In Support of Park51, A Letter from A Rabbi

I will never forget the disheveled, homeless Jewish fellow who sauntered into my synagogue one Saturday morning. As he walked by, some members of the congregation flinched, and I reminded myself to treat him just as I would treat any other guest. We developed a friendship over the next few months. At the end, when he needed to get back to his native country, I was able to raise money for his return. If we hadn’t become friends, I might have missed the opportunity to get him home and keep him from dying on the streets. Alone.

Human beings are interesting creatures. People are diverse, complex and ingenious all at the same time. We are all human, yet we are so different from one another? Or are we?

We are all the same in that all people are products of their environments. Maimonidies (1135-1204) writes: “It is the way of humanity to be influenced in attitude and action by the friends and companions.” (Mishneh Torah, De’ot, 6:1)

Sometimes people break free from the ideas they learned as they grew up. Most of the time, we do not. The ideals we are taught in our youth become cherished, even when those ideals seem questionable. Against all logic, Crusaders bore Crusaders, Fifteenth century Inquisitors bore Inquisitors, Nazi parents bore Nazi children and religious extremists bear religious extremists. It is hard to go beyond our comfort zones.

How then, are we to break free from stereotypes? How then, are we to train ourselves to embrace new ideas, cultures and people? How then, do we expand our comfort zones and become more inclusive?

As the rabbi of a diverse Jewish congregation on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, I have learned this comes with experience. All sorts of people pass through our synagogue doors. By welcoming them into our community, each member is challenged to experience new ways of life and gain new perspectives. We push our limits, learn about others and see that we have more in common than we realize. Broadening our horizons gives us the strength to break free.

When it comes to expanding religious horizons, Park51 has the right idea. Interfaith programming. People of all religions and of no religion all agree on certain basic truths. Unfortunately, we are used to focusing on the differences between “us” and “outsiders.” Fortunately, fear and hatred can be unlearned.

The goal of positive interfaith programming is to shatter the imaginary walls that prevent our mutual goals and common ground from entering the collective conversation. A world without artificial boundaries, which fosters dialogue and communication amongst all faiths and walks of life, has the potential to shift the paradigm of religion from something which polarizes to something which can energize. When the collective conversation includes the diverse spectrum of religious life, it draws upon much more wisdom than a monologue in an echo chamber.

Park51 is on the cutting edge of interfaith programming. The Center is a place where all people are welcome with no pretense and no conditions. The mission of Park51 is to engage others and provide a forum of mutual respect and love. Park51 is facilitating the conversation. Let us all be part of the conversation.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com

Follow him on Twitter [http://twitter.com/e_fink] and Facebook [http://facebook.com/eliyahu.fink]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Park51.

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