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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater Headshot

Healing From 9/11

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I have been on vacation from work and blogging for a month, which has its great benefits, namely rest, head-clearing and time to be with my family uninterrupted. I have tried my hardest to not respond to some of the big issues of the day, resting my mind and hands from entering the fray of public opinion. I have a few more days of rest, but I found myself, after not attending a press conference this morning with my interfaith friends on the issue of the Cordoba House Islamic Center and mosque in NYC, needing to put some thoughts down and share some of my observations. This issue has been riveting America and I know that many, many voices have entered the conversation, some helpful, reasoned and passionate, others divisive, unreasonable and passionate. I have read in the polls that a serious majority of Americans are against this Islamic Center being built in its current desired location, two blocks or so from the site of the Twin Towers, Ground Zero, which, after nine years, still sits as an empty hole, a gaping reminder that we, as a country, have not been very successful at the healing, reconciliation and moving forward that is necessary after such a massive national tragedy. I cannot speak to all the reasons why folks are so against this center being built, but I do know that some of the factors are fear and sadness, anger and confusion. This Islamic Center issue is only a symptom of the larger healing that has not taken place, and this alone is very troubling to me.

I am a man who believes in reconciliation and honest dialogue as the most healthy way to heal after tragedy. I lived in Kingston, NY in 2001 and had friends and family in New York City on that fateful day, September 11. My kids were born four weeks later and we gave our son the middle name Shalom, meaning "peace, wholeness" in Hebrew. We knew that bringing kids into the world, especially after 9/11, was going to require us to dig deep inside of us to remain committed and passionate about peace, harmony and the heart-seeded belief that people, at their core, have the capacity to live together, understand one another and work for the betterment of all humanity. I have Muslim friends who are peace-loving, honest and amazing individuals who are working for a better of understanding of their religion, working to counter the extremist elements of their people that have hijacked and brought havoc onto them and our world in the name of a God that is not recognizable to most Muslims, and who are working to protect their families and friends against the anger and violence that many Americans are subjecting them to, falling prey to the vicious stereotypes and scapegoating that my people, the Jewish people, have suffered for generations. There are Muslim extremists and Jewish extremists and Christian extremists and nonsectarian extremists and they all want the same thing: a world that looks only like them, following their understanding alone of how the world should operate. I know Jews who are intolerant and Muslims who are intolerant; I know Jews who are tolerant and Muslims who are tolerant; I know intolerant and tolerant Christians as well. There are extremists in the Middle East and here in America. There are extremists everywhere. The key, for me, is that we have to seek out and elevate the tolerant voices, highlighting the good in others, the desire for understanding and connection that the majority of human beings in our world share. Our society, and our media, have chosen to drive us into this train wreck of sound bite living, sparking catchy names like "Ground Zero Mosque," even when, and often especially when, they don't represent the whole truth. This Islamic Center is not at "ground zero," but a few blocks away. But, it's catchy and as we see, it sticks to us like glue. When are we going to rise up and reject the sound bite abyss that we have allowed ourselves to be swallowed whole into?

As you can see, I don't think that this issue is about the Islamic Center at all, but about a greater problem of human fear and mistrust. However, what I don't understand is this: how can an Islamic Center run by one of the most active interfaith Muslim leaders in America (I worked with Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf 12 years ago when I served at B'nai Jeshurun in NYC), someone who works with rabbis, priests and many others to promote healing and reconciliation between faiths, be anything but good for that tragic location? Is it not the greatest aspect of American life, the one that we say the Osama Bin Ladens of the world hate most, to heal the spot he destroyed with the very faith he exploited and tarnished? If Islam can be a healing balm on the wound of our national tragedy, is that not the ultimate reconciliation and in effect, destruction of the very terror we despise? When we paint all Muslims as terrorists, we cheapen ourselves in so many ways. As a Jew, my people have lived through that horror (which we continue to struggle with for sure), and I cannot stand idly by while my friends and colleagues are forced to fight for their spiritual and religious lives. Our nation is in deep need of healing, still, and blocking mosques, whether in Manhattan or Temecula, hating Muslims and hiding in a cloak of fear, will not do anything but prolong our recovery. Let's use this opportunity, the national attention on the building of an Islamic Center, to truly begin the healing we so desperately need. Let's talk to one another, not yell at one another; let's disagree, but do it with the great American spirit of respect and tolerance; let's get to know one another and model for the world how we can live, with all colors, religions and stripes of humanity, together, one nation, under God. That is the American way.

Vacation is over.