Monday, September 13, 2010

Speaking out & standing up for Religious Freedom

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and over this past weekend, amidst the noisy and negative voices whipping up fear, anger and hate in our country, there have been many beacons of light emerging from voices of faith, speaking up for Religious Freedom, pluralism, tolerance, and compassion.

Here are just  a couple of examples that have been brought to my attention.  First, organized by 5th year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, New York (and son of our Senior Rabbi, Jim Prosnit), Jonathan Prosnit organized a group of some 40 students and faculty, including the Dean, Rabbi Shirley Idelson, to peacefully march from Hebrew Union College to Park 51 last week, in support of the proposed Muslim community center.  He writes a report of the event, originally posted at the blog of the Religious Action Center:

Over 40 Hebrew Union College (HUC) students, faculty and administrators turned out in a rally to support Park 51 (aka-"The Ground Zero Mosque") on Tuesday. Despite vicious New York City heat, the HUC representatives walked the 1.5 miles from Hebrew Union College to the future site of Park 51 in Lower Manhattan. As the closest seminary (of any religion) to Ground Zero and to Park 51, the HUC participants gathered in support of religious freedom, of interfaith dialogue and to welcome Park 51 into the unique religious landscape that is New York City.

Carrying signs, wearing tallitot and blowing shofarot, the group sang throughout the entire walk. Fittingly the march took place during the holy months of Ramadan and Elul. Elul, in the Jewish calendar, is the month prior to the Jewish High Holidays where Jews prepare themselves for the days of awe. Prayer during Elul is marked by the call of the shofar and the rally began and culminated in the blast of the shofar. The shofar, for those who marched, served as a call to action, a call of awakening and a call to justice. 

For the HUC representatives the walk was an opportunity to affirm America as a beacon of Freedom of Religion. Upon reaching Park 51 the group was invited into the building and warmly greeted in the temporary prayer room at Park 51. Employees of Park 51 greeted each of the HUC participants individually and said that rally and the presence of so many, helped lift the spirits of those associated with Park 51.

Seminarians echoed the words of the great social justice warrior 
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and said that by rallying in support of tolerance and peace they were "praying with our feet."

Secondly, the Religious Action Center - the social action, Washington-based arm of the Union for Reform Judaism, participated in several interfaith statements on the central American value of Religious Freedom, and a press conference with the Islamic Society of North America.  Links to the conference, televised on CSPAN, and the statements that were released, are found below:

  • the RAC helped convene an important summit of American religious leaders to focus on religious freedom and the recent wave of Islamophobic activity in the United States. The joint statement we issued is available here, and you can watch a video of the press conference here. Also, the New York Times had a good report on the meeting, which you can read here.
  • We also participated in a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder on this issue yesterday. You can read the joint press release about that meeting here.  
Finally, there was a Liberty March held in NYC on September 12th, bringing together people of all faiths, walking peacefully in the name of Religious Freedom.  Erica Bower, who graduated High School last Summer and is now a Freshman at Columbia University, participated in the March, and sent me a brief description of the event.  Erica participated in two semesters of our Interfaith Interaction class with Merkaz, our Jewish High School Program, while she was in High School, engaging in dialog with Christian and Muslim teens.

I was able to attend the Liberty Walk yesterday. It started off at 3 pm with a series of speakers in a Church nearby the world trade center and location of Park51. The speakers consisted of a variety of religious leaders (Jewish, Muslim and Christian) and the husband of a 9/11 victim who all spoke passionately about the importance of religious freedom across cultures and the symbolic necessity of this Muslim cultural center near the site of the twin towers. Following the speeches, we all gathered outside the church and marched along the streets singing songs such as Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore, This land is your land, and God Bless America at the termination of the route. It was an incredibly powerful experience to see so many people (I believe the final count was about 1000) of all ages, religions, and motives walking together for a unifying cause, particularly because it was raining fairly hard. I was inspired to go because this is an issue I feel passionate about and I am interested in getting involved with the Columbia Democrats who were sending a delegation down. Overall, it was a pretty inspiring experience and I really hope this issue starts recieving positive media attention and can be resolved.

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