Five years and 3,000 miles from the site of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the mournful strains of calls to prayer in Hebrew and Arabic open the Islamic Center of Southern California’s fourth annual commemoration of the attacks of Sept. 11.
The audience, dressed in saris, suits, skirts or slacks, bareheaded, or wearing head scarves, kippahs, kufis or turbans, gathered to pray together and to honor three religious leaders, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, who were to receive Peace Awards for their continuing work toward interfaith understanding.
One of the recipients, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica, told the group how terror had come close to his life.
Last July, he and his wife were awakened by a call from their teenage daughter to assure them that she was all right. She was in London and had gotten off a bus moments before it turned the corner and exploded.
Now a year later, the rabbi urged a recommitment to truly care for one another’s children, by walking together toward healing and understanding.
“If we can truly change the way we are with one another, we will create a world in which no one would consider dying for Judaism, Islam or any other religion and killing others in the process,” he said.
Comess-Daniels urged ongoing dialogue, a cause at the heart of the organizations that sponsored the Peace Award, the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council and the Interreligious Council of Southern California.
Jihad Turk, the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center, also presented Peace Awards to the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guilbord of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Dr. Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California.
In the keynote address, Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center, denounced extremists’ twisted theology of death and destruction, while urging vigilance in the preservation of democracy — the protection of civil liberties and the Constitution.
“It would be sad if we save the buildings and lose the soul,” he said.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Tikvah, offered the first prayer. “To stand in the ruins of New York or Beirut, or the desolated areas of Palestine is to know that what doesn’t happen in the Middle East is happening here. We are talking to each other.”
The service continued with prayers from a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Sikh and a Baha’i, and concluded with a musical offering from representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As the group adjourned for cheese, crackers, fruit and baklava, Turk explained that this memorial service is part of the Islamic Center’s mission.
“Muslim Americans are on the front line in the war against terror in that we are charged with making sure that our institutions do not become dens of hate speech and extremist rhetoric nor recruiting grounds for extremists, terrorists or anyone who would want to do this country harm,” he said.
As Turk was about to enter the prayer room, he was approached by Suzanne Rubin, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; they had traveled together in March on an Abrahamic pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
She invited him and his family to a break fast after Yom Kippur.
“That’s during Ramadan, so we’ll be breaking fast as well,” he replied. “That should work.”
As Antonio Villaraigosa campaigns for mayor in the Jewish community, he will face the same big question asked by all non-Latino voters: Are you too Mexican?
The question is especially important to Jews, because our community’s long-time relationship with Latino and African American Los Angeles has been a powerful force in the city’s history.
Actually, it’s doubtful anyone will ask Villaraigosa this question outright at a public meeting. The question will be voiced in the comparative anonymity of talk radio and the blogosphere. But, if past election campaigns mean anything, Villaraigosa’s ethnicity will be lingering somewhere in the back of the minds of even those who don’t follow the blogs or listen to talk shows.
His opponent, Mayor James Hahn, turned Villaraigosa’s ethnicity against him four years ago with a television ad that made him out to be an associate of south-of-the-border drug dealers. Since then, Hahn has compiled a record to campaign on: beating Valley secession; hiring our excellent police chief, William Bratton; and standing up for the impoverished, politically weak, largely Latino, immigrant victims of the brutal Rampart- scandal cops. However, with his reputation damaged by allegations of misdeeds by associates, the fear of losing may persuade the mayor to return to the same questionable tactics he used against Villaraigosa in 2001.
If he does, he’ll be hoping a majority of voters share a misconception of Los Angeles life in general and take a gloomy, narrow view of race relations here.
Being a glass-half-full kind of person, I take a hopeful view. Despite having covered two riots and innumerable dustups, I know that various ethnicities in Los Angeles can find common ground and share common American values.
A reminder of that occurred last week with the death of the famous African American attorney, Johnnie Cochran, graduate of Los Angeles High School, which was then almost all-white. He grew up, as Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten wrote, in a city where, despite residential racial segregation, “interracial contacts and friendships flourished…. [Cochran’s] closest personal friends were white and Jewish. It simply never occurred to him that those friendships were in any way precluded by his abiding concern for the African American community.”
Another reminder was at a March 19 dinner, where the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research honored Larry Aubry, an African American community leader who, in many roles, has been a fighter for civil rights and for collaboration among Los Angeles’ ethnicities. I remember him particularly from the tough days before, during and after the ’92 riot, when, as a member of the Los Angeles Human Relations staff, he courageously hit the streets day and night, a peacemaker in an incredibly tangled and explosive situation.
The library itself is an example of multiethnic cooperation on the left. It was founded during the McCarthy era by Emil Freed to house his and others’ collections of leftist political material. Its files tell the story of Jewish-Latino-African American cooperation in battles for civil rights and labor rights from the Great Depression onward.
But cooperation does not occur only on the left. The most important cooperation, as I was reminded last week, occurs in the broad center.
I was in Sacramento, participating in a Latino Legislative Caucus’ academy for elected officials. The program was conceived by one of Los Angeles’ most unappreciated politicians, Richard Polanco, who represented the city in the state Assembly and state Senate for many years.
Polanco came up with a political strategy that elected so many Latinos to the Legislature in the 1990s that the Assembly got a Latino speaker, Cruz Bustamante, in 1997. Villaraigosa was also speaker, and the office is now occupied by Fabian Nunez. Polanco himself was Senate majority leader before term limits retired him.
I followed the strategy when I was at The Times, and it was a real education in the nature of Latino California.
California had been fed news stories of Latino gang members, illegal immigrants storming the border, school dropouts and impoverished, broken families. Polanco understood that large numbers of Latinos were as he was — middle-class Californians with strong family values and educational and economic drive. They had the same interests as the rest of California: better schools, safe neighborhoods, good jobs.
He and his colleagues recruited Latino candidates from the middle class. They delivered this message and won in predominantly Anglo districts.
It was, and is, a very American story, familiar to anyone with immigrant roots. Upsetting as it may be to ethnic nationalists or leftist theorists, most people aspire to the good old American middle-class dream.
That was Villaraigosa’s dream as he moved up the economic and professional scale. No, he’s not too Mexican. If you were a left-wing radical, you’d say he’s too American.
Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The groundswell of emotion in response to Ilan Ramon’s death
has not only been a great inspiration for American Jews, it also has helped
strengthen the bond Americans feel for Israel.
“It’s a state of mourning for the whole nation. Our
school is no different,” said Joseph “J.P.” Schwarcz, 18, a Yeshiva University freshmanin
At the same time, Schwarcz was quick to note the distinct
status of Israel’s representative on board, Ramon, as a role model for Jews.
“Throughout the whole week, our deans have come into our
class and discussed with us how we should be just like Ilan Ramon,” he said.
In mourning the tragic flight of the whole Columbia crew,
Jews across America are especially touched by the loss of Ramon. Whether Jews
saw him as pioneer or peacemaker, most saw him as the best of the Jewish
That sentiment is evident across the country from memorial
services, e-mail and written messages to Ramon’s family, and actions taken
after the disaster.
In a televised conversation with Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon from space, Ramon had said, “I call upon every Jew in the world to
plant a tree in the land of Israel during the coming year.”
Now, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is coordinating a
massive effort to fulfill Ramon’s request. The JNF received some 1,000 calls
for about 3,000 trees on Monday alone, an all-time record of unsolicited calls,
according to the group’s CEO, Russell Robinson.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has set up a
fund in memory of the space shuttle Columbia astronauts. The fund will be used
to encourage the study of math and science in Los Angeles and Israeli schools
(for information, contact (323) 761-8000).
U.S. Rep Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader,
reinforced the view that the tragedy is bringing Americans closer to Israel
when he addressed a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) in Boca
Raton, Fla., on Saturday night.
“I can think of no two nations that are so connected by so
many timeless truths. We are kindred nations and tonight we are siblings in
mourning,” said the lawmaker, who returned to the RJC event after flying home
to Houston after the shuttle disaster.
At the Yeshiva University memorial, a slide show
presentation laced with music from the movie “Apollo 13” and a tearful Jewish
ballad, underscored the American-Israeli connection.
David Weinberg, 21, the Yeshiva junior who created it,
imposed his words over images of George Bush and the exploded shuttle: “This
mission saw the dreams and hopes of two nations fuse together.”
Korach decides to pick a fight with Moses. He says: Hey! I’m a Levite, too! Don’t I deserve to be given as much honor as you Moses? A whole group of Israelites decides to take Korach’s side. And, boy, are they sorry. The earth opens beneath them and swallows them all.
Have you ever decided to take sides when two of your friends are having a fight? How did that turn out for you? If you ever see a fight going on, it’s better to get involved only as a peacemaker and not as a side-taker.