Oct. 3, 2010
Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon, Sept. 8, 2010, by Rabbi Martin Weiner
Shana Tova, it is an honor to share these High Holy Days with the Peninsula Temple Shalom Family. It is very special to serve with your devoted Rabbi and Cantor. As you know, Rabbi Feder is a cherished friend and colleague. My bond with this Congregation hearkens back also to my many years of friendship with your founding Rabbi, Gerald Raiskin.
My friends, we have come together this night to begin the High Holyday Season. In our tradition Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Ha-Zicaron -- the Day of Remembrance. Truly, this season is a precious milestone in our Jewish year. Our minds hearken back to previous High Holydays -- praying with our parents or grandparents, sharing a special family meal, hearing the sound of the Shofar as the sun streams through the windows of the sanctuary.
I would venture to say that every teen-ager and adult in this congregation recalls one specific morning during this High Holyday season. All of you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing early in the morning nine years ago this Saturday -- September 11th, 2001. All I have to do is mention that date and our minds race back to the tragic events of 9/11 -- the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, the bravery of the passengers who brought down United #93 in a Pennsylvania field.
That day will always be special for me. On that morning I was attending a meeting at our rabbinic seminary in New York City about a mile from the World Trade Center. A colleague rushed into the room and told us that the Twin Towers were burning. We rushed out to the street and watched in awe as smoke and flames poured from those doomed towers. The events of that day were a surreal experience for me.
My rabbinic colleagues and I desperately wanted to help in some way. A small group of us went to a nearby hospital to volunteer our services as counselors. We went to an auditorium where some of the survivors had gathered. I will never forget the look on the face of the mother whose son had been working near the twin towers. She feared the young man had perished. I found the son in another building of the hospital and was able to reunite them.
I recall the Asian man who could barely speak English. He was almost in shock. His eyes were filled with tears. He had been one of the fortunate ones who had escaped the before the Towers collapsed. He desperately wanted to tell his wife that he was safe. I was able to find a spare working phone and after several calls to locate his wife at an office on Long Island. I will never forget the scream of joy and relief I heard when his wife was told that her husband was safe.
I will always remember the far away look on the face of the New York City police officer sitting in that auditorium. He told me that he was rushing toward one of the Towers when it collapsed burying dozens of his fellow officers who were a block or two ahead of him. As you can see I have very vivid and emotional memories of 9/11. My heart goes out to all who lost loved ones on that tragic day. I did not watch it on television. Sadly I was there. With every fiber of my being I despise the evil and cruelty of the fanatical Muslim terrorists who perpetrated this catastrophe and continue to terrorize innocent human beings throughout the world.
"Fanatical Muslim Terrorists" -- that is a frightening phrase that has become all too familiar to us in these recent years. Allow me to share a true story with you. It is about a man who took an automatic rifle and entered a house of worship. Several hundred people were quietly praying. Suddenly the man opened fire with his weapon. He killed twenty nine souls and wounded dozens more before he was overwhelmed and killed.
People who lived in this man's community called him a hero, a saint. They set up a shrine at his gravesite and for several years came to the shrine to praise the man's memory and celebrate the massacre that he had perpetrated. Surely all of us are appalled by what this man did. We would not want to have anything to do with him or his religion. Would we?
Who was this terrorist? Surely his name was Mohammed or Abdullah -- some Arabic name. Aren't most Muslim's terrorists? Actually the terrorist's name was Baruch Goldstein -- an Orthodox Jewish Doctor born in the United States. On Purim in 1994 he killed twenty nine innocent unarmed Muslims who were praying in the Cave of Machpalah -- the burial place of Abraham and Sarah -- a site sacred to Jews and Muslims. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called Goldstein's deed a "loathsome criminal act of murder." How sadly ironic that Israel's Soldier Statesman and Nobel Laureate, Yitzchak Rabin, would himself be killed by a Fanatical Jewish Terrorist. Possibly we should be careful about linking the evil perpetrated by one individual or even many people of a given religion and then saying that all of them -- all of them -- are evil.
On this Rosh Hashanah Eve, this Day of Remembrance, why am I bringing up these troubling memories from nine and sixteen years ago? Why? I believe that some of you may have already guessed. 9/11 was a searing experience for the American people. The tragedy of that day inspired two wars -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- that have already killed and maimed tens of thousands of American soldiers. The cost of those wars has been a factor in the serious economic problems that that our nation continues to confront. However, on this Rosh Hashanah Day I would ask us to focus on the moral challenges to our Jewish and American values raised in recent days by the memories of September 11th. Specifically let us consider the issue that has become such a controversy in New York City and throughout the country: the proposal to build a Muslim Community Center two blocks from Ground Zero -- the site of the World Trade Center.
Why did I use the term Muslim Community Center rather than simply calling the structure a Mosque? Yes there will be a room where Muslims can offer traditional prayers, much as some of our Jewish Community Centers offer Shabbat Services. But the proposed Cordoba Center will also have a swimming pool, fitness center, theater, restaurant, and meeting rooms. It is named after the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony for a time. It is the city where Maimonides was born.
The group that intends to build the Center has worshipped in this neighborhood for twenty five years but has outgrown their current small facility. The whole project is in its very early stages -- only recently gaining the approval of a local planning board. Five to ten years of community meetings and architectural planning and construction lie ahead if the project is ever to become a reality. The cost is said to be over $100 million dollars. Critics have subtly implied that the money will come from the Saudis or other sinister sources. Actually very little of the money has been raised yet. The developer, Sharif el-Gamal, plans to recruit a board of business and civic leaders composed of Christians, Jews, and Muslims to raise funds. Mr. Gamal said that he will take no money linked to "un-American values" and that donations will be vetted by federal and state authorities. By the way Mr. Gamal was born in Brooklyn and his family holds a membership in the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan where is daughters learned to swim. It seems that the Cordoba Center is patterning itself after the famous Jewish Center in New York -- the 92nd street Y.
There are many ironies to this controversy. First, the leaders of this Center, the Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Kahn, have long been actively involved in interfaith programs in New York City. They have the support of leading rabbis and ministers in the community. Also it should be pointed out there are various streams of Islam just as there are various streams of Judaism. Imam Rauf is one of America's leading thinkers of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God, and reconciliation. In the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, Imam Rauf is a heretic who should be killed. In fact last July the Pakistani Taliban organized a double suicide bombing of the largest Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan. Forty-two people died and 175 were injured. This is only one of the many instances in which terrorists attacked Sufi shrines and killed the faithful. Sufism is the most pluralistic form of Islam. It is a valuable bridge between East and West. The U.S. State Department under both President Bush and President Obama has sent Imam Rauf abroad as a representative of progressive Islam.
In this day and age so many of us are overwhelmed by internet messages. I would venture that many of you have received e-mails attributing some troubling statements to the Imam Rauf. Some of his comments seem to be critical of Israel. Some e-mails imply that he is an anti-Semite and that he is secretly working for extremists. My friends, I cannot testify to the purity of everything that the Imam has ever written or spoken or done. I can only testify to the fact that rabbinic colleagues whom I respect and who know the Imam and have worked with him in New York testify to his fine character and his genuine commitment to peace and interfaith understanding. Imam Rauf spoke at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, killed by Muslim extremists. In that service, the Imam affirmed his bond with the Jewish people by repeating Daniel Pearl's courageous last words, "I am a Jew." That's the kind of statement for which the Taliban would kill the Imam.
In the midst of this very troubling controversy we cannot throw out American values -- principles for which this nation was created: The right for all Americans to gather and freely express their religious faith. These are the rights that have made America a precious haven for the Jewish people. They are rights that we should defend as Americans. These are rights that we must protect as Jews. Hearkening back to Biblical times, Jewish tradition has called upon us to defend the vulnerable, the weak, the minority. Why? Because we, as Jews, know how it feels to be victims of scape-goating and prejudice. We have been there.
Some critics warn that a Muslim presence so close to Ground Zero would be a triumphant trophy for Osama Bin Laden's jihadist dreams. The exact opposite is true. Bin Laden's goal was to drive a wedge between Islam and the West. This center reflects an internal reformation in Islam and the triumph of a delicate balance between faith and freedom that is a hallmark of America.
Most American Jewish leaders and organizations including the American Jewish Committee and our own Reform Movement have come out in support of the Muslim Community Center. The sole exception has been Abraham Foxman of the ADL. Mr. Foxman was not opposed to the building a Mosque. There are actually many in New York City. He did speak out against building on a site so close to Ground Zero.
My friends, I would readily admit that good people can certainly disagree about this issue. I respect Mr. Foxman's right to disagree and his life-long leadership in defense of Jewish rights. The families of 9/11 survivors are divided on this issue. However, I do believe that we should be deeply concerned about some of the voices who are most vicious in their opposition to the Muslim Center.
If we are honest with ourselves, I believe that many of us would admit that some political leaders are using the controversy to gain leverage for the next election. If they can create suspicion and fear among our citizens it may inspire additional votes in November. You have probably read that in several parts of the country far from New York, there are protests against the building of Mosques. The problem is not how close the Center will be to Ground Zero. The problem is Islamophobia. It's been awhile since we have heard candidates affirm that this is a Christian nation. We have heard that phrase in recent weeks. As Jews we should be concerned about those who wish to sow the seeds of bigotry and fear, rather than tolerance and understanding.
One of the most powerful statements on behalf of the Muslim Center came from the Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg. With New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty behind him Mayor Bloomberg defended the proposed Center as a symbol of New York's tolerance. The Mayor stressed that New York City was built by immigrants and is sustained by immigrants -- by people from more than a hundred different countries and professing every faith. He also reminded us that over the years Jews, Quakers, and Catholics had all suffered religious discrimination as they struggled to establish themselves in this city. Newspaper articles several days later revealed that this was a very personal and passionate issue for Michael Bloomberg. He never forgot his boyhood memories of the time his father was forced to ask a non-Jewish attorney to purchase a home for the family because the owners would not sell to Jews.
With tears in his eyes Mayor Bloomberg said, "On September 11, 2001 thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. Rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, "What God do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?"
My friends, we honor those who perished on that hallowed ground for their sacrifice and their devotion. But we honor them more by defending the tenets for which they died and the laws that enshrine America's vision of religious freedom.
One of the most inspiring stories to emerge from the devastating attacks of 9/11 was told by a Pakistani Muslim, Usman Farman. He was employed at the World Trade Center. Fleeing north as the first Tower was collapsing, he was felled by glass and debris. Stunned, he laid on his back as frightened survivors stampeded by him. Around his neck was a pendant inscribed with an Islamic prayer for safety written in Arabic. Suddenly, a Hasidic Jewish man bent over him and saw the Arabic prayer on the pendant. With a deep Brooklyn accent the man said, "Brother, if you don't mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand and let's get out of here."