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Friday, January 22, 2021

At a cemetery, leaders promote tolerance

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The images of toppled headstones at Jewish cemeteries deeply saddened, even infuriated Aimee Ginsburg Bikel.

Thoughts turned to staging a protest, something intimate and “folksy” to make her point, that this is wrong.

“But then I realized that I didn’t want to protest against cemetery desecration,” Ginsburg Bikel told the Journal. “I wanted to affirm something, to show we are as one and to stand together.”

On March 26, she was overcome with emotion as all that came to fruition with the sight of nearly 400 people gathered at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in a showing of “unity, love and mutual respect.” The crowd, made up of elected officials, law enforcement, clergy and community members, was a kaleidoscope of people in headscarves, hijabs, yarmulkes, priestly robes and turbans.

“I wish all of you could see what I see,” Ginsburg Bikel said from a podium. “This is some view. It’s astonishingly beautiful. All of your faces look like flowers in a garden.”

Everyone joined together for her interfaith “We Stand Together” event to hear prayers, songs and speeches promoting tolerance and embracing diversity. It was held atop a hill overlooking most of Sinai’s lush 82-acre burial grounds nestled in between Griffith Park and the buzzing 134-freeway. The park is owned and operated by Sinai Temple.

The event was organized by Ginsburg Bikel, the widow of civil rights activist and film actor Theodore Bikel, along with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica and Hazzan Mike Stein, cantor at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, under the auspices of the Theodore Bikel Legacy Project. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries also sponsored the event. 

Ginsburg Bikel drew on the words and experiences of her late husband to demonstrate to her audience the importance of standing together and being heard during times of peril.

“We know what happens when good people stay silent, [Theo] used to say often, alluding specifically to the occupation of his beloved Vienna when the Nazis took over in 1938 a few months after his bar mitzvah,” she said. “We celebrate Theo’s legacy here today by raising our voices now and not later asserting that the red lines have already been crossed and that we won’t allow it. We will stay united and we will build a world of peace together.”

Beneath Sinai’s “Heritage Mosaic,” a mural spanning 145 feet made of Venetian glass depicting a panorama of American Jewry, guests included local rabbis, imams, ministers, pastors, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh priests and representatives from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin and California Assembly member Laura Friedman were also in attendance.

The event wasn’t advertised to the general public for security reasons, according to Ginsburg Bikel.

Aimee Ginsburg Bikel speaks on March 26. Photo by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries
Aimee Ginsburg Bikel speaks on March 26. Photo by Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

In a ceremonial candle lighting ceremony, community leaders read aloud from works by such peace icons as Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama. LIFE (Love Inspiration Faith Everlasting), a gospel choir, performed a stirring rendition of Barry Manilow’s “One Voice”.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino delivered a fiery speech in which he drew parallels between Jewish cemetery desecration and a recent wave of hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs, gays, transgender individuals and other minority groups.

“The woman who wears the Islamic head scarf and is assaulted on a New York subway by someone who tells her ‘Go back to your country’ is my sister, and she is my problem,” Feinstein said.

“If you can’t live in your own soul and in your own heart there’s no neighborhood in this land that will be home to you,” he added. “The narrative of otherness is what we’ve come to declare war against. We are one. We will be one. Only as one will we ever have peace.”

Garcetti, who told the crowd he has an uncle buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, had come straight from a celebration of Bangladeshi independence, to attend. Wearing a yarmulke, he said during difficult times he chooses to opt for hopefulness, focusing on how to continue building up the city as a beacon for diversity.

“It’s time for us to stop thinking so much about the most powerful person in this country and to start thinking again about the most vulnerable people in this country,” Garcetti said to applause.

Religious and elected leaders stand together. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries
Religious and elected leaders stand together. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries

Joseph Schwartz, 51, heard about the event at IKAR, the synagogue he attends, and felt compelled to participate. He said the attendance of elected officials was both a highlight and encouraging.

“It was very good, very moving,” he said. “It shows that officials on the local and state level are truly committed to doing what is right.”

A unity pledge was available for all elected officials and clergy present to sign. Ginsburg Bikel said that she plans to display the pledge, a proclamation of unifying principles, at a different house of worship for several days at a time over the next year.

She told the Journal that she’s glad the event helped some in the community heal from a collective sense of sorrow in light of recent events. She said organizing more unity events might be in her future. 

“People have been telling me they feel inspired and refreshed,” she said. “They feel that they’re not in this alone and they now know they’re surrounded by like-minded people. They want to know what the next thing is. What are we doing next? That’s the response of elected officials, clergy and the public. I have to take it under advisement. I wasn’t expecting to start a movement.”

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