Thoughts on Park51

I still recall exactly where I was. It was in Jerusalem, during my first year of Rabbinical School, and I was on my way to a class on professional development. As I rounded the corner to enter the hallway containing the room, a classmate ran past, grabbing my arm and pulling me with him. “A plane just hit the WTC” he said as we raced to the computer lab to learn more.

After several moments and no further answers, we wandered back down the hallway to find many of my future colleagues huddled around a phone, speaking with someone from New York and receiving additional information. I continued on to class and sat in my seat. The professor reluctantly allowed one student to remain on the phone as the other students were ushered into the room.

Within minutes, class was interrupted by the student on the phone, who informed us that a second plane hit the WTC. And, moments later, he returned to tell us that the Pentagon, too, was hit.

We were confused and sick and lost and we ran in one hundred different directions. I raced to our apartment, trying to reach Rebecca at her place of employment to meet me at home. When we both arrived safely, we sat down on the couch and did not move for hours, possibly even the first day. We were glued to the TV and fixated on speaking with each friend and family member we knew who was in New York.

When we emerged from our self-imposed cocoon, I recall connecting with classmates and learning of the fates of their loved ones. To a person, all of our friends and loved ones were accounted for. And thus began the journey of healing and processing and observing the events surrounding 9-11 from half-a-world away.

Thankfully, I do know what it feels like to have lost a loved one on September 11, 2001. But I imagine that all of us no doubt recall the days and months of that awful fall. We can recall the images of photographs taped to fences and walls. We feel a tightness in our chests when we reflect upon the image of black, billowing smoke that engulfed Manhattan. If we close our eyes, I imagine we can all still see the parade of firetrucks, heading to the towers to help, firefighters with heads held high in shock and awe and determination to help those in need. And we can see the trucks returning, some of them, with firefighters holding their heads in their hands, dust and debris and ash on their uniforms. We see people running and we see people crying. And if we try, if we can close out the sounds around us, we can hear the sounds of the sirens, the stunned newscasters, and the beating of our hearts. The site of the World Trade Center is still very emotional for us all and I imagine it will remain so for a very long time.

I thank God for the deep and abiding values of our tradition that help me, and us, endure, and even thrive, despite difficult times. And it is precisely those values that call upon me to speak this evening in strong defense of the building of a mosque and community center near the World Trade Center site. We are commanded by our God and by our tradition to love our neighbor as ourselves; to show hospitality to strangers; to exude compassion for the stranger, for we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. These are the very values that guided and directed our Forefathers as they created an American value, protected by law, of non-discrimination on the basis of religion.

Without Jefferson and Franklin we would not have our commitment to protect the rights of every minority group; without Washington, we would not have our commitment to religious pluralism. We Jews know a blessing when we see it, and we are blessed to live in a society that protects the rights of all its citizens. We who stand in the shadow of Auschwitz and Birkenau and Majdanik and Treblinka know the slippery slope: if anyone can be discriminated against, none of us are safe.

Islam itself is not to blame for the attacks of 9-11, and to hold all Muslims accountable for the actions of some would be a mistake. We must support the moderates of all faiths who pursue interfaith tolerance and who pursue peace.

All three of your rabbis are committed to this pursuit. We all serve with honor in the Sandy Springs Interfaith Clergy Association, an organization founded by Rabbi Segal. We have been involved with the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and have traveled on World Pilgrims trips to the Middle East, the Deep South, and most recently, to Turkey. In fact, some of the participants on my pilgrimage to Turkey are here tonight, and we are honored by your presence. We will be participating in the Interfaith Habitat for Humanity Build this fall and we teach and preach in houses of worship belonging to other faiths.

We must be sensitive to the needs and emotions of those family members of the victims of September 11 who are in distress. I know that there are some of those families who consider this a true affront, and I imagine that there are those in our community who disagree with my conclusion. I also know that there are others who dig deep into their values and realize that, despite unanswered questions, and despite reluctance to cause further harm, the right thing to do is to support this project. With a mosque near the World Trade Center site that pursues interfaith dialogue and respect, we have the opportunity to go beyond tolerance and support the best that can happen in the name of religion in the shadow of the worst that has happened in the name of religion.

We will all be watching to see what the staff and supporters of the Mosque can achieve. May this center fulfill its promise. And in the words of our collective tradition, may we all live this stunning and inspiring command: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall study war no more.”

Published in: on September 13, 2010 at 12:16 am  Comments (1)