November 12, 2019

Organizers hope solidarity march starts annual interfaith tradition

Just as Jim Kaufman, emeritus rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, started to speak at Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church in Encino, the starting point of the first-ever San Fernando Valley Interfaith Solidarity March, an emergency alarm sounded.

So much for the opening inspirational talk.

Eventually, march organizers decided it was time for the 500 or so participants who braved triple-digit heat to get walking along the 2 1/2-mile route that would take them to Temple Judea in Tarzana and, finally, the Islamic Center of Reseda.

Forty minutes later, during a welcome stop at air-conditioned Temple Judea, Kaufman tried again.

“As I was saying…”

And, of course, everyone laughed.

The Sept. 10 event was organized by Soraya Deen, a Muslim attorney, motivational speaker and interfaith workshop leader; and Marsha Novak, a Jewish interfaith community activist. According to organizers, the goals of the march were to foster respect for all religions and to reject hate, bigotry, religious intolerance and anti-immigrant prejudice.

The peaceful marchers made up a wide variety of ages, races and faiths, and spoke several different languages. They carried banners that called for love, unity and compassion: “We Are the Caring Majority,” “We Are Not Powerless Against Hatred,” “There’s Only One Humanity.” One man wore a long, blue sash with embossed emblems of many religions over his shoulders.

At several religious institutions the marchers passed, volunteers handed them bottles of cold water. Speakers at the church, the shul and the mosque — including several rabbis, imams, priests, ministers, politicians and community activists — talked about what people have in common rather than what divides them.

Kristen Stangas, communication coordinator for the Islamic Center of Southern California, was the event’s emcee and an energetic fireball. “Diversity is what makes American great!” she proclaimed.

Temple Judea Senior Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson told the group: “I believe that when you speak against Islam, you are anti-Semitic. I believe that when you are anti-Christian, you are anti-Semitic. If you are prejudiced against people because of the color of their skin or because of their country of origin, you are anti-Semitic. For there is no one who is against Islam or Christianity or Mexicans who is somehow for Jews.”

Other speakers included Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents parts of the San Fernando Valley; and Henry Stern, Democratic state senator for the 27th District, which includes parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. 

Jewish groups among the march’s 65 co-sponsors included Temple Judea, Temple Beth Hillel, Adat Ari El, Temple Aliyah, Temple Kol Tikvah, Temple Ahavat Shalom, the Anti-Defamation League and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Herding hundreds of people on a trek through Valley streets was not an easy task, but the event was managed efficiently. A bullhorn-toting volunteer on a truck encouraged the marchers to drink lots of water, against an amplified soundtrack with a diverse selection of tunes ranging from “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to Bob Marley’s greatest hits.

A sense of kinship and good humor pervaded it all.

Muslim speakers talked about the commonality among the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. That sentiment was applauded, but there also were marchers who were Sikhs and Hindus, a Buddhist monk with a world peace banner, several people wearing T-shirts indicating they were Scientology followers, and one man with a sign that said “Santa Clarita Atheists and Freethinkers.” 

Discussing the genesis of this project, Novak told the Journal that she and Deen had been involved in interfaith projects together before, and one — getting Muslim and Jewish women together — had not worked out.

“Sometimes these projects start well, with good intentions, but then people retreat into their own silos,” Novak said. “The result was that there had not been a large interfaith march like this in the Valley for years.”

Novak said that when she and Deen came up with the idea for an interfaith march in the Valley, they received universal encouragement. “No one said no to us,” Novak said. “Dozens of organizations signed up to be co-sponsors of the event. Not everyone got back to us, but those that did, all agreed to take part.”

Novak said it was important to time this event to coincide with Sept. 11, since that is a date that affects all Americans, and it calls to mind how, in the wake of that disaster, the American-Muslim community was particularly vulnerable.

During one moving moment at the Islamic Center, the crowd was asked by the center’s imam, Sayed Jumaa Salam, to stand and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In a way, it was a defiant act, as if saying, “We, too, are patriotic Americans.”

Novak said she was “thrilled” by the results and is determined to keep on doing what she can.

“I expect — I hope — it will become an annual event,” she said.  n