When I told a friend that I had helped found Religious Freedom USA to affirm the right to build the Park 51 community center in Lower Manhattan (often mislabeled the "Ground Zero Mosque"), he responded with a cautionary note: "What about the risk you are taking in your future career as a rabbi?"
Risks there may be, but many of America's top rabbis -- people I have looked up to for years and can only hope to emulate -- have in recent weeks rallied behind the Park 51 center. They have put their careers on the line to protect religious freedom and pluralism, even when it is another religious community at risk.
Rabbis have shown support through a number of different avenues, from newspaper articles to petitions, vigils and endorsements. Those who have shown support for Park 51 include: Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism; David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College; David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center; Ellen Lippman, co-Chair of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America; Irwin Kula, President of CLAL; Arthur Waskow, Director of the Shalom Center; Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Director of the Department for Multifaith Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun; Burton Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Leila Gal Berner, leader of Kol Ami and founder of the Center for Jewish Ethics. And the list goes on.
Even as newspapers continue to flurry with the headline that the Anti-Defamation League has opposed Park 51, the leaders of American Jewry have come out disproportionately in support of the community center. The ADL is but an unfortunate exception to the remarkable trend.
Rabbi David Saperstein may have best explained why so many Jewish leaders (and their organizations) have shown support for Park 51:
We Jews, as the victims of religious extermination and persecution, know all too well the pain that comes from being told that our community and our houses of worship will be treated differently than others.
Jews know intimately what it is like to be oppressed and to have the freedom to gather as a community undermined. We understand what it is like to be a minority on the outs. It is only in the past couple of decades that Jews have become more fully accepted into American society, and memories of how it felt at other times continue to cast a pall over our community.
I too am working to support Park 51 in honor of my heritage. My grandmother -- my mother's mother -- grew up in New York. She remembers vividly the night that an angry mob ran down her street yelling "Death to the Jews." Her family stayed inside with doors locked and windows bolted. Thankfully, they made it through the night unscathed. Even so, she tells the story three quarters of a century later with a gripping sense of immediacy. It was probably the most terrifying night of her life.
I would hardly do honor to her life and her experience if I ignored the chants against Park 51 and the American Muslim community -- even when they take place on the blogosphere. As a Jew connected to the past of my people, and my family's experiences in particular, I feel religiously obligated to support Park 51.
Thankfully, I have quite a few exemplars to join with in chorus.