August 19, 2010

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Mt. Airy’s Shalom Center supports NY Ground Zero mosque

The Mt. Airy-based Shalom Center was one of several Jewish organizations that felt compelled to act last week after the Anti-Defamation League, a leading national Jewish organization, came out against construction of an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan, just blocks away from Ground Zero.

“The Anti-Defamation league made a big mistake,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, co-founder of the Shalom Center, who organized a prayer vigil in Manhattan in support of Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic Center.

A controversy erupted after it became widely known that the Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City was planning to vote on whether to grant historic protection to an existing building on the site of the proposed Islamic Center. If the commission granted the building historic protection it would have blocked plans to build Cordoba House, a 13-story center dedicated to Islamic culture that would include a mosque where Muslims could pray.

Developers of Cordoba House said the project would be modeled on the YMCA and would include an auditorium for educational programming, a swimming pool, a basketball court and meeting rooms, among other attributes, but the commission’s hearings brought the plans to light for a wider audience, causing nationwide hysteria.

Most responses have been predictably divided along political party lines. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City has staunchly and vociferously supported the project, while the Republican candidate for governor, Rick A. Lazio, is adamantly opposed. Everyone was surprised when the ADL entered the fray to condemn the project, claiming it was insensitive to the victims of 9/11 and their families.

In a statement, the ADL said, “The controversy, which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location, is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.”

Waskow has lived in Mt. Airy since 1982, a year before he co-founded the Shalom Center with Ira Silverman, then president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College to provide a Jewish voice on the nuclear arms race. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the mid-90s, the center shifted its mission to the environment and focused on the overuse of oil and fuel.

After 9/11, Waskow said the board felt compelled to try to build connections between Jews, Muslims and Christians, whom he described as the “children of Abraham.”

He and his wife, Phyllis Berman, who is also a rabbi, had done some interfaith work and were dissatisfied with the experience.

“There were just talking heads, delivering papers on dialogue but no actual dialogue,” he said.

They organized a four-day retreat to be held on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks and during which Muslims, Jews and Christians prayed together, naming their group the Tent of Abraham. They wrote a book, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times opposing the war in Iraq before it began, and continued to meet each year.

“We’ve spent nine years doing serious work in a way that honors all three traditions,” Waskow said.

Along the way they met Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Kahn, founders of Cordoba House.

“We watched as the debate grew,” Waskow said. “Everyone seemed to be supporting it and then, unexpectedly and shockingly, the ADL decided to oppose it without consulting the leaders of the Jewish community in New York.”

According to reports in the New York Times, the Jewish community in Manhattan is solidly behind Cordoba House. The Shalom Center board felt that a national voice was needed from the Jewish community in support of the project. Waskow joined forces with several other organizations, sending out a letter beseeching its members and supporters to call the ADL and protest its position on the mosque.

They also held a prayer vigil in Manhattan and were impressed by the turnout from supporters and media coverage that included an interview with Waskow on CNN.

“We were there to say that it’s a good idea for there to be an Islamic cultural center in Manhattan,” he said. “As Imam [Rauf] has said, it could serve as an antidote.”

In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, Rauf wrote, “We believe that people of good faith can use the common core of their religions to find solutions to problems that will let them live together … The proposed center is an attempt to prevent the next 9/11.”

For Waskow and the Shalom Center, the ideas of education and interaction as a means to dispel prejudice are central to their work, and thus the mission of Cordoba House resonates with them.

“The center has brought an expanded vision of what Jewish prayer and tradition mean to the issues we address,” Waskow said. “It’s a transmovement now.”

Waskow said the center incorporates all sects of Judaism and engages them in its quest for full equality of women and gays in Jewish life. It is the same philosophy, Waskow said, that proponents of Cordoba House would like to see embraced within the Muslim-American community in the United States.



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