A few weeks ago, I stood on a soccer field with more than five thousand Muslims and wept.
The caskets of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha lay before a makeshift altar on the corner of the grass. The men of the Barakat and Abu-Salha families, seated a few feet from their deceased children, bowed their heads to the ground as the muezzin called out the afternoon prayer. The women huddled nearby, sobbing ceaselessly. And I stood next to my new friend, Nasser, who approached me in Hebrew with "Aikh korim lekha?" (What is your name?) when he saw the black kippah on my head. "I am Palestinian, born near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. I am so grateful that you are here," he said. I held his hand with both of mine, nodded and responded softly, "The least I could do." But looking into each others' wet eyes, we shared a different conversation. Both of us wished that we could have met for any other reason but this.
Over the course of my rabbinate, I have made building bridges with the Muslim community a high priority. In fact, less than three months into my arrival in Raleigh, NC, I visited Imam Beinounie, the spiritual leader of the largest mosque in town. We shared tea and biscuits, discussed the importance of religious tolerance and even conversed about the Talmud. A few months later, when I was officially installed, the Imam and other Muslim community leaders came to offer their blessings and support. It was the first time, in known memory, that observant Muslims set foot in my synagogue's building. There were, admittedly, more than a few surprised looks in the crowd. But, as I hoped, my congregation received our honored guests as if they were entering the tent of Abraham. It was one of the proudest moments of my career.
The goal I held aloft for my congregation was always clear: proper fulfillment of "Love your neighbor as yourself." In order to love our Muslim neighbors, we needed to know their practices, stories and faith. With increased understanding, I believed that we would have a clearer lens through which we could see our commonalities and a more compassionate eye with which we could honor our differences. I even had the chutzpah to dream that our local model of an authentic inter-religious relationship might serve as an inspiration to other communities including--I know it might sound messianic--the Middle East.
But, here I stood at the tragic funerals of three holy souls, children cut off in their youth by a ruthless gunman. A tragedy compounded by the fact that these were model Muslim-Americans. Faith-filled, socially conscious, patriotic, and dedicated to service. There is a picture from a recent interfaith Habitat for Humanity build where my congregants are preparing to start the day. In the front is Yusor with her hair covered in a hijab and a sparkling smile on her face. As my friend Fiaz, outreach coordinator for the mosque, told me when I called him to offer my condolences, "These were the best and brightest our community had produced. If people are going to take these precious ones away, then I don't know what to say?" And then he got choked up and could not go on.
Originally, I had grand visions of how our Muslim-Jewish dialogue would change the world. But, suddenly, on a soccer field turned funeral chapel, I realized that "world-changing" was beside the point. I was there simply to deliver God's love to friends in agonizing pain.
Broadly-speaking, I have received exceptional support from the local Jewish community for my outreach to the bereaved families. But, there are a few outsiders who have proffered scathing criticism via the internet. Case and point: There are reports that one of the students may have sent out controversial social media messages that, if true, many would find repugnant. In response, I offer the following. The student who allegedly sent these messages is deceased. We do not know, and will never know, his true intentions. Furthermore, to me, it makes no difference. When innocent Abel was brazenly murdered by his brother Cain, God exclaimed, "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground!" God did not condition this concern on Abel's political views. Neither should we.
When the mosque's leadership realized that thousands were expected to attend the funeral, the North Carolina State administration graciously offered the soccer fields as a venue. There were so many people present that the arena was barely recognizable. No goal posts, no scoreboard. Perhaps, in this, there was a subtle message. When it comes to the loss of innocents, there are no teams. Just tears.
Rabbi Eric M. Solomon is the spiritual leader of Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, NC and the Vice Chair of Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.