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Heeding Heschel's Call: Hebrew Union Seminarians Pray With Their Feet at Park51

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a bookworm. He both wrote and read voraciously. But he also was also a practical man who lived by his principles. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he knew injustice quite personally. So when he came to the United States, the racial segregation prevalent at the time made him cringe. He became active in the civil rights movement, marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. As he noted to a fellow marcher, "When I march in Selma, my feet are praying."

Today, the movement for religious freedom and pluralism may well define our era, much as the movement for racial equality defined Heschel's. Mosques and community centers around the country have been singled out in a deluge of Islamophobic rhetoric and even acts of intimidation, such as the Quran burning set to take place on the anniversary of September 11 in Florida. Our constitutional rights, as well as the tolerant vision of our founding fathers, are at risk.

In response, we must pray with our feet.

Heeding Heschel's call, on Tuesday, August 31, over forty students, staff, and faculty from Hebrew Union College - New York walked with signs of support, yarmakules, prayer shawls, and ceremonial rams horns from our campus on West Fourth Street to the Park51 community center. Since this summer, Park51 has become the focus of many Islamophobes. We wanted to counter their harmful rhetoric and demonstrate our solidarity with the American Muslim community in its right to freedom of religion.

Even as we sang prayers for peace and brotherhood on our way Downtown, our feet did most of the praying.

When we reached Park51, we came together for a couple of ceremonial moments. The first came in front of the building. Rabbi Shirley Idelson, Dean of Hebrew Union College - New York, spoke about the tremendous significance of religious freedom in America and the role that we as current and future rabbis, cantors, and educators can play play in supporting it. Then fifth-year rabbinical student Jonathan Prosnit, who initially came up with the idea for a rally, reiterated the profound significance of the event for the Jewish community, Muslim community, and American society as a whole. We could help religious pluralism become intrinsic to our society through prayer with our feet.

Waiting at their doorstep as we sang, spoke, and prayed, was Kamal, a security guard for Park51. Hearing our prayers, he welcomed us inside Park51 so that we could carry into it what he saw as our "blessed" message. He told us of what a dark time it had been for him at the center, as Islamophobes lambasted his place of work in the press and others expressed somewhat more moderate doubts about its plans. "Thank you for brightening my month. You all changed it for me and gave me hope," he told me after rapping me up in a big hug.

Inside Park51, a place so many have mislabeled, we entered the modest prayer space that was in a matter of hours to be filled to capacity with those observing Ramadan. We stood silently as a group in meditation for peace and brotherhood, pluralism, and the freedom for all Americans to pray as they saw fit. Then we dispersed, in silent prayer all throughout the city, the message of religious freedom still with us.

I look forward to walking again at the Liberty Walk on September 12 in honor of my heritage and the spiritual significance of each pace. Each step brings us closer to the justice we pursue as a matter of faith and the path that Heschel laid out for us in his own pursuit of it. Please join in the prayer.

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