A Rabbi, a Reverend and an Imam Weigh in on Tolerance
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik
What are some ways you promote tolerance in your life and work?
One of the most rewarding aspects of my rabbinate and my work at the New York Board of Rabbis is the outreach to people of different backgrounds and beliefs. We are all part of the human family. We see this in the story of Adam and Eve. They were not Democrat or Republican; they were people. We have a responsibility to be as inclusive as possible. Relationships are predicated on respect.
Mother Teresa said we draw circles that are too small. It is imperative if we are to have a path of peace, we need to walk together. When my parents came to this country after the war, the nuns of St. Mary’s Church and members of the Jewish Community Center in Lynn, Massachusetts, helped them. I grew up with the understanding that we are in this together.
I am really close to His Eminence Cardinal Dolan and the members of the diverse faith community. It is reassuring to me that I know that if there is any attack against Jews, they will reach out to me and if there was an attack against them, we will be there. We all know: The person that hates me today, hates you tomorrow.
Are things worse today, in your estimation?
It’s disheartening that there is rising anti-Semitism and hatred against other groups. People are not able to have civil discourse. We speak about “the other,” and not to “the other.”
I spoke recently to a famous peace negotiator, who said the art of negotiation is predicated on being able to listen to the other person. People often formulate their response while the other person is talking instead of listening. We need a Listening 101 course. Now, we dismiss someone else with a different opinion.
In the Jewish tradition, when we are in the presence of a crowd, we pray with gratitude that we have diversity in our midst. “Thank-you, G-d, for creating different people and different minds.” Instead, today it is the “dislike of the un-like.”
Have you found obstacles to promoting tolerance?
I have, but I have never been deterred from trying. You see people sitting around a table with different backgrounds and you’re often criticized. There are people who are only comfortable when people express their point-of-view. A real relationship is predicated on being able to disagree, where people can respect each other with different points-of-view. It is a lot more challenging and rewarding.
Even within the same families you see that, no?
In families, people disagree and yet people see each other and love each other. We need to take that to the general public and be like them.
Did you find people more tolerant of each other in New York City after 9/11?
Yes, as one who was with the FDNY as Chaplain, there really was a coalescence, a coming together. We all suffered losses. We all became the 9/11 family, holding onto memory and holding onto each other.
I remember being in Yankee Stadium when we held a demonstration of solidarity. We had representatives of different faiths and political parties saying, “This is our country and we will not be divided by people trying to destroy us.” But, it shouldn’t take a major catastrophe to get people to come together.
In New York, when you approach Staten Island from Brooklyn going over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, you see Ft. Hamilton Faith Chapels, all chapels, next to the other. It is a sermonic message; if you want to cross the bridge safely, you must learn to cross together. In JFK Airport, there are chapels together, side by side. Strength and safety are found in relationships.
People have said, when there is peace amongst religions, there will be peace in the world.
Rt. Rev. Dr. Victor Brown
What have you found the most effective way to promote tolerance and inclusivity in your work?
Don’t talk about it, be about it! It’s in our message and our works. At my church, we have two affiliates: the Mt. Sinai Community Enrichment Services, open for everyone, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation. The second is Just a Friend Away, an HIV initiative that is non-discriminatory for whoever needs those services. Both have the objective not to proselytize but to come alongside.
How would you regard the three Abrahamic religions with regards to tolerance and inclusivity?
When you juxtapose the history of African-Americans in this country with a legacy of slavery, there’s tremendous similarities in our evolution. I’ve seen a great level of tolerance exhibited by the Jewish community, much of it related to the shared atrocities of the past.
How have you seen your Muslim colleagues in this regard?
There’s a growing openness and more sensitivity towards inclusiveness, at least among those I work with.
Your congregation is in Staten Island. Were you there during 9/11?
Oh good gracious, yes. I remember exactly where I was at the time. I was at the gym and got home and my ex-wife said, “You’re not going to believe this,” and I couldn’t believe it.
Did New York come together after 9/11 in a way that is different than now?
I am part of the 9/11 Council of Religious Leaders. I usually give the benediction at the 9/11 ceremony. I seek to remind people that when the terrorists attacked us, they weren’t attacking African-Americans or whites or Latinos or Asian-Americans. They did not see a difference in colors. They were attacking Americans.
There’s a lot that we as Americans can learn from that dreaded day. They see us as one, and we need to see us as one: One nation, under G-d, with liberty and justice for all.
Imam Dr. Tahir Kukaj
What happens at the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center (AICC) that is different from other mosques?
We serve everybody — Albanians, Jews, Christians, Muslims — we don’t make distinctions. You can see it in our community. We have a school of all ethnicities that are teaching and learning. The AICC opened the mosque and the school and does social work; we do that with all denominations and you wouldn’t find that with other mosques. We have a twinning between the Forest Avenue synagogue and our mosque. We celebrate seders…In December, we have an interfaith celebration for Christmas.
In January, we have “community days.” We mobilize churches, synagogues, mosques and social agencies to do things like hold a health fair or blood drive, clean up streets or parks, visit with senior citizens, etc. With each there is an amazing spirit of understanding and brotherhood. You’ll see love and respect between different faiths — Jewish, Christian, Muslim. The youth from the three groups do projects together.
Has the situation in this country [regarding tolerance] gotten better or worse?
There are intolerant people and a few have gotten more vocal. But, what I see in the streets and as a chaplain for the NYPD and law enforcement is that people are friendlier and seek to have more understanding. Personally, I was attacked because of what I was doing. Someone didn’t like that I was bringing Jews and Muslims together…but, the hatemongers have no breath. They’ll go out of business.
Evil will always exist, but with regard to anti-Semitism, I raise my voice and bring the community with me. Tomorrow, who knows who is next.
How did you deal with Islamophobia after 9/11?
It was a tough situation. Here’s why I strongly believe in dialogue and sitting together over coffee.
I was here as a guest and had conversations with Rabbi David Katz while doing community days. He helped me address the hate. He told me to continue talking, continue to be available; not everybody’s filled with [Islamophobia]. Give them the alternative and options and be sincere.
This meant a lot. I owe this rabbi so much and the community so much. The Jewish community has held us. Whenever a Muslim was attacked, the Jewish community was the loudest. They wrote letters. Even their presence — they circled the mosque after the New Zealand terrorist attack. We did the same at Temple Emanu-El [the oldest synagogue in Staten Island] when Jews were attacked.
Have things gotten worse in the world?
America is ahead of the world. Where we lead, everybody follows. If we can continue this unity, it will spread, even in Europe. The relationship there with Jews and Muslims is better now because of what we have in the States; the good people prevail.
What would you want people to know about Islam that they may not know?
I say this often in my talk to Jews and even Muslims. We share the majority of our prophets: Ezekiel, David, Solomon, Joshua, Abraham, Isaiah. They are Jewish and Muslim prophets. There are communalities in food, dress code, belief in one G-d. It is so close with us. Kosher food, we eat with no hesitation. We have worked to get halal and kosher food in our schools. In our religious schools, we’ve benefited from the Jews in their approach.
The Jews have paved the way. Why not talk about the good things? I want to thank you so much.