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Category: Social Justice

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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Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

Exciting news from PERL (Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders)! The leadership council proudly invites all local emerging religious leaders to their first public event Sunday, April 6. Check out the flyer below!

Funded through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Heritage Fund, PERL is an interfaith organization by and for seminarians, rabbinical students and graduate students who gather to build relationships, learn and practice the tools of interfaith dialogue, and pursue social justice together.

Now in its second year, the student leadership core has grown to include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh emerging leaders from local seminaries and universities.

The group has been actively involved with POWER, working on social justice issues in our city together. Next month, PERL is proudly offering its first major outreach program, an Interfaith Dialogue Training to build relationships and to learn and practice tools of interfaith dialogue.

See below for the event information and forward this news to anyone whom you think would be interested. Note that an "emerging religious leader" can be defined broadly to include seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students and professionals studying for or entering positions of leadership as clergy, teachers, academics, chaplains, counselors, faith-based professionals and lay leaders in their religious communities.

To RSVP for the event, contact: Raha Rafii, rafii@sas.upenn.edu
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:  joshweisman@gmail.com

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, February 14th, 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 252 by Tuesday, February 4th, 2014.

For more information about the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, please visit:  http://pcjcr.pardes.org/

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Interfaith Food Justice

We are thrilled to announce another exciting new learning opportunity this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Interfaith Food Justice course will examine the connection between food and our lives as well as food justice and sustainability.

The course will be co-taught by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling (RRC) and Reverend Katie Day of Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTSP).

The flyer below provides the details:

Interfaith Food Justice

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In the Depths: Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America

The Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives proudly announces our newest initiative:  a workshop entitled In The Depths:  Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America. For several years, students at RRC have been expressing interest in issues related to incarceration in our country. We are blessed to have in our city a unique resource, Phyllis B. Taylor, R.N, a Jewish woman who has served for over 15 years as a Correctional Chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System. Phyllis has worked with inmates, families, and staff of all faiths. She brings to that work decades of experience as a nurse and a nationally known expert in the field of hospice, grief and bereavement.  In addition, Phyllis and has been an activist for social justice since 1961.

Phyllis will share her wealth of experience with prison work from two perspectives:  pastoral care/chaplaincy (Jewish and interfaith) and social justice advocacy. She will address issues of incarceration in light of race, gender, class, and family systems. Guest speakers will include a corrections officer, a former inmate, a crime victim, and an advocate for systemic change.

The workshop will take place at RRC on Wednesday and Thursday, January 29th and 30th from 9-4.  We welcome auditors from the community, especially rabbis and other members of the clergy.

Prison Chaplaincy Workshop

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The Huppah and the Supreme Court: A New Year's Resolution

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page

HuppahBack in 1982, a young couple came to me with an unusual request. They wanted a Jewish wedding that included a public statement acknowledging what they referred to as their “heterosexual privilege.” They felt it was important while under the huppah to recognize that they were invoking a right denied gay people by every state in the union.

Just a few years before, I had been married with the blessing of the State of Connecticut and two Reform rabbis. Not a word was said about gays, lesbians or injustice. I knew only one person who had celebrated her same sex union with a “wedding ceremony,” but my cousin Frances Fuchswas way ahead of the curve, even for California. In fact, Frances recalls that her friends, gay and straight, thought it was “a little weird.” In those days, no movement in Judaism, including my own, knowingly ordained gay people, much less sanctioned their marriages.

I told the couple that I would marry them, and that they were free to say whatever they wanted about this issue. But I would stay out of it. The truth is: I had nothing to say. In my encounter with that couple, they were the religious leaders, I, the follower.

Today, I have something to say. Hence, my (secular) New Year’s Resolution:  to challenge others as that couple challenged me. Weddings are celebrations, not only of personal milestones, but also of communal values. I will no longer squander the opportunity to lead. Over the years, what once seemed to me an incongruous addition to the wedding ritual began to feel increasingly appropriate. At the start of 2013 it has become—for me—imperative.

Why imperative? Haven’t we come far enough already? Indeed, in some segments of our society, we have witnessed an astounding transformation. All the non- Orthodox rabbinical  seminaries now ordain men and women regardless of their sexual orientation, and many rabbis perform Jewish weddings for straight and gay couples. Even the stodgy New York Times marriage section now announces same sex weddings. A growing number of citizens live in states that recognize gay marriage. And this year, for the first time, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases involving the constitutionality of denying gay people access to the same protections and privileges accorded straight people who commit their lives to one another.

Which brings us to why establishing gay marriage as a social norm is imperative.

First, most states still do not allow gay people to marry. Where I live, my gay rabbinic colleagues routinely perform weddings by “the power vested in them by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” a state that will not recognize their own marriages. Furthermore, our federal law lags behind and takes precedence over the laws in states that have gay marriage. Significantly, this spring the justices will rule on a case in which the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will come under scrutiny. That Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Until DOMA is overturned, same sex couples marrying in one of the states in which it is legal still do not have the rights of a spouse to access federal benefits ranging from social security to treatment of their children to immigration status to inheritance taxes to health insurance. The listgoes on for eight pages.

Consider the analogy to interracial marriage. In 1966, Gallup polls. showed only 20% of the U.S. population approved of interracial marriages. There were still 17 statesin which such unions were prohibited. In 1967, the Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. The struggle for a racially just society required the legal breakthroughs of the civil rights era. It also required—and still requires—changing hearts and minds. As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, one that may well take its place beside Loving v. Virginia as a landmark of justice, I want to move toward that landmark on the ground, one conversation at a time, one ritual at a time, until gay marriage becomes a legal right and a social norm.

My New Year’s Resolution:  Each time I plan a wedding with a heterosexual couple, I will initiate a conversation about marriage equality. To be specific, I will suggest that they include in their service a prayer for change. The particular prayer is not important, acknowledging the issue publically is. I will also challenge my rabbinic colleagues who do not already do so to include something similar in their own wedding planning routine. Here is my version, also posted on Ritualwell.org:

As we stand under the huppah today, we give thanks that we can marry with the blessings of our rabbi, our community, our state and our federal government.

At this moment, we turn our gratitude to concern. We pray for the day when our country recognizes and honors the marriages of our gay brothers and sisters just as it recognizes and honors our own.

We pledge to contribute to _______ (fill in organization) that is working toward that end.

May there soon be heard in our land the sound of gladness and joy as loving couplesall loving couplesdance and sing and celebrate.

May that time come speedily and in our day.

Amen.

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To Bigotry No Sanction

This post was coauthored by Seth Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

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

Pamela Geller's "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" ad campaign arrived in New York subway stations this month. The campaign strives to be as clever as it is malevolent. Geller claims it is simply a pro-Israel political statement. But the ad's text is a calculated echo of Ayn Rand'sslur that Israel's opponents, and indeed all Arabs, are "primitive…savages."

Not missing the point, the New York City transit authority first rejected the ad as demeaning, only to be forced by a Federal District judge to accept it because of the First Amendment right of free speech.

The issue of free speech is, however, a red herring. The campaign aims to distract and confuse Americans. Geller has played that game before. Concern for sensitivity to victims' families served as a cover for the anti-Muslim agenda in Geller's last major initiative, the controversy she helped create around what she misnamed the "mosque at Ground Zero."This time, Geller wants to link her ad campaign and its legal battles with free speech in America and backlash in the Middle East. She claims opponents of the ads are un-American. She is wrong. Opposition to bigotry is as much a core American value as freedom of speech. It is Geller's effort to set the two at odds that flies in the face of our ideals.

Geller's ads seek to provoke the behavior she claims to fear, and to provoke enough of it to create fear in others. Like Geller's other pet project, "Stop Islamization of America,"the campaign is designed to stoke anxiety that American Muslims do not understand and support America's freedoms. Geller posts provocative ads. She then reports on her blog---with great satisfaction---any examples of Muslim Americans reacting in ways that fail to appreciate the complex, messy business of freedom of speech in this country. At this, she cries, "The sharia-ization is beginning!"

Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!In fact, major Muslim American spokesmen responded to the ad altogether appropriately. CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper said, "The First Amendment grants everybody rights, including to be a racist and a bigot."But you won't find that statement reported on Geller's blog. Nor will you find the pictureof an orthodox rabbi and a Muslim protesting the ad with a sign stating "Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!"

As Jews, we regularly expect Muslim and Christian friends to denounce anti-Semitism and terrorism within their own communities. In fairness, it is our duty to join others in stepping up when Jews are the ones promulgating hate. Geller knows well that apparent support for Israel is one way to package an anti-Muslim message that makes it tricky for Jewish leaders to offer unequivocal and unified denunciations. Her tactic, however, does not seem to be paying off across the board. Even Jews who do not usually agree on matters related to Israel are refusing to be distracted. The Anti-Defamation Leaguecarries on its website a condemnation of Geller, for "consistently vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam." On September 21, the Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Say No!issued a statement condemning Geller's ad .The same day, the Jewish Council for Public Affairsdecried Geller's ads as "Bigoted, Divisive and Unhelpful." Rabbi Rachel Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights North Americahas spoken out, as has the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

In his famous letter to the first Jewish synagogue in America, George Washington wrote that the United States government grants "to bigotry no sanction."But because our government does grant to all its citizens freedom of speech, it will protect the right of Pamela Geller to post her bigotry, just as it allows over 900 hate groups, including anti-Semitic groups, to operate. In America, the work of giving bigotry no sanction devolves on citizens. We are the ones with the liberty---and the obligation---to speak our own truths in the face of hate mongering. And Geller isn't clever enough to stop us.

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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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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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