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I Was Barred From Speaking At My Temple Because I Work With Muslims

Dear Rabbi,

Please know that I don’t write this in anger, but with deep sadness — sadness at the setback we suffered on Friday. As a Jewish man who fights for the civil rights of Muslim New Yorkers, I know how hard it can be to find space for interfaith engagement. That’s why I was so thrilled by your invitation to give the d’var Torah (sermon) at last week’s service. Doing so would be an honor in any temple, but it held special meaning at the temple my family has belonged to for generations. My joy only multiplied when your interfaith partners named me keynote speaker for the iftar dinner that was to follow. To both give a Jewish sermon and break the Ramadan fast on a single Friday night, the night that both of our communities congregate to pray; it would be such a potent symbol of solidarity. A symbol needed now more urgently than ever as we await the Supreme Court’s forthcoming Muslim ban ruling.

Together, these plans exceeded my wildest dreams. Sadly, on Friday, those dreams died a quick death, when, on less than two hours’ notice, you not only disinvited me from delivering the d’var Torah, but you even barred me from appearing as the iftar keynote. I was permitted to enter the building, but you made clear that my voice could not be heard within its walls.

Of course, I was distraught to lose the opportunity to speak to your congregation, especially after so many weeks of planning — to be barred from the temple that my forefathers helped build — but I was more deeply wounded by what this decision says about the state of interfaith work within our community. Your temple is looked to as a leader, but this Shabbat you led us away from a vision of Muslim-Jewish solidarity, instead empowering detractors who seek division and, yes, even hate.

Solidarity is never easy — true solidarity, at least. It requires us to welcome our neighbors as we find them, not to transform them into the partner we wish they were. True solidarity requires risks, finding agreement with even those we find disagreeable.

But all too often, I see our communities taking a different path: the path of “safe solidarity,” “solidarity-lite.” We stand with the hand-picked exemplars of other faiths, with anodyne leaders who won’t create controversy, but we turn away from the most prominent voices, the ones who are “too opinionated” or “too controversial.”

In a way, this watered-down solidarity can be more dangerous than none at all. It gives us the illusion of action — a comforting belief that we are doing our part — but it never builds the connections we truly need between our two peoples. In this historic moment, when the need for partnership is clear, we tell ourselves the soothing words that “we do enough.” We say, “look at the events we’ve attended and the speakers we’ve held. No, it’s the extremists on the other side, the leaders of the other community, that are to blame for our antagonism.” But are they?

I have spent half my life doing this work, trying to build bridges between Muslims and Jews. But today, we are as far apart as ever. There have been some changes, and the rhetoric of resistance and unity have become more widespread, but our actions are so often the same, and the unspoken limits of this work persist.

What does it say about the limits of your interfaith work that you were unable to host me: a Jewish, Harvard-educated civil rights attorney whose family first joined your temple six generations ago? What does it say about your limits that I was excluded for nothing other than my affiliation with the nation’s largest, most-prominent Muslim civil rights organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations?

Sadly, we were divided last Friday in the way I feared most. I sincerely believe that this was a painful choice for you, and I don’t think you came to it quickly. But I hope you won’t move past it quickly, either. I hope you’ll dwell on it long enough to reflect on what this episode says about the sincerity of your interfaith work. I’d ask you to reflect on whether you’re truly standing in solidarity with those neighbors who need our support. And I’d ask you, most importantly, to think about how you can do better in the future.

Because I can assure you that you will need to do better. Interfaith work has never been easier than it is right now. The current administration’s attacks are so blatant that they have amplified calls for unity, making them louder than ever before. And at the same time, some traumatic memories of prior attacks on our city of New York have begun to fade. Though those losses are never forgotten, they no longer galvanize the degree of hate and distrust they once did. If you can’t find the courage to overcome the detractors who blocked last Friday’s partnership now, what will you be able to do in the moments when support is most needed, in the times of crisis when our fear and panic cause us to turn on our neighbors rather than turning to them. Those are the moments that true solidarity prepares us for, the moments when it matters most. And sadly, I fear that in such moments, your temple will once again turn to silence.

Let me end with the paragraph I originally hoped would conclude my remarks from the pulpit, words that now seem more urgent than ever:

“There are some leaders who will oppose our solidarity, who will point to the tragedies we’ve endured and to our enemies abroad. They’ll say these enemies are so dangerous that we need to turn our back on our values and promise of an open society. It is up to this generation to show that we can do better than those leaders of the past, to show that we have learned the lessons of history and the teachings of the Torah, to show that we are not doomed to wander the desert of intolerance. No, let this be the generation that overcomes that primal fear of the other, that basks in the beneficence of brotherhood and journeys forward into the promised land of solidarity…together.”

Yours truly,

Albert Fox Cahn


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