Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Rabbi Speaks: Reflections on the Islamic Society Service

Monday is my day off. My plan had been to do some odds and ends, help my son with homework, and watch the Red Sox beat the Cardinals and take the series back to Fenway Park. Instead, after dinner, I put on a jacket and tie and, along with members of my congregation, drove out to Newark Delaware to the Islamic Society of Delaware’s Center. 

I went because a couple of days earlier, some kids decided to wreck the place, vandalizing the building, putting up an ersatz cross with pieces of fence, and causing a lot of damage. 

The Islamic Center is a place of study, of worship, and of gathering. They have a school, a multi-purpose room used for meals and worship, and host a variety of programs. They also do a lot of interfaith work, participating with other houses of worship in the Newark area in a host of social justice and worship initiatives, and in the past have collaborated with Congregation Beth Emeth, Christ Church, Mt. Lebanon Church and others for pre-Thanksgiving Meal packing for those in need. It’s a very well kept building, but nothing elaborate. The kind of place you create when you’re just creating a community, and when you don’t exactly want to draw attention to yourselves. 

It was only stuff that got broken and damaged. Expensive, but only things; no people were physically hurt. But, having lived through seeing my own childhood synagogue vandalized a few times, it’s not the physical pain that matters most. 

What matters is the loss of dignity, that sense that this place that you’ve created, a place where you go to practice your faith and gather with others like you, is no longer safe. What matters is the fear, the reminder that, no matter how well-meaning others are, how much people say you’re a part of the larger community, you are a minority, with all the exoticness and concern that goes with that. What matters is the sadness, the conversations with kids who don’t understand why their beloved school is damaged, or why the police are there. The feeling that a lifetime’s worth of work building relationships with the greater community may have all been for naught. 

I’m proud to say that, despite all of those feelings—each perfectly appropriate—there was an antidote.
The Society got the word out to its interfaith partners very quickly. Soon, churches and synagogues were denouncing the violence, and publicizing the website where you could go to donate for repairs for the Center. Governmental officials and law enforcement came together. But much more than that, the community began to rally—first online, and then in person. 

So Sunday afternoon the word went out that there was going to be a service of unity and support for the Islamic Society on Monday night. I got the word out to the Jewish community as quickly as I could. As it happened, there was a program going on at the University of Delware Hillel (more on that in a bit), but I knew my place was to be at the Islamic Society service. They needed people to be there—and they needed Jews to be there. Why? Because we know what it’s like to be a religious minority—to have people question the authenticity of your place in society, to know that you see the world differently. Because while it hasn’t happened in Delaware (thank God), we know what it’s like to find damage done to our house of worship. Because usually, when people talk about the Children of Abraham—the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael—the emphasis is when we’re in conflict with one another, forgetting always the moments when we’re in harmony with one another. Really, where else should I have been, could I have been, except with my brothers and sisters to show them our support? 

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the hospitality. No surprise, really. Like the story of Abraham in Genesis, the commandment in Judaism of hachnasat orchim, the Islamic culture emphasized hospitality, welcoming the stranger. Here, it manifested in the repeated insistence to find a place, and all refusals to any help. 

We were blessed to have Senator Chris Coons speak—he made a bee-line from Washington to Newark to be with this community. A representative from Senator Tom Carper’s office (who happens to be Jewish himself), from the County Commissioner’s office, and Lt. Governor Matt Denn all came to speak. The Imams lead us in prayer and recitation of the Koran, their sacred scripture, and emphasized the importance of peace to their tradition—‘not to make us happy’ as the imam said, but because it’s true. 

Then they opened the floor to speak. Ministers from various denominations or religions stood up to speak and offer support. I stood up to speak. I talked of how when Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father together. All of us spoke of how we come together in a crisis, but as real friends, we ought to come together in times of joy as well. No matter; we were together, we were there, all of us—christian, muslim and Jew—filling their space with our presence and our voices. 

Very soon we’ll gather with our families for Thanksgiving—and some of us, Chanukah. We will gather to offer thanks for the safety and security of our homes, for our health, for our place in society, and football. I would ask you, as you prepare for your holiday, to think about how we can support others, and especially the Islamic Society, reminding them—and us—that they really are a part of our community.

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