A Sikh, a rabbi, a priest, and a Muslim leader walk into a room.
Sounds like the beginning of a cheesy joke, right? But one such convergence last Shabbat morning was not the occasion for a punchline.
Ours was a coalition of believers who had heard about a protest at Al-Farooq Masjid, a beautiful Atlanta mosque, and who wanted to stand against hostile actions aimed at our neighbors.
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The proposed demonstrations were foreboding. Their arguments seemed to center on a sense that Muslims were not properly American. Protesters were encouraged, in some circles, to bring their guns along.
At the level of cellular memory, their tactics felt familiar. Jews don’t have to reach far back into our history to recall being ostracized from national communities. Our sense of justice demands that we not allow such marginalization to recur, not to ourselves or to anyone else.
So on Shabbat, I listened with indignation as one of my Muslim neighbors took to a podium to ask why. Why had his community been singled out? He had been in America most of his life; he had raised a family here; they contributed to their community; they paid taxes; they were citizens. They were good Americans. Why was his commitment to his country being challenged?
I am aghast that any person in America would be forced to ask these questions.
The protestors never showed up. Just under 100 of us sat with our Muslim brothers at the Masjid and were—speaking for myself—relieved.
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But the hurt remained. The reminder that being a religious minority can still leave you vulnerable was real.
I know people who will not be happy to read that I spent my Saturday morning in a mosque, and who will forward the false suggestion that tensions between Muslims and Jews are innate and unbridgeable. I’m gratified to say that my rabbis aren’t amongst them.
When I was choosing my faith community, a commitment to social justice headed my checklist. My synagogue has a strong commitment to building interfaith relationships of which I am very proud. As a Jew by choice with many supportive Christian family members, that welcoming spirit remains significant. But this was my first personal contribution to those efforts.
Last weekend, as it turned out, saw me racking up several firsts on that front.
Through Sojourn, a Jewish organization committed to LGBTQ equality, the Atlanta Jewish community secured the front spot in this year’s Atlanta pride parade, which came the day after our efforts at the mosque. Religious organizations leading a celebration of diversity and equality sound rare, so I’m proud that my community’s support is so loud. My rabbis always march. I’ve always had prior commitments: vacation. Hebrew school.
This year, I had none. “Are you going?” asked my friend. I hesitated. The cause, I support. But.
“I hate parades,” I told her. Memories of Shriners in creepy little cars, sticky food, and huge crowds dominated my consciousness. I am committed to LGBT equality, but my style is non-demonstrative. I don’t like yelling, or parade floats, or candy chucked at the heads of people along the route.
But there was my cellular memory again, reminding me of my duty to stand beside those at the margins. There was that line on my conversion certificate, rising up with its demands: “I promise to….participate actively in the life of the Synagogue and the Jewish community.”
Tikkun olam can be a pesky principle when you’re an introvert. I want rifts between humans to be healed, I desire greater equality—but can’t I promote such things quietly? Tzedakah via donations, rather than showing up, can become very appealing.
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But I promised active participation. “This is ridiculous,” I told my friend. I chose Reform specifically because it stands against marginalization. Women lead. LGBTQ people are welcome. I can attend services at any synagogue across the country with the confidence that these constants won’t change. “Of course I’ll walk.”
So the day following our show of solidarity at the Masjid, I returned to the city and boarded my synagogue’s bus to the parade. There were around 200 Jewish Atlantans surrounding our float; we carried rainbow flags with our synagogue’s name on them and signs proclaiming “Hatred is an abomination.”
Energetic teens—a Hillel contingent or a group from NFTY, I never caught their names—held our banner, jumping and yelling, “Happy PRIDE!” Their energy seemed inexhaustible. I handed out flags and tried not to look overwhelmed by the crowd.
It was overwhelming, though, to be able to represent a tradition where I’ve found a home, and in the name of welcoming all. The sign-bearer was right: Prejudice is an abomination. Where we love one another, in whatever form that takes, we are the face of God.
I was a quiet parader right up to the corner on which the few protestors were restricted—fools spewing condemnations from bullhorns and hoisting high signs that manipulated my scriptures to defend their viewpoints. In front of them stood volunteers with giant cardboard flowers, blocking them from view. And before them? Two hundred Jews.
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We were louder than they were. Our message—of lovingkindness, of acceptance, of embracing God’s diverse people without reservations—represented the best of religious truth.
For the first time all weekend, I found my voice. One of too few times, as a proud reform Jew, I yelled “Peace!” back at them, and whooped.