A rabbinic conference call with President Obama

I participated today in a rabbinic conference call with President Obama, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. President Obama asked for an opportunity to chat with rabbis about the new year ahead, at this moment which comes shortly before Rosh Hashanah and also as events are unfolding at the UN around the Palestinian statehood vote. (On that vote, by the by: I recommend Roi Maor's Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine in +972. Also interesting is Hussein Ibish's Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy in The Atlantic.)

Beforehand, we were told that there might be time for some questions, and we were invited to submit questions in advance. Here's what I asked:

At this holy time of new beginnings, how can we best help Israel and the Palestinians (perhaps: Israel and the UN-recognized state of Palestine) achieve a true new beginning? How can we change the paradigm to one which will yield peace?

Our host told us that nearly 900 rabbis participated in the call, which is pretty amazing to me. Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, introduced President Obama; then the President spoke; then 2 questions, out of the hundreds which were submitted, were asked. (Alas, mine was not one of them.)

The President began by saying "Thank you for everything you guys do every single day in your communities," and continued, "I want to be sure to wish each and every one of you, from Michelle and me, a sweet and happy new year. Rosh Hashanah offers us this extraordinary sense of possibility because it offers the chance to shape our world for the better." He offered prepared remarks, first about the economy and then about the international scene:

Last week I sent Congress the American Jobs act, a plan to lead to new jobs for teachers, construction workers, veterans, the unemployed; it cuts taxes for small business owners, virtually every working man and woman in America; it is critical in part because of world events which have weakened our recovery.

All of us see in our congregations and neighborhoods that folks are hurting out there. It would be nice if things mended themselves, but given what's happening in Europe and the volatility of world financial markets, we're confronting some significant headwinds in terms of putting people back to work. Our prosperity also depends on our ability to pay down the massive debt we've accumulated over the last decade.

I also put forward a plan that not only pays for the American Jobs Act, but also makes sure we're moving debt and deficits down to a sustainable level...We can't redeuce the budget by denying health care for poor children or for those with disabilities...we need to live up to our obligations to those who are vulnerable.

This isn't about figures on a spreadsheet; it's about who we are as a people, it's abut the economic future of this country...whether we're laying a strong foundation for the next generation. The Talmud teaches us that as parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children. This is about what we're planting.

It's also about fairness. About whether we're in this together, looking out for one another; about whether those of us who've been most blessed materially are willing to do our fair share along with everybody else.

From there, he segued into talking about foreign policy -- which is to say, the issue of Israel and Palestine and this week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood. (I'll offer his remarks here first, and will share my own response to them at the end of the post.)

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Wise voices on Middle East politics and on Torah

If the Days of Awe didn't begin next week, I'd like to think that I would be taking the time to write something substantive and meaningful about what's happening in the Middle East right now. Instead, I'm offering links to a few essays I've found useful of late.

  • On the recent attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo: Encountering Peace: The View from Cairo by Gershom Baskin. ("What's needed is stronger bridges, not higher walls.") Baskin writes:

    All of the Egyptians that I have spoken with condemned the attack against the Israeli embassy. The story on the street and among the youth leaders of the revolution is that the leaders of the mobs that torched the Ministry of Interior, the headquarters of the el-Ghad party and the Israeli embassy have been identified as members of the hated former internal security forces. They say that these people are actively working to undermine the revolution and to show that post-Mubarak Egypt is a lawless society where all security has broken down. They hope to hijack the revolution and to bring back the old regime.

  • On Israeli settlers and the so-called "price tag" policy: Price tag -- a violation of Jewish values by Rabbi Barry Leff. ("Jews have been world's favorite scapegoats since 4th century, so they of all people should be sensitive to how terrible it is to make someone a scapegoat.") Rabbi Leff writes:

    [T]he greatest sin the perpetrators of the price tag campaign commit is the sin of hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name. Attacking a mosque – a house of worship of the same God that we worship – and burning Korans that do reverence to many of the patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets in the Torah –makes Judaism look bad. It gives our religion, and by extension, our God and Torah, a horrible reputation. It makes Judaism appear immoral, insensitive and disrespectful toward others in the eyes of the nations.

I want also to lift up two posts which focus on last week's Torah portion -- which I think speak deeply, if indirectly, to current events in the Middle East as well.

  • My Father, the Wandering Aramean… by Rabbi Brant Rosen at Yedid Nefesh. His post looks at two different ways of interpreting a verse from Torah (אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, usually translated as "My father was a wandering Aramean" but sometimes rendered in a very different way), and asks:

    These two readings illuminate a critical question that inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day. Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify? The narrative in which we are the perpetual victim or the spiritual seeker? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?

  • Milk and Honey by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan at On Sophia Street. This essay offers me a blessing for the continuing journey. Reb Laura offers her own interpretive translation of part of this week's Torah portion ("When you come to a place of spiritual fulfillment, / an inner place that finally feels like “home,” / notice what ripens inside you...") and notes:

    In Jewish thought, the journey of the Exodus is the paradigm for all spiritual journeys.

    We move from the narrow place of slavery, to wander in the wilderness, and finally reach a land flowing with milk and honey... Some days, I feel I'm still in the narrow place.

My thanks are due to the authors of all of these essays, whose words have informed me and uplifted me this week.


On fasting (Tisha b'Av and Kazim Ali's "Fasting for Ramadan")

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Slowly but surely, I'm reading Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice by Kazim Ali, a set of short meditative essays written during the experience of fasting for Ramadan, published by Tupelo Press.

I've never experienced a fast like Ramadan. A whole month of daytime fasting: the idea is foreign to me. Though of course I have fasted; the vast majority of Jews fast on Yom Kippur, and many fast also on other fast days (among them Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight.)

I've been thinking lately about the fast of Tisha b'Av as the beginning of the journey which culminates in the fast of Yom Kippur. My hevruta partner David and I realized, last week, that the two are 60 days apart. First comes Tisha b'Av, when we fast in mourning for the fallen temples. Then we count 49 days, a kind of parallel to the Counting of the Omer, and the 50th day is Rosh Hashanah, the new year. Ten days after that comes Yom Kippur, the fast at the far end of the journey. How different might that Yom Kippur fast feel if one entered into it having willingly and consciously undertaken this sixty-day journey of transformation, bookended by a fast at either end?

There's something powerful about reading Ali's meditations now as I anticipate my own fasts. Ali writes beautifully about the experience of fasting: what it's like for him physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Here's a taste, from the seventh day of Ramadan:

When you say "One time," in a story, you mean a time that happened in the past, but one you are still living in, living at that very moment. How often have you caught a whiff of patchouli, seen someone wearing a yellow scarf, heard the Indigo Girls singing "Love's Recovery" -- and suddenly you are gone, out of the present, backward in time, some other place, miles away, how easy it is to be transported, how slight our connection to our body is, as an entity in space.

The fast is a permanent "one time," because you are disconnected from the physical network of food and exchange of mass and matter that connects all the physical universe. You are a mere ghost, hovering, breathing the air in and out, not partaking, but affecting the world nonetheless with your karmic actions, even with your breathing.

One of the things I appreciate about sitting in meditation is the extent to which meditation allows me to gently notice the frenetic antics of my own mind. Fasting is a little bit like that, too, I think. Pausing from my regular consumption helps me take stock of that consumption and of the ways in which I allow it to control me. Though that's an intellectual exercise; part of what I'm loving about Ali's book is how it opens up his physical, emotional, and spiritual experience of the Ramadan fast. Fasting is such a strange experience: deeply embodied, on the one hand, and on the other hand lifting me out of my body and into a kind of fugue state.

Anyway. I wish a continued Ramadan kareem to my friends who are celebrating. And to those who will be fasting tonight and tomorrow for Tisha b'Av, may your fast be meaningful... and may we Jews and Muslims, perhaps, find connection with one another in our mutual experience of fasting, and may that fast bring all of us closer to God.


Approaching Av... and Ramadan

On the Jewish calendar, next week we'll enter the month of Av. Av is a month of introspection. On the 9th of Av we observe a communal day of fasting and mourning in remembrance of the two fallen temples in Jerusalem and in remembrance of our communal suffering from the crusades to pogroms. Some see Tisha b'Av as a day to recognize the brokenness of creation writ large. And from there, we count 49 days until Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. These seven weeks, taken together, offer a picture of what the Hasidim call "descent for the sake of ascent" -- from the spiritual depths of 9 Av, we are newly able to make the spiritual ascent into and through the month of Elul to the Days of Awe. From Tisha b'Av to Rosh Hashanah unfold seven weeks during which we can do the internal work of tefilah, teshuvah, u-tzedakah -- prayer, repentance / turning-toward-God, and giving to the needy, which our liturgy teaches us can sweeten the severity of divine justice in our lives.

On the Muslim calendar, the lunar month which will begin next week is the month of Ramadan. Ramadan too is a month of introspection; of fasting, prayer, and giving alms to the needy. A time during which Muslims strive to align themselves with the will of God and to become conscious of God's presence in the world and in their lives.

Ramadan and Av do not always coincide. A few years ago, when I was blessed to attend a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, Ramadan coincided with the month of Elul, which immediately prececes the Days of Awe. (I wrote an essay about that: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan & Elul.) Both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish one measure months by the moon, but the Jewish calendar is metonic; seven years out of every nineteen we insert a "leap month," which keeps our calendar more-or-less aligned with the solar one. So our high holidays always fall in the northern hemisphere autumn, and Pesach always falls in northern hemisphere spring. (The rabbis who designed our calendar were, alas, not thinking about the needs of Jews in the global South!) The Muslim calendar doesn't have this kind of correction mechanism, so Muslim holidays move around the solar calendar; this year Ramadan begins around August 1, next year it will begin around July 20, the year after that around July 10, and so on.

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

I love that our two religious communities share a vision of how we can make use of the practices of prayer, fasting, and tzedakah / zakat in order to realign ourselves toward God. And I love that this year, Jews and Muslims the world over will be entering into a sacred season of doing this spiritual work at the same time. May we give one another strength and blessing in the weeks ahead!

Recommended reading for the season:

  • 30 mosques - a Ramadan road trip to 30 different mosques all over the USA. A beautiful set of anecdotes and photographs which illustrate the diversity of American Muslim life and practice.

  • Prayers for the Ninth of Av - Reb Zalman's prayer, meant to be offered on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av when our grief begins to give way to hope for transformation. I especially like how his prayer touches on Jerusalem / Al-Quds.

  • Hungry for Ramadan - My friend Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim blogged daily through the month of Ramadan in 2007; these are his posts on Beliefnet.

  • New moon ritual for Elul - An earth-based Jewish ritual for the new moon which will come 3 weeks in to our 7-week journey from 9 Av to the Days of Awe.


Learning about A Land Called Paradise

I've always come to tears more easily than I think most people do, and since I became a mother, that's even more true. I don't know if it's a lingering effect of last year's postpartum depression (though the tears now aren't always sad ones), or if it's because my whole emotional and spiritual self is more open now to both joy and pain. Who knows: it's just something in who I am. I try to consider it a feature rather than a bug, a gift rather than something to hide away.

The thing that made me cry this morning is a video for a country song. Well, actually: it's more like a vid than a video per se; it's a short film set to music, and the lyrics of the song act to highlight and accentuate the visuals (as well as the other way around.) Here it is:

A Land Called Paradise, a 3-minute short film by Lena Khan, set to Kareem Salama's song of the same name.

The song is by Kareem Salama, an Egyptian-American country singer. (If you can't see the embed, you can go directly to it here on YouTube -- and oh, please do; it's really something!) I found it via Emily Hauser's post on Muslim American Heroes.

The technique of featuring people holding up signs originates (I think) in the "film clip" released with Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues; plenty of other bands have used it since (here's a partial list.) But none of those instances have moved me the way this one did.

The short film was made by Lena Khan, who was 23 at the time when it was made. This won the grand prize in the One Nation, Many Voices short film contest a few years ago. As this USA Today story explains:

Muslim Americans say they often feel like strangers in their own country, and the struggle to overcome stereotypes became more complicated after 9/11.

So when given the chance to tell their stories, more than 100 young Muslim American filmmakers poured their creative energies into producing four- to five-minute films about Islam and its followers for an online competition...

Frustrated with the myths and stereotypes surrounding Muslims in the media, Khan wanted to help viewers relate to Muslims in America. "The idea was, 'I really wish everyone knew this about Muslims,' " says Khan, a USC film school graduate. So she collected more than 2,000 comments from Muslim Americans, many of which she put into a music video set to Kareem Salama's song A Land Called Paradise.

And here's another article about Khan, slightly more recent: Muslim Filmmaker Looks at Social Issues with Humor, Warmth. The contest was in 2007; this film is a few years old, but holy wow, it still speaks today. All of the winning films can be seen at LinkTV.org, and here's a link to a short news piece about / interview with winner Lena Khan.

One of the things I found most valuable about the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders which I attended late in the summer when I was pregnant with Drew was the experience of connecting with the Muslims who were part of the group and beginning to collectively shatter the stereotypes that we held about them and that they held about us. Khan's video for "A Land Called Paradise" goes a long way toward shattering some of the stereotypes I think many Americans hold about the Muslims in our communities. Plus, it's a beautiful short film, and it brought tears to my eyes. Thanks, Lena.


G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque

A while back I reviewed a graphic novel caled Cairo by G. Willow Wilson (along with Barry Deutsch's Hereville.) I'm here today to sing the praises of Wilson's latest work of nonfiction / memoir: The Butterfly Mosque. (That link goes to the paperback edition, which isn't yet out; when my friend Cate, who'd read the book in hardcover, recommended it to me I picked it up for Kindle. And oh, wow, am I glad I did.)

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Wilson is an American Muslim who now divides her time between the US and Cairo (read her standard bio here.) In college she became mysteriously ill (I know what that's like -- though my illness came in my early 30s, not my 20s) and the illness slowed her down. It gave her an opportunity to ask big questions about her life. And she became conscious of the fact that although she had been reared in a nominally Protestant but basically secular home, she couldn't help believing in God. The trinitarianism of Christianity didn't appeal to her; she found much to like about Judaism, but perceived it as a religion into which one really needs to be born, rather than to convert. (I disagree with that understanding, but that's another post for another time.) But Islam called to her, and after college she went to Egypt, having secretly chosen Islam in her heart.

The Butterfly Mosque is in one sense a religious memoir, the story of a woman seeking and finding her faith. In another sense it's a classic travel narrative and the story of becoming someone who can bridge between two worlds. Wilson opens a window into her experience: how she and her room-mate had no idea how to shop for food in Cairo until a friend of a friend led them by the hand through the souq, how she began to spend more and more time with that friend, how she came to realize that in a strange way they were courting, how they finally expressed their intentions to one another. The scene where she tells Omar that she wants to be with him -- and then admits aloud for the first time in her life that she is a Muslim, and he can't help breathing "thank God!" -- is poignant and funny and sweet. (For more tastes of the book, here's a link to the excerpt which was published in the Times: Engagement in Cairo.)

But part of what I love about this book is that most of the book takes place after that. Choosing Islam, moving to Egypt, navigating the unfamiliar waters of a bustling developing-world city completely unlike what she had known before, falling in love -- all of those are prologue to the bigger story here, which is a story about fully coming to inhabit her Islam in the Middle East in a post-9/11 world.

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Reprint: Allah is the Light / Prayer in Ramadan & Elul

 

This essay was originally published on 9/15/09 as Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, back when Zeek had a web partnership with Jewcy rather than with the Forward. But the formatting on that original piece has gone wonky and it's become nigh-unreadable, so I'm reprinting it here.

It is a sticky August evening in Garrison, New York. I'm sitting on a park bench at a retreat center with a woman I've only just met. I'm wearing capris, a tank top, and my rainbow kippah. She's wearing a turtleneck and long dress with her hair tucked under a scarf. Our assignment is to teach each other a favorite text from our own holy scriptures. She is a Muslim and I am a Jew.

I've chosen Psalm 27, since the month of Elul is fast approaching and it's customary to read the psalm daily during that month of spiritual preparation. We read two English translations, one from JPS and the other from my rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. "Yah, You are my light," Reb Zalman begins. We talk about the psalms writ large and what it’s like to pray them.

She opens her vinyl-covered pocket Qur'an to surat An-Nur, "The Light," and I open the translation I brought with me. "Allah is the Light of the heavens and of the earth," begins Fakhry’s translation. We talk about what each of us thinks it means to speak of God in these terms. The sky over the lake turns pink and then darkens. When we turn to go inside, the meadow is filled with fireflies.

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Links of interest - on Rep. Peter King's hearings, Islam, and America

You've probably heard or read that Representative Peter King is slated to begin holding hearings tomorrow which purport to investigate the extent to which, as he claims, Muslim radicalism is on the rise and when push comes to shove Muslims aren't really "American". I don't have the time to write a cogent essay of my own before I have to fetch Drew at daycare in half an hour, so in lieu of any eloquence of my own, here are a few links to essays and articles I've found valuable:

  • Peter King's Obsession, an OpEd in the New York Times:

    Not much spreads fear and bigotry faster than a public official intent on playing the politics of division. On Thursday, Representative Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is scheduled to open a series of hearings that seem designed to stoke fear against American Muslims. His refusal to tone down the provocation despite widespread opposition suggests that he is far more interested in exploiting ethnic misunderstanding than in trying to heal it.

  • Setting the Record Straight on Sharia, an interview with Intisar Rabb, a member of the law faculty at Boston College Law School where she teaches advanced constitutional law, criminal law, and comparative and Islamic law. (This is a more general article about Sharia, Muslim religious law, but I think it's relevant.) She writes:

    Sharia is the ideal law of God according to Islam. Muslims believe that the Islamic legal system is one that aims toward ideals of justice, fairness, and the good life. Sharia has tremendous diversity, as jurists and learned scholars figure out and articulate what that law is. Historically, Sharia served as a means for political dissent against arbitrary rule. It is not a monolithic doctrine of violence, as has been characterized in the recently introduced Tennessee bill that would criminalize practices of Sharia...

    Sharia historically was a broad system that encompassed ritual laws, so in some ways it is like Jewish law that has rules for how to pray, how to make ablution before prayers—that sort of thing. There are also broader principles that Sharia tries to embody, such as justice and fairness.

  • Stoking irrational fears about Islam by Eugene Robinson:

    King offers no support for his insinuation that Muslim Americans are giving aid and comfort to terrorists; to the contrary, Muslim clerics and worshipers in this country have been vocal in their rejection of jihadist rhetoric and violence. And unless King believes Muslims are clairvoyant, why would he expect them to be any better than Christians, Jews or anyone else in identifying lone-wolf gunmen or bombers whose private torment becomes obvious only in retrospect?

    Security hearings that focus exclusively on Muslim Americans serve only to amplify the rumblings of Islamophobia that seem to become louder and crazier by the day.

  • Today I Am a Muslim Too by Rabbi Amy Eilberg:

    I stand with all American Muslims today. Why? Because I am a Jew, and at the very heart of the Jewish religion is the imperative to remember that we were slaves long ago in the Land of Egypt. Just as our national identity was beginning to emerge, we were the downtrodden, the oppressed, the ones who suffered hate, fear, and persecution. Our tradition might have encouraged us to recall that experience in anger or in vengeful memory, but it did not. Rather, the Israelites’ experience in Egypt became the very center of the Jewish collective psyche. Thirty-six times in the Five Books of Moses, we are told to remember the "stranger, the widow and the orphan" – the oppressed minorities of those times, for, as the Torah repeatedly reminds us, "we were slaves in the Land of Egypt." We know the soul of the stranger, and so we are to love the strangers in our own day, stand with them and champion their cause. We know what it is to be in their place, and so their cause is our own.

    Without question, Muslims are among America’s persecuted minorities today, a group regularly defamed with impunity on the airwaves and even in the halls of Congress.

  • To Bigotry, No Sanction by Rabbi Arthur Waskow: 

    In two sorts of crises in the past—wars and economic depressions—some Americans have reacted with fear of "the other" and attacks on freedom. These moments include passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts in the 1790s during the half-war with France, the "draft riots" that killed hundreds of Blacks in NYC during the Civil War, the "Red Scare" deportations led by J. Edgar Hoover in 1919,  the wave of anti-Semitism during the Great Depression, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the hounding of artists and professors and actors and activists by Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee early in the Cold War.

    Afterward, almost all Americans have felt deeply ashamed of these behaviors. But during each episode, some political forces in America benefited from inciting bigotry.

    Now, we are in the midst of both mass disemployment and an endless, unwinnable war. For those modern analogues of Pharaoh who rule and support centers of great undemocratic power and wealth while stripping others of public services and servants—teachers, nurses, social workers—indeed, while some lose jobs, homes, lives, and limbs—it is convenient to make scapegoats, just as Pharaoh did.

  • Rabbis for Human Rights' statement to the Homeland Security Committee:

    The members of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (RHR-NA) proudly stand with our fellow children of Abraham, the Muslim American community, in urging that extremism be fought wherever it is found, and that one community not be singled out for unnecessary scrutiny.

I think Representative King's hearings are likely to result in many non-Muslim Americans feeling greater fear and mistrust of the American Muslim community, and many Muslim Americans experiencing greater mistreatment and suspicion as a result. The America of my hopes and dreams is better than this.


On land use zoning and discrimination (an update on the Al Falah Center & more)

I posted a few weeks ago about the Al Falah Center, an initiative of the Muslim community in Bridgewater, NJ, and about local opposition to the proposed mosque, including opposition from local Tea Party leaders (as noted in this New Jersey Jewish News article.) My post was revised into a letter which the rabbinic cabinet of Jewish Voice for Peace shared with representatives from the Muslim community in Bridgewater. After I made a few revisions per their request, the letter was co-signed by 35 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic students. (For those who are interested, the text of the amended letter appears below the extended-entry cut.)

The Bridgewater Town Council met recently, and voted unanimously in support of changing the town's zoning laws to block the Al Falah Center's application. Members of the Muslim community continue to meet with Town Council members in hopes of reaching an amicable solution. I'm also told that the Bridgewater Muslim community has offered to take the religious school out of their plans, in a further attempt to address the broader community's traffic concerns.

There was a fairly spirited conversation in the comments section of my previous post. Some Bridgewater Muslim residents commented / emailed me to say that they feel discriminated against, they're receiving death threats and harassment, and they're doing everything they can to work with the rest of the town and its needs. Other Bridgewater residents, members of other faith traditions, commented to say that they have nothing against Muslims and that their concerns have purely to do with traffic patterns.

I understand that the traffic concerns are real, but want to note that they may also simultaneously mask anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment. As the revised letter (below the cut) notes, changing zoning in order to block the construction of a minority group's house of worship is a classic example of discrimination. Regardless of whether those who are arguing against the center mean to be discriminatory, discrimination is the end result of their line of argument.

Intriguingly, half an hour away there is a similar dispute taking place wherein a Chabad rabbi wants to build a synagogue and local opposition argues that it would set a "bad precedent" -- see Millburn residents fight construction of synagogue in residential neighborhood and Neighbors Protest Possible Resolution to Build Synagogue in Short Hills. The latter article makes the case that opposition to the building of the Chai Center is really anti-Orthodox or anti-Chabad sentiment -- as does this New York Times piece, New Jersey Neighbors Protest a Proposed Synagogue.

For more background on the matter of land use zoning being used to discriminate against minority religious groups, here's a link to a fascinating amicus brief presented by the Anti-Defamation League in 2004: Amicus Brief: Murphy v. Zoning Commission of the Town of New Milford. [pdf] (That's a link to the actual amicus brief; here's a summary of the case.) I recommend especially section C: Congress Compiled Significant Evidence That Land Use Laws Continue to Be Used To Discriminate Against Religious Groups. (In response to that evidence, Congress unanimously passed The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.)

For those who are interested in learning more about what's happening in Bridgewater, and/or in being part of the conversation there, two upcoming meetings may be of interest: a public hearing on the al-Falah Center application (February 28th at 7pm, Performing Arts Bldg / Somerset County Vocational & Tech, 14 Vogt Drive) and a public hearing on changing Bridgewater's zoning laws for houses of worship (March 3 at 7pm, Bridgewater-Raritan High School, 600 Garretson Road.)

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Supporting the Muslim community in Bridgewater

Addendum as of February 13: I'm no longer able to engage in substantial conversation around this post -- I need to move on to the tasks of this busy week -- but I invite everyone to read the comments below this post, which come from Bridgewater residents of different faith-traditions who offer different perspectives on the situation, and if you're interested, to reach out to the communities there and learn more.


The rabbinic cabinet at Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a part, recently received a bulletin from Jews Against Islamophobia, who had received a request for help. The Muslim community in Bridgewater, New Jersey, would like to build a community center they're calling the al-Falah Center. The center would hold a daycare and a K-8 elementary school in addition to a mosque / prayer space; their plans are to build it on the property which was formerly the Redwood Inn. They chose the venue because they've rented it on several occasions in the past, for events and gatherings, and found it sufficiently spacious (and with good-enough parking) to hold their community comfortably.

Bridgewater is already a religiously diverse community, home to seventeen Christian churches, a convent, a Jewish synagogue, two Hindu temples, and one Sikh temple. Out of consideration for their neighbors, the organizers of the al-Falah center have promised not to broadcast the call to prayer. "Our minaret is purely for decoration," they write in a recent press release, "just as a church steeple is part of the architecture of a church even without its church bells."

But the Muslim community in Bridgewater is running into difficulties. The Somerset County Tea Party opposes the building of the mosque, claiming that it is linked with terrorism. They note that "al-Falah" is the same name as a mosque in Queens which is, they argue, associated with the terrorist organization which was responsible for the shoe bomber.

"al-Falah" is an Arabic word which appears repeatedly in the Qur'an; it means "the true success," in the sense of "true success is not riches, but rather connection with God." Many Jewish houses of worship share common Hebrew names -- my parents belong to a Temple Beth El in San Antonio, and my friend Rabbi Joshua serves a Temple Beth El in Bennington, and there is no connection between the two. To argue that because this mosque has the same name as another mosque they are necessarily connected is specious.

But more importantly, tarring a community with the brush of suspected connections to terrorism is a powerful way to make people respond fearfully to that community. I'm saddened by this, as a rabbi and as a Jew. My religious community has living memory of being mistreated for our differences, and I believe we have an obligation to speak out against such mistreatment of others. The verse most often repeated in Torah is "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Talmud tells us that this verse appears in the Torah 36 times; it must be important. As a person of faith, I am powerfully moved by the Torah's call.

It is my fervent prayer that the various communities who call Bridgewater home find a way to relate to one another in compassion and understanding, not in mistrust and fear. May it happen speedily and in our day.


ETA: the letter being circulated by the rabbinic cabinet of Jewish Voice for Peace is now closed for new signatures; thanks to all of the Jewish clergy and student clergy who took part.


RHR2010: Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

I co-led shacharit this morning with Rabbi Oren Postrel (thanks, Oren!), so I arrived a bit breathless to the Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia. The session featured Rabbi Joy Levitt, The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan; Reverend Chloe Breyer, Interfaith Center of New York; Daisy Khan, American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Clergy Beyond Borders.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta begins by talking about the history of Jews in Cordoba (which I wrote about at some length a while ago) and reminds us that the right to gather and worship and think is not only a civil right but also a human right. He reads us excerpts from the international declaration of human rights and argues that those who are acting to prevent the Park 51 project are acting against article 30 in that declaration.

"When I came to America at the age of sixteen I landed in a Jewish neighborhood," says Daisy Khan. She lived there for seven years; she babysat neighborhood kids; she learned, she says, how to make tunafish the Jewish way and she knows a good rugelach from a bad one! (The room laughs.)

My worldview has been shaped by my childhood, where I grew up in Kashmir, India, where I was living a multireligious life. My teachers were Hindu, I was sent to Catholic school, I played with Sikh girls... and we were always told we were from the tenth lost tribe of Israel. So I am honored to have had that kind of worldview at a very young age, and this is why I am committed to interfaith dialogue and to the commonalities that all religions share.

Voices of moderation and tolerance, she tells us, have recently come under assault. "As the plans for the proposed community center sparked Islamophobia around the nation, we found ourselves squarely at the center of a heated debate," she says. "We hope that our message resonates with your own experience of struggling for justice." Many Jewish leaders have said to the Park 51 organizers, "this has happened to us; this has happened to Catholics; it is just a moment, and this too will pass." We can reclaim our vision from the detractors and help it come to fruition, she says; "we call on you, and all like-minded people, to help us to safeguard and preserve religious freedom, especially in this very precious country."

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The early history of Jews in Muslim lands

When you hear the name "Cordoba," what comes to mind? Maybe, in light of recent events, you think of Cordoba Initiative, the umbrella organization beneath which the much-bruited Park 51 is contained. When I first heard the name, I thought immediately of the so-called "Golden Age" of Jewish-Muslim relations in al-Andalus (medieval Spain). The Cordoba Initiative's FAQ page explains that they chose the name because "A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain." But I've learned, since Park 51 became a major subject of conversation in my corner of the blogosphere, that to some conservative commentors the name Cordoba implies an era of Muslim rule when Jews and Christians had second-class status and lived under a set of restrictive rules. Here's one fairly representative post which ascribes to the Cordoba Initiative the desire for Muslim rule in the west: "Cordoba House" suggests Muslim triumphalism. Here's another fairly representative post which reads the name as an indicator of the desire for religious coexistence: The Meaning of 'Cordoba.'

Which of these is the correct interpretation of "Cordoba?" The answer may depend on who's telling the story. So much depends on who's looking at that moment in history, what their agenda is, and what point they want to make about the politics and religion of that era -- or of this one.

In part because of recent conversations about Park 51, and in part because interfaith dialogue (and particularly Jewish-Muslim interaction) is a passion of mine, I've been wanting a more nuanced picture of that period in interreligious history. Fortunately for me, one of my fall courses is an independent study in medieval Jewish history. I'm following the syllabus for the class which Reb Leila Gal Berner offered last spring, when I was too wrapped-up in babycare to be able to participate. And I'm going to blog about what I'm learning, both because I find writing about ideas to be a great way to cement them in my memory and because the subject of Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations seems awfully timely this season.

This week I'm reading excerpts from Dr. Robert M. Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought, from Haim H. Ben-Sasson's A History of the Jewish People, and from Norman Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands. (As a side note: in my past experiences with Reb Leila's history classes, she's intentionally assigned us texts which don't necessarily offer congruent interpretations of history. Caveat lector: different historians will inevitably offer different slices of the story! It's part of our job, as responsible students of history, to try to form a whole picture out of these different texts -- and also to discern each historian's stances and biases as we go.) Anyway, here's some of what Seltzer, Ben-Sasson, and Stillman have to say about how the relationship between Muslims and Jews evolved during the early centuries after the advent of Islam onto the political and religious scene.

At the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era, Jews were largely in diaspora, scattered from Spain to Persia and from central Europe to the Sahara. Seltzer writes that although the institutions which had preserved Jewish unity in the past -- primarily Davidic kingship and the Temple -- no longer existed, they were preserved in the liturgy and as subjects for study. "Above all," writes Seltzer, "messianic hope for eventual ingathering and restoration served as an overarching bond between all the branches of the Jewish people." Onto this scene emerged Muhammad, and with him, the birth of Islam.

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Studying the Qur'an on Shabbat Shuvah

It's going to be a long week, filled with prayer and song. I'll be co-leading services on Wednesday evening, Thursday morning, Thursday evening, and Friday morning. And where will I be on Shabbat morning? Will I be sleeping in at last? (Well, I never get to do that anymore. I have a nine-month-old. "Sleeping in" is when he lets us stay in bed until the princely hour of seven, instead of waking us at six or earlier.)

No; on Saturday morning, after having spent several days in synagogue, I'm going to be... in synagogue! Not just because Shabbat Shuvah, the "Shabbat of repentance/return," is a particularly sweet and special Shabbat, coming as it does between the two High Holidays -- but also because my shul is doing something special to mark the fact that this year Shabbat Shuvah will fall on 9/11, and I want to be there when we do.

As I'm sure y'all know, there's a church in Florida which is planning to burn the Qur'an on 9/11 -- they're calling it International Burn-A-Koran Day. This is appalling to me on many levels, from the simple fact of burning books (could there be any more potent symbol of hatred and silencing?) to the fact that the book they plan to burn is another tradition's holiest text. (By the by, Nicholas Kristof's recent America's History of Fear puts recent Islamophobia into historical context and is very worth reading.)

In response to the rising tide of Islamophobia and especially to those who intend to burn the Qur'an on 9/11, my teacher Rabbi Phyllis Berman suggested that as Jews gather to worship on Shabbat Shuvah, we might consider reading from the Qur'an as a gesture of respect toward our sister Abrahamic tradition. At my synagogue, we typically gather for Torah study after services, around 11am. On 9/11, our text for sacred study will come from the Qur'an.

I took a class on the Qur'an a few years ago. (That class inspired me to try my hand at Arabic-Hebrew translation...) I'm looking forward to seeing which passages my rabbi chooses for us to study together, and how my community responds to them.

On September the 11th, demonstrations are planned in protest of Park 51, the Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan. One demonstration is slated to feature Geert Wilders, an ultra-right-wing Dutch politician who is on trial in the Netherlands for anti-Muslim hate speech. (For a sense of some of the anti-Park51 rhetoric, one resource is Media Matters' post What Fox has wrought: Anti-Park51 protests full of right-wing hate.) I am gladdened that on that day, my small synagogue in my small town will be quietly enacting a different relationship with Islam: one of mutual respect for fellow-travelers who are walking a different path toward God.


A gesture of repair

It's been an extraordinary weekend.

Last week, a drunk man barged into the Al-Iman masjid in Astoria, Queens, and urinated on the prayer rugs. I tweeted about it, horrified at this display of Islamophobia (and also just plain atrocious behavior.) On Thursday, @stumark suggested that we raise money to replace the prayer rugs at the Al-Iman mosque in Queens. On Friday, I posted to this blog and to twitter asking for donations toward reimbursing the mosque for the costs of steam-cleaning their prayer rugs. My hope was to raise a few hundred bucks as a gesture of interfaith good will, a way of showing this one Muslim community that the actions of that drunk man do not represent the beliefs of most Americans.

Over the course of two days, more than a thousand US dollars poured in to my bank account. I decided to stop the fundraising when we passed the $1000 threshold, and posted to twitter saying that we'd reached our goal and could stop now; a few more donations rolled in while I was announcing that we'd raised enough, so our total is $1,180.

One thousand, one hundred and eighty dollars were donated by sixty-five people from across the United States; those who identified their locations mentioned places as far apart as Oregon, New York, and Oklahoma, and I myself live in a small town in western Massachusetts. We are people of many traditions; although Stu Mark and I are Jewish, and I know that at least two of the donors are rabbis (and many donors self-identified themselves as Jews), others self-identified as Christian (Catholic, Protestant, evangelical), Unitarian Universalist, Pagan, Buddhist, and Muslim.

The first handful of donors were people I know personally, either offline or through sustained online interaction, but within an hour of making the initial announcement I started getting donations from people whose names I had never seen before. Many who donated included notes saying things like "thank you for giving me something I can do" and "please tell the mosque that that man does not represent me."

As donations and notes of good will poured in, and as I listened to radio coverage of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I remembered sitting in my living room with friends five years ago as the scope of that disaster began to emerge. And I remembered the Katrina People Finder project, and the amazing outpouring of volunteer labor at that awful moment in time. What we learned then, and what I've been reminded of now, is that most people want to make things better; what we need is an opportunity to join together. And thanks to the internet, joining together to make the world a better place has never been easier than it is today.

I'm working on figuring out to whose attention I should send the letter and check, and will put them in the mail tomorrow. For now, I'm sitting back and marveling at the awesome things we can accomplish when we pull together. We raised $1,180 over the course of 48 hours, mostly in $5, $10, $18 and $20 increments. A few people mentioned being low-income; many people said they wished they could give more. But small donations add up, and there's something incredibly moving for me in the fact that we raised over a thousand dollars in one weekend in this way. I hope we've been able to show our Muslim friends and neighbors (offline and online) that despite the recent rise in Islamophobia, those who are preaching fear and hatred do not represent all of us.

To all who donated, and all who spread the word via emails, twitter, blogs, facebook, livejournal: thank you so much. To all who are finding this post now and wish you'd had a chance to donate, please take five minutes and make a donation to another cause which matters to you. (If you're looking for suggestions, you might consider relief efforts in Pakistan, or New Ground: a Jewish-Muslim partnership for change, or the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for peace in the Middle East.)

Wishing everyone blessings as this lunar month -- Elul on the Jewish calendar, Ramadan on the Muslim calendar -- draws toward its close. (And now it's time for me to return to planning for High Holiday services!)


Edited on 8/31 to add: I'm sending the check tomorrow to the attention of one of the administrators at the mosque; they have graciously accepted our donation, which will go toward the cost of replacing their carpets. The masjid administrators and congregation are grateful for this act of kindness. Thanks again to everyone who participated.

Edited on 9/12 to add: If you're here via Nick Kristof's column, welcome! I put up a post just for you: welcome, new readers!


Passing the virtual hat for prayer rug cleaning

My twitter stream lately has featured a lot of tweets about Park 51 (while we're on the subject, allow me to recommend Park 51 Should Not Be Complicated for Jews by my friend Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer) and about the recent rise in hate crimes against Muslims in America. Like the incident a few days ago where a drunk man barged into the Al-Iman masjid in Queens, yelled anti-Muslim slurs, and urinated on the prayer rugs.

When I tweeted about this, appalled, @stumark replied, "Let's get organized and buy them new prayer rugs."I don't know whether they need new rugs; I'm sure they've already had their existing rugs cleaned. But I'd like to be able to reimburse them for that expense as a gesture of interfaith goodwill. So I'm here to pass the virtual hat.

If you'd like to donate, send money via PayPal to me -- my email address is rbarenblat (at) gmail (dot) com -- and put "prayer rugs" in the subject line. Next week I'll send a check to the mosque. Your donation won't be tax-deductible (because I'm an individual, not a nonprofit) but let me know whether you want your name to be included on the list of donors or whether you'd prefer to give anonymously and I will honor your wishes either way.

Giving tzedakah on Fridays is a great way to open our hearts in preparation for Shabbat. On the Jewish calendar we're in the middle of the month of Elul, a time for taking an accounting of our souls and repairing our broken relationships in the world. I'd love it if we could make a gift to the Al-Iman mosque to show that the guy who desecrated their sanctuary doesn't represent the rest of us.

(For a personal story about a visit to that mosque last year during Ramadan, check out Day 7: Al-Iman Mosque.)


Edited to add: As of 5pm this afternoon in my time zone, $432 has been donated by 27 people. I'll wait until next week to send the donation, and am doing my best to update on twitter about our progress. Thanks so much, y'all.

Edited again to add: As of 8:30pm in my time zone on Saturday, $824 has been donated by 52 people. I'll continue updating twitter on our progress, and plan to send the donation to the mosque early next week.

Edited a final time to add: As of 6pm on Sunday in my time zone, $1,121 has been donated by 62 people. I think this is a good time to stop. Thank you all so much for your generosity; I will post soon with a fuller update, and plan to send the check to the Iman mosque early this week.


New moon

It's new moon -- Rosh Chodesh -- and this month, that means that a time of contemplation and prayer has begun in both the Jewish and Muslim traditions. This new month is both Elul and Ramadan. (The Jewish calendar is metonic, and the Muslim calendar is not, so our holy months don't always overlap; this won't happen again for many years. Because of the Jewish practice of inserting an extra month 7 years out of every 19, the Jewish holidays will remain in the Northern hemisphere autumn, while Ramadan will continue moving backwards on the Gregorian calendar -- in 2011 Ramadan will begin around August 1, in 2012 it will begin around July 19, and in 2013 around July 10...)

Last year I attended a retreat for emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders during the few days just before Ramadan, and wrote an essay about it for Zeek: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul. Now that we've entered that holy time of year again, I find myself thinking about the people I met on that retreat, wondering how they are and what's going on in their lives.

Hard to believe it's Elul already. Time to read Psalm 27 every day (or listen to it!) Time to do the hard work of taking a spiritual accounting of where I've been over the year which will end soon. Where have I missed the mark in my relationships with the world, with others, with myself, with my God? There's a tradition of hearing the shofar each morning during Elul, a kind of spiritual alarm clock meant to say wake up, you sleepers! As Rabbi Alan Lew (z"l) wrote, "The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day, and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that."

Of course, for those of us in my line of work, it's also time to put our backs into the work of preparing to lead long and intensive High Holiday services -- which means it's also time to struggle with how to balance the practical work our communities demand with the spiritual work we need to do in order to be able to lead those services wholly.

To my Muslim friends who are entering into a month of fasting and prayer, I wish a Ramadan mubarak, a blessed month of Ramadan! And to my Jewish friends and family, I wish a meaningful month of Elul.


A shameful blow to interreligious coexistence in New York

I'm deeply disappointed that the Anti-Defamation League has chosen to oppose the building of Cordoba House, an Islamic cultural center slated to be constructed in the shadow of the absent Twin Towers.

Writing at the Daily Beast ("The Anti-Defamation League's opposition to building a mosque at the site of the 9/11 attacks betrays its own founding principles"), Peter Beinart offers some history:

The ADL was born in 1913, after a Georgia jury falsely convicted a Jewish factory owner named Leo Frank of murdering a Christian employee. The men who defamed, and later lynched, Frank were anti-Semites. But they were not only anti-Semites. Three months after Frank's murder, some of his tormenters met on Georgia’s Stone Mountain to refound the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that would now dedicate itself not merely to terrorizing African-Americans, but to terrorizing Catholics and Jews as well...

"The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people," declared the ADL's charter. "Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens."

The ADL's laudable founding principles are deeply betrayed by the organization's recent decision to oppose Cordoba House's construction. There's more information about Cordoba House and about the opposition in this recent NPR story:

The plan for Cordoba House — which those who oppose it call a mosque, and those who support it call a cultural center with a place for prayer — has been the dream of Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan. Khan describes it somewhat like the Jewish Community Center uptown, with facilities for athletics, arts, performances, lectures series, forums and weddings, as well as a prayer space.

Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf considers himself an orthodox Muslim, but he is also a Sufi, a contemplative and mystical path in Islam. The offices of the Imam and his wife are in a building used by many faiths that is part of Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, a liberal bastion of interfaith work. When you listen to Khan speak, she sounds very much in that tradition.

"Our religion has been hijacked by the extremists," she says. "This center will create this kind of counter momentum which will amplify the voices of the moderate Muslims. If we have to defeat the extremists, Muslims have to be leading that effort."

I'm having a hard time understanding why anyone would oppose the building of an arts, community, and prayer space -- maybe especially a Muslim one which is meant to be built near the site of the 9/11 tragedy. If a Muslim group were opposing the construction of a Jewish arts, community, and prayer space because of the murders carried out by Baruch Goldstein in God's name on Purim some years ago, the ADL would be first in line to speak out against the antisemitism. Shame on the ADL for opposing Cordoba House's construction (see their statement) on the grounds that those who lost family on 9/11 would be further wounded by the prayerful presence of Muslims in this corner of the city that they call home.

The moon is waning now. The next new moon will herald the beginning of the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar and Ramadan on the Muslim one. This is the second year that these two holy months have coincided, and it won't happen again for several years. (Last year I wrote an essay for Zeek about the confluence -- Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.) Both of our communities will spend the month engaged in prayer, contemplation, and turning-toward-God. I'd like to hope that our prayer and contemplation will lead us to deeper understanding of our common ground, but reports like this one remind me of just how far we have to go.


Reclaiming Zuleikha

Some of you may remember that back in August I was part of a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders. I blogged very briefly from the retreat, and later wrote an essay about the experience, which was published at Zeek: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.

The story we studied that week was the story of Joseph / Yusuf, as he appears in both the Torah (and later Jewish texts) and Qur'an (and later Muslim texts.) One of the most fascinating differences between "our" version of the story and "their" version of the story is the figure of Potiphar's wife, who in later tradition is known as Zuleikha.

One of my fellow retreatants asked me to contribute a brief reflection on Zuleikha as she appears (or doesn't appear) in Jewish text and tradition, for a four-voiced essay which would appear in AltMuslimah, an online magazine which "provides a space for compelling comment on gender in Islam from both the male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim, perspectives." (For more about AltMuslimah, you can read their mission statement and this introductory article.) That essay has now gone live. Here's how it begins:

In August, four scholars and a small group of Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders met to discuss the story of Joseph in the Qur’an and in the Bible. Here are four reflections, by two Muslim women and two Jewish women, about the significance of Zuleikha in the story and in their respective traditions...

Read the essay here: Zuleikha in the Qur'an and in the Bible.

All four contributors to the essay were participants in the retreat, and I'm honored that my voice appears alongside the voices of Asma T. Uddin, Homayra Ziad, and Marion Lev-Cohen. Thanks, Asma, for inviting me to be a part of this collaboration around our beloved, if sometimes challenging, shared story.


[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace, featuring Greg Khalil, President and Co-Founder, The Kairos Project; Salam Al-Marayati, Executive Director, Muslim Public Affairs Council; Mark Pelavin, Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Maureen Shea, Former Director, Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and former Churches For Middle East Peace Chair.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling introduces the session; he's part of The Shalom Center which works for peace in the Middle East, peace for human beings and for the environment; the org has long been involved in this wor through its annual Tent of Abraham celebration and through the work of (my teacher) Rabbi Arthur Waskow who would be here today except that he was in a devastating car accident some weeks ago and is still rehabilitating from that experience.

"Jews, Muslims, and Christians clearly have a long connection to what is known to some as the Holy Land," says Rabbi Liebling. Our three communities can work together to bring peace; how to do that will be the subject of this morning's panel. There are challenges to our communities working together in this country to bring peace, but we need to remember that at its origins this is not a religious conflict but rather a territorial one. "Religion can be used to remind us all of the interconnection and interdependence of all humanity."

Moderator Ron Young from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East begins with "There are still people who say, if were going to talk about peace in the Middle East, for God's sake keep religion out of it!" He tells a story about getting together in 1987 ago with a group of fifty leaders from all three traditions to begin this work, all of whom agreed that they weren't sure how this kind of peace work was possible but all felt called by their religious traditions to begin doing the work.

At that session, a prominent Palestinian businessman named Sami [I missed his last name -- anyone?] from Kansas City said "I have long had the deepest respect for Judaism but I have a bitter hatred for Zionism." Rabbi Arnie Wolf said, "I have never met Sami before; I hope we can work together for peace; but the left side of my heart is Judaism and the right side of my heart is Zionism and I can't take my heart apart for Sami or anyone else." The encouraging thing that happened at the coffee break, says Young, is that no one left the room, and Sami and Arnie headed straight for each other and engaged in intense dialogue. That kind of thing happened repeatedly, and at the end of 2 days these 50 religious leaders endorsed a two-state solution and spoke out in favor of self-determination for both communities.

The format for the session is this: first Ron Young will ask some big questions for all of the panelists to answer, then we'll begin to work from questions written down on index cards by people in the room. Here's the first of those bg questions:

In the last few years, there's been a convergence of advocacy positions among a range of groups in DC which heretofore had found each other problematic, simplistically pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. The American Task Force on Palestine; Americans for Peace Now; the Arab-American Institute; Churches for Middle East Peace; Brit Tzedek v'Shalom; the Muslim Affairs Council -- we've mostly been on the same page in terms of what we advocate the US Government should do. My question to the panelists is: the scene locally is not always the same as it is nationally. So these forces, which are significant nationally, are very significant but locally it gets messier. It is more complicated. I want each of you to comment on reminding us why you think this religious dimension is important, and talk a bit about the scene locally as you see it: what advice you have for people who want to work together. And also, think about how if some other community is going to work with our community, here are some things you should be cautious about or sensitive to.

Our first respondent is Mark Pelavin. "The local scene is as different as there are localities," he says. The diversity of discussion in communities is fascinating to him, and how different the conversation is in different places, how it's driven by the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in various communities. "The local level is where the most interesting things are happening, and also where the worst things are happening," he says.

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Naif Al-Mutawa brings multicultural superheroes to life

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"Sometimes giving the right information at the right time can create change," says Andrew Zolli. "Our next presenter is engaged in a 'meta-cultural hack.'" Naif Al-Mutawa (Pop!Tech bio; here's his standard bio) is the creator of THE 99 -- the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype. (You can download a pdf of The 99: Origins for free here if you're interested.) Al-Mutawa is speaking as part of the Meaningful Engagements session this afternoon.

Here's an animated trailer for "The 99: Origins." This is not the trailer for the forthcoming animated series, which has much higher production values, but that latter trailer doesn't seem to be online, alas.

"I'm from Kuwait; I'm disappointed, I'm not getting the love for oil in this room," Al-Mutawa quips, and everyone laughs. He's father and step-father of seven children, all born in New York. Al-Mutawa's five boys (and his step-children from his wife's previous marriage) attend Camp Robin Hood, which is not far from here. His own parents sent him there in 1979. "Back then the best we could do for television in Kuwait was...maybe catching a glimpse of something from Baghdad." He had no idea what Fantasy Island was; other pop cultural references likewise went over his head. When he got home, he told his parents about his friends: Steinberg, Greenberg, Goldberg. His parents asked, where are they from? Kids at the camp had joked that these were nice Italian names, so that's what Al-Mutawa told his father!

The next year his parents sent him to a camp in Switzerland -- but within a year he was back at Camp Robin Hood. He went there for 10 years, and his sons go there now. "It was there that I started to navigate self and other, how I'm seen, how others see me." (You can read more of this story in Al-Mutawa's essay Concentration Camps and Comic Books.)

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