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A call for unity
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A call for unity

Politics takes a back seat at interfaith gathering

A banner reflecting the program’s theme. Photo by Rabbi Adena Blum
A banner reflecting the program’s theme. Photo by Rabbi Adena Blum

It was somewhat surprising that just one speaker called out the president of the United States at an interfaith gathering titled, “No One Is Born Hating,” held on Sept. 6 at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction. The criticism came from New Jersey State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14), who charged the Trump administration with fostering an environment that tolerates hate. 

“At this time when evil is raising its head in terms of neo-Nazis and white supremacy, we have leadership that seem to be saying that’s OK,” Greenstein said, adding that the state government is redoubling its effort “to keep that out of New Jersey as much as possible.”

Susan Grossman, a resident of West Windsor and a member of the Jewish Center and a Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter, said she was very happy that at least one local leader held President Donald Trump accountable. “To say that this is all happening without regard to this president is not truthful,” she said. “He made this kind of hate speech, language, and references acceptable.” 

The evening’s program, cosponsored by the AJC New Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center, the Hindu-Jewish Coalition, Not in Our Town Princeton, La Convivencia, GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) of Central NJ, and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, attracted a diverse group of more than 200. 

“Recent events in the news make you realize you can’t stay complacent,” said Laura Nash, a member of Beth Chaim. Citing the recent hate-filled demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., and the overall feelings of divisiveness pervading most of the country, she said, “It’s almost like the Civil War, and it’s not just our country, it’s the world.”

Politicians, pastors, rabbis, imams, and community activists shared eloquent songs, poems, and quotations, as well as their feelings about the events in Charlottesville during the program, moderated by Adena Blum, rabbi of Beth Chaim and president of Windsor Hightstown Area Ministerium (WHAM). 

For many participants the gathering had a healing effect. Judi Fleitman, vice president of programming at the Jewish Center in Princeton, said she was happy “to know that we have a community that cares and is morally and ethically responsible.”

Simin Sayed, a member of the Institute of Islamic Studies, said, “I’m overwhelmed by the number of people here on a rainy day. I want to be with people…here so the bad people cannot take over.”

Beth Chaim member Vivian Newmark appreciated the unity. “The more times we get together the more chance we have to be a real community together.”

Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Beth Chaim reflected one of the primary themes of the evening in his singing a 1958 song from the musical “South Pacific,” written by “two Jewish boys,” as he said, from New York City: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,” he sang, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade … You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late — before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

Lisa Day, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown and secretary of WHAM, shared a prayer and a call to action by Jewish liturgist Alden Solovy. In response to the recent violence Solovy wrote a poem, “We Will Not Yield,” that said, in part, “I am a patriot who will not yield this nation to hate.” 

The new imam of the Institute of Islamic Studies in New Jersey, Adé Muhammad Mendes, read another poem responding to Charlottesville, which was written by Jane Deren and posted on the website of the Catholic Center of Concern. It raised another theme from the program — light conquering darkness — and reiterated the need to “speak out again and again so the sound of Your justice drowns out the cries of hatred, the deafening silence that protects it.” 

Chaplain Ted Taylor quoted Nelson Mandela, whose message was similar to that of Rodgers and Hammerstein: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Janice Mironov, the mayor of East Windsor and a member of Beth El, attacked the nomenclature used by hate groups. “It is not populism; it is not American; it is not patriotic; it is not nationalistic — it is pure hate, and people who believe otherwise are the patriots,” she said.

Rajiv Malhotra of the Hindu-Jewish Coalition said that as he looked back on the events of Charlottesville, he concluded that “it is not a good idea to trivialize it as a one-man, top-down event…. A fairly significant voice in this country feels this kind of hatred.” Believing that no one is born with these problems, he suggested that more work needs to be done through the educational system.

Manzoor Hussain, katib of the Institute of Islamic Studies in West Windsor and vice president of WHAM, spoke of feeling a “great deal of anxiety” due to Islamophobia which he described as a new threat to his community. 

“We need to learn from our neighbors how to fight it,” he said. “Muslims need to condemn anti-Semitism by name and Jews need to condemn Islamophobia by name.”

David Levy, director of the New Jersey regional office of the AJC, heard about the weekend violence while flying back from the funeral of his father, a Holocaust refugee.  

“As a 10-year-old boy in a German-Jewish boys school, he was watching people descend on the school with torches on Kristallnacht as their teachers took them into the forest to hide,” Levy told the crowd in his closing remarks. When Levy’s wife saw coverage of people carrying torches walking through Charlottesville, she told him, “I’m almost happy he’s not here to see this.”

“He came to America because that is not America,” Levy said. “We gather here today from across the spectrum of this community to say just that: That’s not America; this is America — gathered together in unity, gathered together to stand against hatred.”

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