taught below, but just as creating the most lasting peace requires involvement from all parties to a conflict, so the diverse participants in the workshop shared from their own perspectives and traditions. I was especially struck by the words of a Muslim participant, who declined to state her affiliation with a specific mosque because of her respect for the ideal that Muslims should attend all mosques. I hope for the day when there will be the value, or better yet the realization, of a similar respect for our diversity among Jews. This would certainly increase the peace in our community.

Roth’s fervent commitment to utilizing Jewish sources to equip people to be pursuers of peace has led him to amass an incredible wealth of peacebuilding wisdom and to create a series of exciting and growing initiatives putting this wisdom into practice. One example is the observance of the 9th of Adar as “a Jewish day of constructive conflict” and also programs in North American Jewish day schools.

On Sunday he led the group in the study of traditional Jewish texts spanning millennia which can shed light on the effort to pursue peace. We studied the text in chevruta (pairs), a traditional way to learn and, Roth taught us, an indigenous Jewish form of training in conflict resolution, when done well. One aspect of the texts that struck me was their focus on Moses’ brother Aaron, who the rabbinic tradition defined as the quintessential pursuer of peace. Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, who helps to train peace builders in his role as director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, writes that “this raises some important issues … about whether the field of conflict resolution has focused too much on skills and not enough on the formation of character, namely, the ideal personality of the peacemaker.”

Rabbi Eilberg, who has decades of experience as a chaplain and spiritual director has spent the last decade pursuing peace in a range of contexts , including interfaith and Israel-Palestine. She recently published the book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, devoted much of her time to just this topic,

She led us through rich and challenging exercises to help us develop empathy for an adversary and to define the middot (spiritual virtues or qualities of soul) required for the pursuit of peace and reflect on which virtues we may have in the right amount and which we may have not enough of, or, equally problematic, too much of.  With the guidance of Eilberg’s teaching and my chevruta, I was able to start exploring the complexities of the spiritual virtue of peacebuilding that I find most challenging, courage.

Roth and Eilberg did not try to paint an idyllic picture of religion’s role in conflict, however. Instead, they encouraged all of us to admit the reality that all of our traditions have texts and traditions that can be used to justify conflict and inflict pain. This is the inherent ambiguity of our sacred texts. But just as, according to one midrash Roth shared, for every halacha (Jewish law) there are 49 ways to prove it and 49 ways to refute it, so Eilberg and Roth convinced me that there must be at least as many ways that our religions can create peace as the number of ways they can create conflict.

Seek Peace and Pursue ItOur time with Roth and Eilberg was too short, but I’m glad to know that they also taught a week-long class attended by 13 students and graduates of RRC. If we had more time I would have liked to hear what these teachers and model pursuers of peace would recommend for creating peace in situations with dramatic power imbalances between the parties to the conflict.

 

 

 

Photos: Sharon Gershoni

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RRC Helps to Bring Ali Abu Awwad to Philadelphia During Sukkot

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

Ali Abu AwwadAt the start of his talk in the main sanctuary of Germantown Jewish Centre, Palestinian nonviolent peace activist Ali Abu Awwad joked that he has a hard time keeping track of the Jewish holidays. While he had learned the greetings corresponding to Rosh Hashanah—“Shanah tovah”—and Yom Kippur— “Gmar tov”— he hadn’t yet learned a greeting for Sukkot, the holiday we were celebrating when he spoke at GJC on Friday, October 10th, addressing a crowd of more than 100, including Christians and Muslims who regularly participate in programs of RRC’s Multifaith Studies Program.

Ali’s commitment to learning about the culture of his audience (and about Judaism in particular, which many Palestinians understandably associate with their oppression), and his willingness to admit the limits of his knowledge, provided a powerful example of his approach to peace-making. It begins with deeply listening to others in order to humanize oneself and the other side, and continues through the practice of non-violence.

Ali’s personal example of nonviolence particularly moved me. As a young man, Ali refused to take violent revenge against the people responsible for killing his brother.  Ali reflected on the practice of nonviolence--its power comes from the power of our inherent humanity. Non violence creates a safe space for the sides in a conflict to see each other’s truth. Contrary to popular perceptions, nonviolence is more powerful than violence.

I was also struck by Ali’s lucid presentation of the contradictions found at every level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are a few of them:

  • Despite being commonly referred to as “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” there are other nations involved and their role is often not a constructive one
  • What the heart wants (revenge against those who have hurt you and/or your loved ones) may be at odds with what the mind wants (a successful solution to the conflict)
  • When those outside the conflict take sides (being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian”) , it doesn’t help achieve a solution, indeed it worsens the problem
  • Israelis’ need for security leads them to support the continuing the occupation until Palestinians no longer resort to violence, but Palestinians can’t see the value of peace while the occupation continues

All of these contradictions make a solution to the conflict seem unlikely, but Ali stressed that the solution to the conflict does not lie in ideological purity and clarity. In fact, there are contradictions working in favor of peace, too. Ali told us about the Roots project which he co-directs, a Palestinian center for nonviolence situated between six Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It’s hard for someone who mainly sees the conflict through the lens of American media to imagine Jewish settlers and Palestinians with conflicting claims to the exact same land sitting down together for a civil discussion, but this is precisely what Roots creates.  Through this work, there was even a group of settlers, including rabbis, that took part in an interfaith fast for peace in Gaza on the 17th of Tammuz this summer. Ali asserted that a solution to the conflict will be a place where two truths fit, even if they are contradictory. (This reminded me of the wonderful Amichai poem, “The place where we are right.”) So in order to create peace, we must be comfortable with contradictions of this kind.

In reflecting on the opportunity to learn from Ali, I realized that the sukkah itself is a structure of contradictions. It must be solid enough to serve as a home for the duration of the holiday but it must be fragile enough that a strong wind would knock it down. It must have a roof, but the roof must have enough openings that the stars are visible through it. It also struck me that Ali could count among modern day ushpizin—special guests symbolically invited to reside in the sukkah in honor of their contribution to the survival of the Jewish people. I pray that through Sukkot and beyond we may be comfortable dwelling in the contradictions that will advance the cause of peace in Israel and Palestine and learning from ushpizin like Ali Abu Awwad and others.

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The Best Revenge Is Reconciliation

Here is a post about our Ali Abu Awwad event by our multifaith colleague, Krystin Komarnicki:

Ali-Abu-Awwad-10.10.14I had the enormous privilege today of hearing the radical Palestinian peacemaker Ali Abu Awwad speak at a synagogue in Philadelphia. The son of woman who belonged to the PLO, Awwad was raised in
the highly politicized atmosphere of Israeli-Occupied Palestine and participated in the first intifada. But after four years of imprisonment during which he discovered, via a 17-day hunger fast, that nonviolent
resistance holds a mirror up to one’s enemy, his journey to peacemaking had begun.

“It’s not about taking sides,” he said. If you are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, you are not helping. You need to be pro-solution. “It’s not about being right. It’s about willing to succeed.”

After his release from prison, an Israeli citizen shooting at Palestinians from his car shot Awwad in the knee, leaving him severely injured. Hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, Awwad learned that his older brother had been violently murdered at an Israeli checkpoint, leaving behind two young children. The grief and anger Awwad experienced felt bottomless and “as big as a planet,” and he realized that no revenge—no number of Israeli deaths—could ever make up what had been taken from him. “I knew then that I couldn’t kill anyone,” he said.

One day several members of the Bereaved Families Forum asked his mother for permission to come see her. They were Israeli parents who had lost children to the conflict and wanted to meet with Palestinian parents who had survived similar losses. To Awwad’s surprise—”Israelis were always in Palestine and they were not welcome. Now here were Israelis asking permission to come see us!”—his mother agreed to receive them. He saw an Israeli person cry for the first time in his life, and something shifted within him. Awwad and his family soon joined the bereavement group, partnering with Israelis in spreading a message of reconciliation and calling one and all to the hard work of nonviolence.

The best revenge for his brother’s death, says Awwad, is to reconcile with the enemy. “The men who killed my brother wanted to bury my humanity along with my brother,” he said. By refusing to use violence, by working instead toward partnership and political solutions, Awwad and his friends of both nationalities are choosing a very different path.

Learn about the Roots project, of which Awwad is an important part. Roots seeks to build trust between trust and partnership between Israelis and Palestinians.

Read or listen to Krista Tippett’s 2012 interview with Awwad on Public Radio International.

(Special thanks to our peacemaking, bridgebuilding partners at Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for hosting this talk.)

2014 Evangelicals for Social Action

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, October 10, 2014

Please Note - The Location of our Breakfast has changed!  See the flyer below for the details:

Multifaith Breakfast 10/10/2014

Our breakfast is by invitation only.  Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, September 30, 2014.

You are invited to stay for services for the second day of the Festival of Sukkot which begin at 10 a.m.

Please note, the $10.00 suggested donation for this program may be sent to the following address: 

American Friends of Roots c/o Oakbrook Church

1700 Reston Parkway,     Reston, VA  20194

To view a clip of the JustVision documentary, please visit:  http://www.justvision.org/encounterpoint/watch/ali-wounded-youth-encounter-point

For more information about Encounter, please visit:  http://www.encounterprograms.org/

 

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