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April 2015

A Time for Free Speech... And More of It

The post was originally published in the Huffington Post.

When Justice Louis Brandeis affirmed the freedom of speech in a Supreme Court decision in 1927, he was well aware that such liberty made possible the "dissemination of noxious doctrine." As Jews and Christians in Philadelphia prepared for the weekend in which we celebrate Passover and Easter, just such sickening sentiments began appearing on 84 buses in our public transit system.

These advertisements are paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-Muslim hate group. However misleading and destructive these messages may be, they are protected under the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech.

For several months now, under the leadership of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, Jews, Christians, Muslims and representatives of a wide range of religious and civic groups have been meeting to plan a response. Although we were appalled by the ads, we were equally clear that the authors had every right to tell their story. It became obvious that it was our job was to tell a better story, to craft a more redemptive and hopeful message.

And what better week than this one to do just that?

On Passover, our dinner table service comes in a book known as the "Haggadah," literally, the "telling." The story we tell is one about freedom and the message comes through loud and clear: no one is really free until everyone is free. During a long night of talking, we speak of freedoms achieved and yet to be achieved, of struggles in the past and ongoing, of the hope that someday all who are hungry will eat the bread of freedom together.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism, wrote in 1942 in his New Haggadah, "Men can be enslaved in more ways than one." The Haggadah goes on to talk about the enslavement of intolerance, both for those who are the subjects and those whose minds are shackled by the ignorant ideas. It speaks about "the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite mankind."

The Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach can be read as two words: "Peh sach," meaning the mouth that speaks. On Pesach, we resolve to put our mouths to work in the service of freedom and of redemption. In Philadelphia this week, we need to counter the harsh words with words of love, the mean spirited messages with words of welcome.

While the express purpose of the bus ads is to create divisions among citizens of our city, this episode has had just the opposite effect. It is bringing us all together with a shared vision of a city of "brotherly/sisterly love," expressed this week through press conferences, counter ads, websites and petitions.

Justice Brandeis would be pleased. As he put it, "the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones."

If you want to help with these efforts to drown out the hate, add your own voice! Go to


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.