In the days after the great tragedy of 9/11, thousands of people of different faiths gathered to mourn at houses of worship across Long Island.
In my area, the Oakdale-Bohemia Inter-Faith Anti-Bias Task Force organized a memorial service. In a hall in Oakdale, members of the Islamic Association of Long Island in Selden, led by Nayar Imam, were joined by members of my synagogue, B’nai Israel Reform Temple, and members of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Bohemia, including its pastor, the Rev. Jim Woods, and Sister Phyllis Esposito, a pastoral associate. Almost 500 people attended.
A few moments before the service began, leaders of the mosque asked whether the service could be delayed briefly so that the members of the Muslim community could recite their evening prayers. I said yes, and then joined them in a classroom.
In that room, the Muslim men faced east and so did I. They prayed to Mecca, and I directed my prayers toward Jerusalem. They prayed in Arabic, and I prayed in Hebrew. They knelt on the floor while I stood. They called upon Allah and I prayed to Adonai. After our prayers, we walked into the large assembly room arm in arm and were greeted with great applause. People understood what we had done.
We showed what we as a community, a nation and a world needed to do in the face of such terror and horror, whose goal is to split us apart. The correct response is do the very opposite and to come together.
In the aftermath of the presidential campaign and inauguration, such a response is more important than ever as America experiences a rash of words and actions that is tearing people and communities apart.
In the years since 9/11, our communities have continued to come together. We celebrate each Thanksgiving in a very moving interfaith service that goes back and forth between B’nai Israel and St. John. One of the more inspiring moments in the service occurs when the cantor of the temple chants words from the biblical book of Numbers, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” in Hebrew. The priest from St. John translates the words into English, and the imam from the Selden mosque offers them in Arabic.
The three communities have held educational programs to learn of each other’s customs and beliefs, as well as to share the foods of our cultures. The groups have gone into each other’s houses of worship to learn the meanings of various symbols of each religious tradition. Only a few weeks ago, we held a service of unity for our Suffolk community. Almost 300 people came to Oakdale, and we were joined by members of Bay Shore’s Masjid Darul Quran, the Muslim Center of Long Island.
We also have a special program each year when sixth-grade children come to gather to share and learn. This year’s program, set for Saturday, was designed to help children grasp how the labels they use to describe others can at times be hurtful and misunderstood.
Over the years, people have asked me why I and the anti-bias task force do what we do. What is the point of bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims? Will we change the world and stop the hate?
My response always is, “We have to start somewhere, don’t we?”
As Voltaire wrote in “Candide,” “We must take care of our garden” first, and then take care of the rest of the world.
Rabbi Steven Moss is leader of the B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale.