On August 5, The Shalom Center and other Jewish leaders from New York held a vigil at the site of the proposed Muslim cultural center and prayer space in Lower Manhattan, supporting the plan for Cordoba House/ Park51 there.
It was an extraordinary success, both in the moment and in media coverage. Prayer, song, and chants were interspersed with speeches for a gathering of about 50 people, well-covered by print and TV media. More than 180 newspapers have carried reports of the vigil, including full-page coverage in Metro and Newsday.
In addition, I was interviewed by CNN for "Rick's List," and invited to write an essay for CNN's on-line Op/Ed page. For the interview, see the video here.
At the vigil, affter a number of speakers from the Jewish community, Daisy Khan, co-founder of the Cordoba Initiative that is sponsoring and planning the cultural center, spoke with heartfelt thanks to those of us in the Jewish community who had been working in favor of Córdoba House and who had gathered on Park Place to welcome them.
Rabbi Ellen Lippman of Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, co-chair of Rabbis for Human Rights/North America and one of the key organizers of the vigil, gave Daisy Kahn the traditional Jewish symbols of a housewarming: bread, salt, honey, and a candle.
We began with the chant, in Hebrew and English, that teaches: "Here I stand, and I take upon myself the commitment of the Creator: 'Love your neighbor as yourself, your neighbor as yourself. Hareini m'kabeyl alai et mitzvat Ha-Borei: V'ahavta l'rayecha kamocha, l'rayecha kamocha. ' "
When I rose to speak, I explained that when I rise to read from the Torah my name is "Abraham Isaac Ishmael Ocean." With that as my name, I find my own self torn apart and bloodied when there is bloodshed between the children of Sarah through Isaac and the children of Hagar through Ishmael -- between the different families of Abraham. And when the families of Hagar and Sarah come together in peace, only then can I feel my own self united and whole.
I was wearing a tallit. I explained that in every tallit, the tzitiziot on the four corners -- the fringes -- are a mixture of my cloth ad God's, the Universe's, air. They are threads of connection between my self and the world. It is not good fences make good neighbirs but good fringes make good neighbors. It is these frings that make the tallit sacred. And Cordoba House would be exactly such a fringe, rooted in Islam and reaching out to the rest of the world.
On my own tallit are embroidered the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. And between them is embroidered a rock--the rock upon which in the Jewish tradition Abraham bound Isaac, the same rock upon which in Muslim tradition Mohammed--peace be upon him--began his mystical ascent to Heaven. This tallit of mine symbolizes the sacred companionship between Judaism and Islam, as does my name.
For years, I explained, I have worked with and alongside Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan for peace in the world and dialogue between our traditions. I am not alone in knowing who they are: the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs have publicly affirmed that these leaders of the Córdoba initiative have for years worked with the Jewish community in fruitful ways.
So all the questions that have been raised about them:--those truly curious and those simply nasty--could have been answered simply by asking leaders of the Jewish community.
I said that it was all the more distressing that the Anti-Defamation League had ignored these close relationships in New York City and made a national tumult about the placement of a Muslim cultural Center in Lower Manhattan.
I described a program on MSNBC the day before, in which I was interviewed along with a new opponent of Córdoba House -- representing a right-wing Christian fundamentalist legal organization.. He compared the building of Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan to building a monument to Japanese kamikaze pilots in Pearl Harbor. As I said during the interview and said again at the vigil, this comparison was utterly disgusting. The Córdoba initiative brings exactly the opposite of terrorism or kamikaze pilots to the world. It represents the deep truths of Islam--the search for peace, the practice of compassion, the concern for profound dialogue.
I said that I could not imagine anyone from the Anti-Defamation League having made such a disgusting comment. But what they did say opened the door to this kind of vile attack on Islam.
That door must be closed and instead we must open the door to deeper communication between us--not only the families of Abraham but also the other religious and spiritual families of humankind--Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and all the others.
In doing this, I said, we should not pretend that there are no bloody streaks in all these traditions. In Judaism and in all the others, there are strands of blood in the past and the present of our communities. Rather than pretend they do not exist, we must act to shape our futures beyond the strands of blood. Cordoba House will be exactly such a way to shape the future of Islam and all the other communities that live together in the world.
We also heard from Rabbi Marcus Burstein on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, which had just announced its support for Cordoba House, and from , Rabbi Richard Jacobs from Westchester Reform Temple, who said some members of his congregation had been victims of the 9/11 attacks.
He writes: "Here is a view down Park Place. The site of the Islamic Center is on the right, where there is a crowd on the sidewalk. Note the building on the left, between the Center and the WTC site. It is taller than the proposed center, so how would the Center be some kind of "triumphal" monument overlooking the 9/11 site?"
I would say there was one sour note at the vigil. Two people showed up with signs expressing bitter anger at the Anti-Defamation League and at others who have opposed the building of Córdoba House. We had said the vigil was not a political rally, and asked people not to bring such signs. I asked the sign-carriers to withdraw to a place of their own where they could express their own opinions without violating the spirit of our vigil. But they would not. So be it.
As I mentioned above, the news coverage by a wide variety of media has been extraordinary. The Associated Press and CNN and nine other news organizations took notes, photos, and videos. Even after the vigil ended, Rabbi Lippmann and I were surrounded by reporters hungry for interviews. I was interviewed by MSNBC, by ABC News, and by WOR in New York. And newspaper stories, photographs, and video are appearing all over America and beyond.
I am pleased that this week was also the one in which a Federal district court held that the right of same-sex couples to marry -- which for the past generation The Shalom Center has affirmed is intended by God -- is guaranteed by the Constitution. So it has been a week of steps forward in the seeking of peace, harmony, in God's world.
May the coming Shabbat be one of shalom, and the coming week make real the sacred month that for Muslims is Ramadan, a month of prayer and sacred fasting to deepen relationship with God; and for Jews is Elul, a month of daily hearing of the shofar (ram's horn) calling us, "Sleepers, Awake!" to sacred study and self-examination toward a deeper relationship with God.
Blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih, peace -