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Category: Jewish-Muslim Engagement

My Neighbor's Faith: Trouble Praying

This column is an excerpt from the book 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'

"I envy you Jews," said the young German as he poured my morning coffee.

The year was 1980. I was the guest of a graduate student at Heidelberg University. My stay in his home was part of a month-long trip through Germany with Jews and Christians engaged in "post-Holocaust interfaith dialogue."

My host's statement surprised and bewildered me. I was just beginning my dissertation on the topic of anti-Judaism in Protestant "Old Testament" theology and I thought I knew a lot about the relationship between Jews and Christians. In fact, I was planning to devote my career to helping Christians see their complicity in the suffering of the Jews and to transcend the flaws in their theology. I could understand my host feeling sorry for us Jews. I could understand him apologizing to us. But I could not understand him envying us.

"Why in the world would you envy Jews?" I asked.

His reply changed my life.

"I envy you because it is easier for you to pray. You see, we young Germans carry the weight of what our parents and grandparents did -- or did not do -- during the war. It is hard for us to talk to God. We feel a little embarrassed." Although the conversation took place 30 years ago, I can conjure it up in an instant: the earnestness in my fellow student's voice, the clarity in his blue eyes.

I had thought, until then, that it was we Jews, the victims, who had trouble praying! There was something about the way he said it -- perhaps the phrase "a little embarrassed" -- that made it feel completely genuine. This conversation clarified for me my core belief, a very useful thing to discover at the age of 27. After that morning, I possessed an orienting idea, a place to check in regularly to see if my plans were aligned with what I believed.

I believe that we should live our lives so that our children won't be "a little embarrassed" if they want to pray. Until that morning, I thought that meant being a good daughter, a compassionate friend and a dutiful citizen. But now I saw something new: taking responsibility for the group from which I derive my identity, the group whose actions will lead my children to be proud or embarrassed before God. For me, that group was and is the Jewish people.

The immediate result of this revelation was that I changed my dissertation topic. Rather than looking at problematic Christian texts, I would study problematic Jewish writings. I would investigate the ways in which my own tradition misunderstands others rather than point a finger at the others for misunderstanding us.

That can be challenging. For example, today, when I choose to speak out about certain policies pursued by the State of Israel, colleagues -- including good friends -- e-mail me to say they disagree with my action. "You ought to be criticizing Hamas," they say. "There are enough non-Jews jumping on the bandwagon to condemn Israeli actions; we don't need rabbis doing it too!" "Besides," they often add, "however bad Israel's actions, many other countries have done much worse."

They are right, of course. But what can I do? I can learn as much as possible, consult Israelis I trust who know more than I do, and try to speak with humility. My commitment to Middle East work, like the interfaith work to which I devote most of my time, grows from my core belief to which I have tried to stay true. Being part of a community means being ready to argue with it, to critique it, to ask it to live up to its best self.

I say I do it for tikkun olam, to make the world more whole. But the deeper truth is that I do it for my daughters. They are now in their 20s, still figuring out their relationship to their Jewish heritage and to God. I want them to be able to pray without embarrassment. Although there is much to lament in the way some Christians and some Muslims have treated and continue to treat Jews, that is not my issue. My job as a Jew, as a mother, is to scrutinize my own faith tradition and my own community. Given that I have uncertain knowledge and limited power, all I can do is my best. But thanks to an encounter 30 years ago, I know what I am trying to accomplish.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

 


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Shabbat Ha'Gadol: Setting the Table for Passover

passoverI recently posted a piece on Shabbat HaGadol for the Odyssey Network's new series of Torah commentaries on the HuffingtonPost. Here is the link on Odyssey Network and on HuffingtonPost.

The title sounds boring, but I promise you that it is not a conventional Passover message.

Please take a look and tell me what you think. I would appreciate it if you “liked,” tweeted and/or shared the post with others. You may also want to follow this weekly feature on Huffpost. There are some wonderful commentators lined up for the weeks to come.

With warm wishes for a sweet Pesach,

Nancy Fuchs Kreimer

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New Interfaith E-Journal Publishes Symposium on "Meaning"

The Interfaith Observer"Can you tell us how you find meaning in 1,000 words or less? You are welcome to include a picture or two."

The invitation came to me from Reverend Paul Chaffee, the editor of The Interfaith Observer, a new electronic journal launched this past September. TIO, as it is casually known, is “a monthly e-journal telling new stories, exploring new issues, identifying exemplary resources, and connecting us to each other." Reverend Chaffee comes to this work after decades of interfaith leadership. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he was the founding executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, where he served for 17 years. His vision for this new publication makes good sense.

As he put it, “Interfaith, multireligious, multifaith – we hear these words in the news, in hundreds of new interreligious websites and blogs, and in a multitude of responses to the new religious diversity in our midst. For a novice, this can feel overwhelming. Even those who’ve labored in the interfaith vineyard for decades tend to underestimate the scope of interfaith bridge-building going on in neighborhoods around the world. For anyone wanting to learn more about the interfaith movement, its history and its role in the 21st century, its protocols and foundational documents, there is little to provide a context or identify the cream of the crop among the proliferating resources at our disposal."

I first learned about TIO when Reverend Chaffee asked my permission to include a HuffingtonPost piece I wrote in the second issue of the journal (October, 2011). I agreed, and was glad to meet Paul in November at the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco. Now I had the opportunity to write about "meaning," in 1,000 words. (If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, I guess you could say 2,000 words.)

Like all smart networkers, Paul Chaffee not only developed a symposium, he also hooked up with another electronic publication, State of Formation, whose authors are "emerging religious and ethical leaders." An "intergenerational" conversation resulted with parallel symposia on the same topic, published on both sites.

I enjoyed writing my piece and reading all of the contributions. Since I can recall the days of Protestant/Catholic/Jew, I continue to marvel at the wide range of voices included from Humanist to Mayan to Seikah.

A common thread: several of the images accompanying the articles including both the one shown above and my own pictured the author in an interfaith group protesting injustice.

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Jerusalem Peacemakers Come to Philadelphia

Eliyahu McLean Ghassan ManasraDespite potentially hopeful developments in some societies in the Middle East this year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not appear to be moving toward resolution any time soon. This reality does not daunt our guests, Eliyahu McLlean and Ghassan Manasra. On November 9th and 10th, RRC’s Department of Multifaith Studies and the Dialogue Institute at Temple University brought two Jerusalem Peacemakers to Philadelphia to share their wisdom. We wondered:  How do they maintain their spiritual focus in the face of a seemingly intractable situation?

“Give up attachment to results,” Eliyahu advises. (He has spent time learning with Tichh Nhat Hahn.) The child of an intermarried couple raised in Hawaii, Eliyahu first entered a synagogue at the age of 12. He now lives in an Orthodox moshav with his wife and baby. He has been an Israeli citizen for 13 years; all of them spent pursuing his vision of interreligious harmony in the most difficult of places, Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine. His friends include settlers on the west bank as well as Muslim and Christian religious leaders, a delegation of who blessed him under the huppah at his recent wedding.

Ghassan is the son of Sheikh Abdel Salaam Manasra, the head of the Qadiri Sufi order in the Holy Land. He is an ordained sheikh, a student of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari whose family came to Jerusalem 400 years ago. He founded the Jerusalem Peacemakers with Eliyahu in 2004. (Learn about the founding of the group from this video) Jerusalem Peacemakers organizes a variety of different events from grassroots encampments to conferences of religious leaders. They are not explicitly political. “I am not left wing or right wing,” says Eliyahu. “It takes two wings to fly.”

Both men are deeply religious. Their strong foundation in faith empowers them in their work. It also provides additional challenges. Eliyahu and Ghassan know well the fears and prejudices of their own neighbors and fellow observant Jews and Muslims. They believe that part of their calling is working within their own communities to change hearts and minds.

At the same time, they face the challenge of working with Jewish Israelis committed to co-existence from a secular perspective. Eliyahu and Ghassan patiently try to help everyone sort out their differences, inter and intra religious. “Food and modesty are our biggest challenges,” Eliyahu explains. “Planning meals can be tricky. You have to accommodate those who expect meat at a gathering during Ramadan, those who observe kashrut or hallal and those who are strict vegans.” Eliyahu explains that young Israelis can understand that they need to cover up to not offend the sensibilities of Muslim partners, but they resent having to do so for Orthodox Israelis.

Meanwhile, Ghassan and Eliyahu find their greatest sustenance in their own prayer lives.

This video captures Eliyahu McLean and a multifaith group engaging in the kind of action that the Jerusalem Peacemakers do best. The building in Hebron (the West Bank) that is said to be the burial place of Abraham holds both a synagogue and a mosque. In just under five minutes of footage one can watch an Israeli soldier stationed at the tomb gradually realize that this unlikely group has come to pray together. His smile near the end of the tape is worth waiting for. Our peacemakers rejoice when such transformations occur. But they are not attached.

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Faith On The Avenue: RRC Faculty And Students Tour Nearby Germantown Avenue, Learning About Religion And Our Urban Ecology

Faith on the Avenue

Did you ever meet a woman in love with an avenue? On Sunday, November 6, a busload of RRC faculty and students, guided by Professor Katie Day of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, travelled down Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, viewing the religious institutions along the way. The purpose:  to learn more about the city in which we are training rabbis to serve in a multifaith world.

Reverend Day is, by her own accounts, obsessed with “her” avenue, an eight and a half mile stretch of urban Philadelphia that traverses a variety of neighborhoods and includes over 80 religious institutions. For almost ten years, she has been studying the changing religious landscape along this road; in 2012 her book, Faith on the Avenue, will be published by Oxford Press.

From Chestnut Hill at the north end, through Mt. Airy, Germantown, North Philadelphia and Kensington South, the avenue reflects the story of class, race and religion in the city of Philadelphia. We saw churches that were founded before the Revolutionary War (three denominations began this avenue) and others that began just a few years ago. We learned about “hermit crab churches,” small congregations that move into large church buildings, left empty when the former community moved to the suburbs.

Triumph Baptist ChurchWe first stopped at Triumph Baptist Church , an African American “mega church” in North Philadelphia. At Triumph Baptist, the group toured the sanctuary, guided by a deacon at the church, William Gipson, who served for many years as Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania. We learned how the senior pastor, Reverend James Hall, has built this church community during the last 42 years, growing the community to over 5,000 members. (This month, Reverend Hall is celebrating his 60th year in the ministry.)

Al Aqsa Islamic SocietyWe also had the opportunity to leave the bus and learn more about Al-Aqsa Islamic Society at the very southern end of the avenue. Al-Aqsa was founded by a group consisting mostly of Palestinian Americans. In 1989 they purchased an old brick factory building and established a place for worship and a day school, now serving over 400 students, K-12. In 2004, a remarkable interfaith community project, organized by the Arts and Spirituality Center, created stunning facades---mosaics and paint---for two sides of the building. Joe Brenman, the Jewish artist who volunteered his talents to lead the work met us at Al-Aqsa and filled us in on the story.

Thanks to Reverend Katie Day and her deep passion for the avenue, its history and its future, we left feeling more connected to Philadelphia and to the richness of its multifaith fabric. We are planning additional opportunities for RRC to engage, as a community, with our city. This year, for the first time, staff at RRC along with faculty and students will be volunteering as part of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.

A slide show featuring some of Reverend Day’s tour can be viewed here.

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A Tale of One Mosque and Two News Stories

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

Islamic Center of Murfreesboro

This is the tale of one city, one Islamic Center and two news stories. An iconic photo, taken a year and a half ago, represents the first story: a plywood sign announcing "Future Site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro," spray painted over with the words, "Not Welcome." That story put the town on the map. CNN produced a 43-minute documentary that aired this past April. The Daily Show featured it in a segment "Tennessee No Evil." Faiz Zhakir, vice president of the Center for American Progress and one of the researchers behind Fear, Inc., called it "ground zero of Muslim bashing in America."

The second story, garnering almost no national attention, is represented by a picture taken last week of 10 individuals with shovels, a classic American groundbreaking scene. Even CNN gave only a brief notice to The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's breaking of ground on Sept. 29. The stories belong together and they deserve to be widely told.

In the spring of 2008, Imam Ossama Bahloul, Ph.D., a graduate of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, chose to turn down a bigger job offer and opt for a quiet life in the city of Murfreesboro, Tenn., 35 miles south of Nashville. With a population of 100,000, Murfreesboro, according to its website, is the fastest growing city in the state, as well as the most livable. The 250 Muslim families, some having lived there for almost 30 years, were outgrowing their small meeting space; Friday prayers were spilling into the parking lot. In 2009 the group purchased a 15-acre plot and in May, 2010 Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved plans for an Islamic Center whose eventual size might reach 52,960 square feet.

As soon as the sign announcing the future site of the Islamic Center went up, spray paint defaced it. Vandals tore down a second sign. In July, several hundred residents marched in protest against the mosque. In August, things got worse. Police deemed a fire on the site as arson, and gunshots were heard nearby. The same month, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, then running for governor, spoke against the mosque. "You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it."

In September, 17 land owners sued Rutherford County, claiming that the county should have investigated the substantive beliefs of the Islamic Center before approving its plans. During the trial, plaintiffs called to the stand Frank Gaffney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, as an expert on sharia. "I don't hold myself out as an expert on sharia law," Gaffney told the court. "But I have talked a lot about that as a threat." Gaffney testified that "Sharia is the enemy-threat doctrine we face today." They asked the court to consider Islam as a political system or ideology, not just a religion.

The U.S. Justice Department disagreed. It filed a friend of the court brief in which it explained that "every U.S. court addressing the question has treated Islam as a religion for purposes of the First Amendment and other federal laws. ... Islam falls plainly within the understanding of a religion for constitutional and other federal legal purposes, and qualifies as a religion under the various tests courts have developed." The brief even quoted a dissenting opinion by Justice Scalia (joined by Justices Relmquist, Thomas and Kennedy) in favor of a public display of the Ten Commandments that noted that Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, is one of "the three most popular religions in the United States," and that "these three monotheistic faiths account for 97.7% of all believers."

The Justice Department also argued that the county would be in danger of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that Congress passed in 2000 in response to findings that "religious institutions in general, and minority faiths in particular, frequently face overt and subtle discrimination in the application of land use and zoning regulations."

In May of this year, after the CNN documentary was aired, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs and on Aug. 30, the judge upheld his decision: "Those who are adherents to Islam are entitled to pursue their worship in the United States just as are those who are adherents to more universally established faiths (in our community)" the judge wrote. He continued, "The plaintiffs have established that there may be extremist members within the group of worshipers even here in Rutherford County, but that does not change the fact that Islam exists as a religion apart from the extremist philosophies."

Last month, I visited Murfreesboro as part of Clergy Beyond Borders' caravan that included two imams, an evangelical minister and another rabbi. We were invited to speak at Middle Tennessee State University, the largest undergraduate institution in the state, by the Muslim Students Association, the Jewish Student Union and the Wesley Student Association. The local NBC news carried a two-minute segment about the event. We were heartened that the friendly audience we met considered themselves the mainstream of their community. The protestors who had made the news, they told us, were a small, if vocal, minority.

Despite initial difficulty finding a contractor and a recent bomb threat, the Muslims we met in Murfreesboro seemed confident and optimistic. Lema Sbenaty, a 20-year-old pre-med student at MTSU who grew up in the town, was featured in the CNN documentary. Articulate, self possessed and beautiful, Lema organized our visit with her fellow students. She told us that she attended every day of the six week trial, eventually laughing at the absurdity of some of the attacks. Lema was happy with the court's decision, but not surprised, having received hundreds of emails from non-Muslims she never met, telling her they were her allies. She was looking forward to celebrating the ground breaking.

Like Lema, Imam Bahloul also looked to the future with hope. He too received messages of solidarity from around the country. Many included contributions for the proposed Islamic Center, sometimes in the form of a $10 bill. One well-meaning Christian in Texas offered the imam land on his ranch to build the mosque. "I had to explain to him that we could not accept his generous offer. The families in our congregation live here in Murfreesboro. And we are not planning to move."

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Taking Interfaith on the Road

Clergy Beyond Borders Caravan for Reconciliation

It was like living in a joke. “There was a rabbi, an imam and a minister…“ – But we did not walk into any bars. Instead, we walked into churches, synagogues and mosques, all part of a 15 day tour from Washington D.C. through the southern states, up to Michigan and back through Ohio and Pennsylvania organized by Clergy Beyond Borders. I joined the caravan in Atlanta and flew home from Nashville, participating in programs in two churches, three mosques, one synagogue and a university, all in four days. We also met with legislators in the Tennessee House of Representatives and with a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Our audiences included those who eagerly anticipated our visit to their town and others who, like the gentleman in the mosque in Nashville, had just “come for morning prayers, smelled coffee, and stayed to learn.”

The trip was the brainchild of Imam Yahya Hendi, a Palestinian American, the founder of the Washington DC based national group that sponsored the trip. We called ourselves a Caravan of Reconciliationand presented a program titled, From Fear to Faith.In every place we spoke, we found those for whom our message was welcome support, others for whom it was novel but exciting, and still others who challenged us with hard questions. We also found open hearts and much evidence to inspire hope. Indeed, the narrative that emerged was neither all rosy, nor all grim. Many Americans are suffering and confused; fear is a factor in our country, one that can easily be manipulated and turned into darker emotions. Religion, we saw vividly, can certainly be part of the problem. Our message:  our religious communities can be part of the solution.

Imam Yahya would begin each talk by warning his audience that he had learned to preach from a Southern Baptist. This always brought a big laugh, as did his comment, "You may have noticed that I have an accent." He would then go on. "When they hear my accent, people ask me where I am from. So I tell them. I am from dust." Long pause. "I am a dustonian." Laughter. "From dust you come and to dust you will return. It is in the Bible and in the Qur'an. We share that belief." Hushed silence. Later, toward the end of his talk, the imam would sometimes circle back to the idea that we are all fellow dustonians. "That is my politics, that is my theology." Simple? Perhaps. But very effective, and a good place to begin to connect. Rabbi Gerry Serottawould also stress, each and every stop, that we were clergy beyond borders, not clergy without borders. We treasure our differences and the borders that circumscribe our unique faith communities.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg who travelled with the group for the first week, spoke powerfully to an audience at Masjeed AlFarooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. She reported having spoken earlier that day at a synagogue where her message had been that she did not consider Jews the most victimized of people in America. “That dubious distinction goes to Muslims.” During the question period, a young Muslim man challenged her a bit angrily, “How could Jews possibly think they are oppressed?” Instead of responding that she agreed with him, she asked him, in the most loving way possible, not to assume he knows how the world looks to a Jew, just as she would not question the reality a Muslim experiences, nor would she credit the view of a non Muslim who presumed to do so. Heads nodded all around and the questioner himself seemed visibly moved. (The entire program is available on video here.)

Reverend Steve Martin, an evangelical preacher and a life long resident of Tennessee, the executive director of the New Evangelical Partnernship for the Common Good told audience about his ministry as a documentary film maker.  He spoke of the friends he made making a film about Muslims in Appalaachia and how he worried, after the attacks of September 11th, how the people he had grown to love would fare in this new moment in history. He also talked about another film he had made, one about theologians in Nazi Germany. The analogy was subtle and gentle, but important. “As a Christian,” he would say, “I am concerned when my religious tradition causes damage.” In Chattanooga, 800 church goers, many of whom came that morning as part of their Sunday routine, rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to Imam Yahya. That experience was theirs only because the pastor of the church was an old friend of Reverend Steve. Later, a much smaller but still significant group returned for two hours of intense questions and answers. Over coffee, I asked as many people as I could, “Do you have Muslims in this city?” Most said they were not sure. A few had heard that there was a small group and that they were planning to build a mosque.

The issue of Muslim integration into society plays itself out these days through zoning battles over construction or expansion of mosques. I asked the pastor of the church if he had heard anything about the plans for a mosque in Chattanooga. He responded, “I am looking into it. I plan to try to contact them and see what I can do to support the community. Some of my colleagues and I want to let people know that if anyone has a problem with Muslims’ plans to workship, they should take it up with us.” In Chattanooga, that will count for a lot.

In my next post, I will talk about our visits to two communities that have faced zoning battles over mosques, Alpharetta, Georgia and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (For a preview of that program, watch here:  Panel Promotes Religious Diversity)

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The Good News About American Islamophobia

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

While meeting to prepare my taxes, my accountant asked me, "What's new and good in your line of work?" She knows that I am a long time interfaith educator and that in the last few years I have been working in coalitions with members of other faith communities to combat religious prejudice against Muslims in this country.

Vaccine for Islamophobia

Despite much to deplore and enormous challenges ahead, I could answer that there is some good news about Islamophobia. Obviously, the good news needs to be heard in the context of the bad news, bad both for Muslims and for the rest of us who care about America. Recent reports by the Pew Research Center (August), the Center for American Progress (August) and the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research institute (September) all document the bad news. More than half of all Muslims under the age of 30 report being the victims of religious intolerance in the last year (Pew). In the last decade, seven foundations have poured more than $40 million into efforts to drum up fear of Muslims in America (CAP). Forty-seven percent of Americans believe Islam is incompatible with American values (Brookings). Clearly, religious prejudice against Muslims continues to be a concern -- a serious concern. At the same time, each report also includes the seeds of some good news.

First, the Brookings study, "What It Means to be an American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11," reveals that most Americans have very little direct experience of Muslims. The majority have no opportunity to speak to a Muslim, even occasionally. What's good about that? In fact, it helps explain findings such as the Gallup Poll that placed Muslims as the most disliked religious group in America. We tend to dislike what we do not know. Robert Putnam describes the opposite situation as the "Aunt Susan effect." In his book "American Grace," Putnam observes how positive feelings develop as people get to know the "other" as friends and eventually family members.

With the exception of African American Muslims, Muslims are part of a recent immigrant community. The Pew study, "Muslim Americans: No Sign of Growth in Alienation or Extremism," reports that 63 percent of Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants to the U.S., with 45 percent having arrived since 1990. (Strikingly, 81 percent of Muslim Americans are citizens of the U.S., including 70 percent of those born outside the U.S., a higher percentage than most other immigrant groups.) Muslims simply have not had the time to integrate into American society, but there is evidence, also in that study, that the process is well under way.

The Brookings report broke down responses by age of the informants. Americans ages 18-29 were twice as likely as those ages 65 and older to know Muslims personally. In each category, the young are moving in the direction Robert Putnam would predict will lead to better news. The future looks more promising than the past.

Second, most Americans do not know much about Islam. Once again, this can be the good news. In the Brookings study, people were asked how much they believe they know about Islam. Fourteen percent said they know a lot about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, 57 percent said they know a little, and 29 percent said they know nothing at all. The group that was most likely to say they know a lot about Muslims was, interestingly, Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement (21 percent).

What they know, unfortunately, was provided by a small cadre of well funded scholars, bloggers and media personalities, in particular, those on Fox News. The Center for American Progress recently documented the effort to shape the perception of Americans about Islam through an "echo chamber" of recycled information and misinformation. "Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America," shows how movements like the one to ban so-called "Sharia law" are created. A "solution in search of a problem," state legislation proposing to keep Islamic law from superseding American law did not emerge out of spontaneous grassroots concern. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, one of the chief authors of this legislation confessed that "if this law passed in every state it would not have served its purpose." The purpose is to stir up suspicion and controversy, not to actually pass legislation that the author himself knows is unconstitutional as well as unnecessary.

As people learn more about the work of this small group and their funders, we will be in a better position to offer a counter narrative. The good news lies in the more than 80 percent of Americans who know little or nothing about Islam and know that they know little or nothing about it. Americans are evenly divided over the question of whether Islam and democracy are congenial, but the question is flawed. It presumes a static entity called "Islam." Like other great religious traditions, Islam is evolving and multidimensional. Neither Roman Catholicism nor Judaism were, in essence, "democratic," but American versions of both of those traditions became part of the fabric of American religious life, as will American Islam. Again, this has already begun to happen.

This brings us to the third piece of good news, the outpouring of support for Muslims by their sisters and brothers in other religious communities in America. On Sept. 8, I stood proudly, shoulder-to-shoulder, with representatives of 26 national religious organizations, organized by the Islamic Society of North America. We said we refused to allow our communities to be victims of campaigns of misinformation. We can also use the Internet. Around the country, people commemorated 9/11 with formal programs and through simple acts of friendship.

Could I tell a darker story today? Of course. Should we be complacent? Far from it. The bad news is that there are people waking up early in the morning to take advantage of Americans' ignorance about Islam and to fill the void with fear. The good news is that others are determined to wake up earlier still and help Americans live the best of our country's values.

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Preparing for September 10-11, 2011

The following "sample sermon" by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer appears on the website of Rabbis for Human Rights along with other resources for that weekend. The link is http://www.rhr-na.org/issuescampaigns/standtogether/standtogetherresources/184-teaching9112011.html

“If you are Jewish and have ever been present when a Jew said something negative about Islam or Muslims, please take one step forward. Same for you Muslims. If you ever heard Judaism or Jews disparaged by fellow Muslims, take a step.”

The ten Jews and ten Muslims participating in this exercise were not surprised by what they saw. Almost everyone in the line stepped forward. As emerging religious leaders, these men and women were spending four days together sharing their stories—sacred, communal and personal –at a retreat organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “Now,” the facilitator of the session continued, “If you spoke up every single time that happened, please take another step.”

Almost everyone stayed exactly where they were. They had chosen to attend this gathering because they knew their communities had trouble speaking about each other. They wanted to learn more so that they could become better leaders. And they all agreed that there was much work to be done, beginning with themselves.

That scene came back to me as I sat down to prepare for the fall high holidays, arriving this year on the heels of the anniversary of Sept 11, 2001. As in years past, I reviewed the catalogue of sins that the traditional prayerbook provides to help us recall specific instances of transgression. Once again, I was struck by how many of the sins involve speech. By one count, 17 of the 44 acts enumerated are explicitly performed by speaking. “For the wrong we have done before You…. with the speaking of our mouths… we have defamed… we have lied…we have shamed…we have gossiped and slandered…we have spoken ill. “ This last phrase in Hebrew is lashon hara.

The Jewish tradition has made much of those last two words. The teachings on lashon hara are astonishingly thorough in their concern for every nuance and detail of how a Jew might harm his neighbor through words. It is not hard to stretch those teachings to apply to individuals who are not Jewish. It is more of a stretch, but an important one, to think about lashon hara in terms of group defamation.

Contemplating the anniversary this weekend, I recalled some of the hateful speech that I heard in the last decade. Particularly this past year, Americans have witnessed a disturbing growth in uncharitable, negative speech about Islam and about Muslims as a group. I have heard Jews speak on these topics in ways that are ignorant stereotypes, at best. At worst, they are toxic rhetoric. When these Jews are not people who defame “liberals,” “illegals,” and the other groups often attacked along with “the Muslims,” it is particularly disturbing. From neo-con scholars to activist bloggers, certain Jews have been vocal participants in the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Their harsh words have found receptive ears in some places in the Jewish community. I am not alone in worrying that the anniversary of 9/11 will serve as an occasion to stir up more fear and hate.

The Jewish traditions around lashon hara developed in a time when monitoring speech about those of other faiths was not the norm. Different religious groups formed very different communities of moral concern, and ignorant or hostile opinions about the religious “other” were unremarkable. Of course, Jews know this well, having been the victims of malicious speech about our own group. Although we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the victims of hate, our relative power and security in America challenges us to push our tradition into somewhat new territory. If we take seriously what Judaism teaches about the power of words (“they create worlds”) we want to look carefully at how others, in this case Muslims, can be hurt by the words spoken about them, including words spoken by Jews.

That brings us to the second part of the exercise at our Muslim-Jewish retreat. Our Jewish participants confessed to having sat quietly by while family members, friends or congregants repeated opinions about Muslims that had the power to hurt. I have done so myself. Last month, I reconnected with a Jewish friend from my youth. When I told him that I was working on issues of Jewish-Muslim relations he said, “I am Islamophobic and will not apologize for it! Their religion tells them they will be rewarded in heaven if they kill me. Why wouldn’t I be afraid of them?”

I did not know where to begin, so I did not start at all. I remembered the important teaching about tochecha (rebuke), the famous line in Leviticus 19:17. “You will surely rebuke your fellow; you will not bear a sin on his account.” While the plain sense seems to be that you will be responsible for your fellow’s sin if you do not speak up, Rashi reminds us it may also be saying that in rebuking you may incur your own sin, that of shaming your fellow in public. Luzatto, with a different spin, points out that if you rebuke in the wrong way, you will only intensify the sinner’s attachment to his actions, and you will then be responsible for the sin increasing. With all the potential down sides, it seemed best to remain silent. I remember, however, how we Jews felt about those who were silent when we wish they had spoken on our behalf.

Perhaps focusing on the moral obligation of tochecha, rebuke, may be misdirecting our energies. Paired with a concern for lashon hara is another important Jewish value, hakarat hatov, acknowledging the good. The Jewish tradition offers us the concept of speech that is healing (“a healing tongue, marpeh lashon, is a tree of life.” Proverbs 15:4). What if we spent more time thinking about the potential of speech to reconcile, to elicit from people what is best inside them, to promote the good? I incline toward a vision of lashon marpeh, speech that heals.

In her commentary in Rabbi David Teutsch’s newly published A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living, Rabbi Vivie Mayer recalls the midrash in which Aaron, the first high priest, reconciled people to each other by telling each of two disputing parties that the other one was ready to make up. On first reading, this story sounds like Aaron told untruths. That would bring us right back to the litany of sins on Yom Kippur, “our lips speaking lies.” But Mayer sees it differently. She suggests that Aaron was telling the truth, the deeper truth that can be seen by the eyes of someone who is looking for the good. By speaking that truth, Aaron brought it to fruition.

In closing, I return to my friend who wears his Islamophobia with pride. What would lashon marpeh mean in that situation? First, it would mean acknowledging vulnerability, the assumption that we always have and will be victims, an assumption that is all too real for many Jews. Then, it would involve seizing opportunities to fill the information vacuums that leave us open to manipulation by those who would divide us. Finally, it would require speaking early and often about the positive interactions and promising practices in the world of emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders. My own resolution for this new year is to step forward every chance I get to repeat words of kindness, to offer people positive stories to replace negative ones, to use my words to create worlds of respect and hope.

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