11: Keeper of the Principles

11: Keeper of the Principles

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Keeper of the Principles

God has given us many faiths but only one world in which to co-exist. May your work help all of us cherish our commonalities and feel enlarged by our differences.

~Lord Jonathan Sacks

I first attended interfaith groups as a high school student in the 1960s in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I was raised in a Jewish family with an awareness of racism, anti-Semitism and oppression of many kinds in our country and in the world. My ancestors had suffered from pogroms in Russia, prompting them to immigrate to this country. Because of them, I was lucky enough to grow up in America. As a young person, I thought a lot about becoming a civil rights lawyer so I could help people who had been discriminated against, although I abandoned that plan when I discovered how many years of school that would require!

I studied Comparative Religions in college, and participated in many spiritual, peace and civil rights events over the years. Yet more than thirty years after my first interfaith experiences in high school, despite decades seeking greater understanding of the struggles of other people, after 9/11 I realized I didn’t know any Muslims.

I knew that Muslims were going to suffer discrimination and persecution from the anger that was to come. So while some called for war, I went looking for peace groups to work with.

The one I liked best was JAM and All (short for Jews and Muslims and All), founded by a South Florida imam and a Jewish businessman shortly after 9/11. I loved this group’s positive emphasis on creating and working for peace, rather than fighting against war and injustice, and I’ve been an active member since 2002.

Through JAM, I’ve met wonderful people of many faiths, and had numerous enlightening experiences through our community events featuring spirited dialogue, shared prayers and educational panels. And some of the most meaningful connections I’ve made have been with Muslims.

One thing about JAM events: There’s always food! And breaking bread together really seems to help people connect and overcome differences. Spicy chickpea salad and potato samosas with tamarind sauce have become favorites of mine! And I’ve fallen in love with the gorgeous colorful fabrics worn by my Muslim friends who wear the traditional, multi-layered clothing items known as hijabs, abayas and jilbabs.

I’ve learned how wholeheartedly Muslims practice charity, compassion and generosity. I’ve seen it through their devoted and consistent support of our local community events and charities, as well as personal acts of generosity and support toward myself and others.

I’ve been able to support them, too, by playing music for hospital visits with sick members, writing letters in support of imams who were unjustly removed from planes, and in many other ways. I’ve also learned how much Islam and Judaism have in common. I’ve learned that Islam is a religion of peace and teaches that: “If you save one person, it is as if you have saved the world. If you harm one person, it is as if you have harmed the world.” We have this same teaching in Judaism. There are many other common values and teachings as well.

In our JAM group, I became known as Keeper of the Principles because I typeset a nice copy of the twenty principles we created to guide our dialogue groups and events. I make sure there are copies to give newcomers at every JAM gathering. Some of our JAM Principles include:

• Respect our differences

• Non-judgment

• Keeping each other safe

• Listen and hear

Over the years, we’ve developed traditions in JAM. One of our favorites is sharing “JAM Stories,” examples of wonderful things happening as a result of some kind of interfaith interaction.

One of our most memorable JAM stories happened in October 2005 after Hurricane Wilma, one of the most devastating hurricanes we’ve had in Florida. Electricity and water were out in many places for weeks, and in some cases for months, leaving many without food, water and other crucial resources.

In the Holiday Springs condominium in Margate, many elderly Jewish residents were trapped in their upper-floor apartments with no elevators, electricity, or water. This building was next door to Masjid Jamaat Al’Mu-mineen, known as the Margate Masjid, a mosque that many of these Jewish folks had adamantly opposed when it was being built.

Nevertheless, when members of the Margate Masjid discovered their neighbors were trapped in their apartments, they immediately organized food and water deliveries, walking up all those stairs to deliver this vital nourishment to their neighbors, people they didn’t even know. The Margate Masjid had a generator so they were able to make hot coffee to go with the countless sandwiches they put together. These deliveries continued daily for weeks until electricity was restored to the building.

I heard about this while it was happening from JAM friends who belong to the Margate Masjid, and later from some of the condo residents themselves, who attended a JAM meeting at the mosque some months later. The hearts of these elderly Jewish people were transformed by this generous act of charity by their Muslim neighbors, and they spoke warmly of those who had helped them. The fact that they were now willing to attend an interfaith meeting held at a mosque spoke even louder than their words.

Later, when the Margate Masjid needed to expand and build a larger facility in a different area, some in the new area opposed the new building project. These same Jewish neighbors who had once opposed the building of the mosque next door now spoke to the County Board on behalf of the mosque, along with many of us in the community, supporting them in building their new and much-needed facility. And the new mosque was built.

This is just one of many transformations I’ve experienced, observed and participated in through our JAM and All interfaith group. I had the opportunity to speak on an interfaith panel at an Islamic Society of North America convention. I’ve been warmly welcomed (and fed!) at many iftars, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. I’ve attended many inspiring services at churches, temples and mosques to support JAM brothers and sisters who were leading or speaking at the services. I’ve attended countless JAM events and board meetings, and proposed and managed our JAM Listserv for group communications and community notices.

Now if I hear someone slandering or repeating a negative stereotype about Muslims, I always say: “If you knew the Muslims I know, you would feel differently. Let me introduce you to my friends!” I have Muslim friends who feel more like members of my family than some members of my family.

Though it’s not a big group, it feels to me like this JAM group, which comes together in love, caring and mutual respect, is practicing the principles of America in a deep, authentic way. And that makes this group one of the most beautiful examples of the kind of America that I am proud to live in.

~Laura Sue Wilansky

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