April 2, 2020

Honoring tolerance is not a judgement call. It is an imperative.

On February 21, 2017 a Bishop, a Rabbi and a Muslim faith leader gathered together at the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Joined by over 250 guests representing their respective communities as well as other faith communities and elected officials and diplomats, the three spiritual leaders were honored with the Interfaith Tolerance Awards presented by Nasimi Aghayev, Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles.

The first part of the evening was committed to the honorees, recognized by the Consul General of Azerbaijan for their outstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusivity – the qualities and values at the heart of Azerbaijan’s success with interfaith peace. Awards and congratulatory speeches were delivered to Mahomed Akbar Khan of the King Fahd Mosque, Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez of the Churches in Action, and Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul and Shabbat Tent. The three leaders are, on the surface, quite different, yet each stands out for their impressive records of innovative and uniquely open minded approaches to outreach, engagement, and crossing the aisle to connect and improve the lives of many, many people. The evening was unique in and of itself – as the first Interfaith Tolerance Awards, and the first time such an event has been hosted at the Museum of Tolerance.

The awards ceremony was followed by the premiere screening of “Running from the Darkness”, a documentary on the Khojaly Massacre, a tragedy that occurred in 1992, when 613 innocent and unarmed Azerbaijani men, women and children were murdered by Armenian soldiers. Running From the Darkness was produced by California based nonprofit JConnect and One Wish Project, both Jewish-led ventures, and is the first U.S.-made documentary on the Khojaly Massacre. It is also the first Khojaly documentary that includes the testimony of an Armenian – a human rights activist.

Khojaly carries tremendous meaning; as a tragedy, a point of connection, and also a lesson on the power of perseverance in the face of unimaginable adversity. Despite the deplorable acts committed against Azerbaijan, the nation has never strayed from the deeply ingrained philosophy and policy of interfaith and interethnic tolerance that has positioned Azerbaijan above the regional fray for so many years. This commitment applies and has been tested by the most extreme events, like Khojaly. Despite the tragedies like Khojaly and the ongoing occupation of around 20% of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory by Armenia, over 30,000 Armenians continue to live in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku and other cities under total protection and equality, and Baku boasts a grand Armenian Church, protected by the government and respected by the community.  

The awards ceremony, the honorees and the documentary that followed share a unique connection. The Khojaly Massacre has become a touchstone for Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders, and one that has brought these otherwise often isolated communities together. Over the last several years, the same faith leaders honored at February 21’s awards have held joint memorial services for the victims and survivors of Khojaly, and in the process, have awakened a sense of shared loss and shared space between many varied faiths. This began with a memorial for Khojaly in 2015, held at the newly formed Pico Shul, led by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, one of the evening’s honorees. At this inaugural multifaith memorial service, Rabbi Yonah prayed for the Muslim victims and survivors, and his congregation learned about the lesser known tragedy in great and personal detail. The following year, the King Fahad Mosque hosted the memorial for Khojaly, and Bishop Mendez, Rabbi Yonah and Mahomed Khan all came together to pray as one. Over the years, all three of the leaders have formed a unique bond that ties them to their combined commitment to peace and tolerance.

Through these memorials, diverse groups of spiritual people have set an example of how one community can step up and make a significant difference with and for another, and build something powerful in the wake of loss and destruction. As Board President of the non-profit that was instrumental in making the film a reality, Josh Kaplan told the audience “that is why this documentary you are about to see fits so well into what we are here tonight to celebrate, because we must constantly possess a desire to inform ourselves about the tragedies of hatred and the healing nature of kindness.”

When the ceremony ended, I read the news at home about the Muslim community in St. Louis, and how by Tuesday, they had already raised over $50,000 to repair a local Jewish cemetery, where over 150 graves had been desecrated the night before. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection to what had  taken place at the Museum of Tolerance that evening; both glaring reminders of the power in our kindness and generosity of spirit. As Bishop Mendez quoted from the Christian Bible at the close of his award acceptance speech that night: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” An age-old concept that, as proven by these leaders and events, has immeasurable repurposing potential.

Rabbi Israel Barouk was ordained at Yeshivat Or Elchonon. Originally from Jerusalem and based in Los Angeles, Rabbi Barouk works with leaders and communities across the globe to study, understand and engage with how “positive multiculturalism” serves as a powerful mechanism toward peace.