A View from the Bleachers: Let us use tragedies to open dialogue

By Rabbi Steven Garten

Our people’s history is replete with murderous events. The rampaging Crusades haunted our European ancestors during the Middle Ages. The pogroms of czarist Russia were not simply roughing up exercises as depicted in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Entire communities were looted and hundreds murdered and violated.

The list is endless so one might think that we are collectively immune to the emotional shock that accompanies senseless mass murder. Yet that has not been the case. In the past 18 months, 75 people at prayer have been murdered and it has been a blow to our well defined sense of well-being. The attack at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City left six worshippers dead and 19 others injured. The murderous intrusion at Shabbat services at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh resulted in 11 deaths and seven injured. On March 15, the world witnessed the massacre of 50 individuals praying at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The world, unfortunately, has become accustomed to stories from the Middle East where Muslim fanatics murder “non-believers.” The media gleefully reports stories of Arab or Jewish terrorist attacks in Israel. But the killing of worshipping Muslims and praying Jews by third parties places the descendants of Abraham in a unique situation. We are not the perpetrators, we are the victims.

There have been many responses to these tragedies. But one that is under-reported and that deserves widespread attention is the efforts of Celebrate Mercy, a Muslim non-profit organization that in the past 18 months has raised $400,000 US to help restore vandalized Jewish cemeteries, vandalized Holocaust memorials, and recently assigned funds for the repair of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As The Forward reported, “The campaigns started in February 2017, after more than 100 headstones were overturned at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and a nationwide spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes.” https://tinyurl.com/y4rmbhez

Nearly all the funds raised have been distributed to Jewish renovations. A small amount has been directed to the Islamic Centre of Pittsburgh to be used to help foster Jewish-Muslim collaboration, dialogue and solidarity. While some members of the Jewish community have sought to find sinister motivations behind this effort at outreach, the director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council spoke strongly in support of the project. Tree of Life Synagogue, the Islamic Centre, and Celebrate Mercy have signed two formal agreements governing the distribution of funds in Pittsburgh.

I know a small part of this story as I served a congregation in St. Louis many years ago and still have an interest in its Jewish community. However, I was overwhelmed to learn how the initial effort has grown and, more significantly, matured from a response to singular events into a sophisticated approach to communal harmony.

So, what does it take to transform two communities who struggle to find places of intersection into communities committed to taking bold and innovative steps forward? There are individuals among the two communities here who have personal relationships. There are members of our community who join with members of the Muslim community on the board of the Multifaith Housing Initiative (MHI). Many of our community’s rabbis were instrumental in working with the imam of the Ottawa Mosque 25 years ago to establish MHI. Synagogues, Jewish schools and individual mosques have some program relations – all of which is to be praised. As is being able to claim a Muslim friend or having an imam on speed dial. However, what relationships do we have in Ottawa between our two communities that are transformative? What relationships have we created, outside of national organizational relationships, which resonate within the halls of the Soloway JCC, our synagogues, our schools? How can the tragedies of the past 18 months be converted into the energy to create a process of ongoing dialogue, collaboration and solidarity?

There are myriad circumstances interfering with our two communities establishing serious interface. Events in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, just to name a few, pull us in different directions. But Abraham’s lineage is strong enough to bring us together without the death of 75 individuals who were calling out to the one God of their ancestors.