Reb Michael Accepts Award: Interfaith Partnerships w/Muslim Community

Salaam Aleikoum. Two years ago, I had the privilege of addressing you from this stage at Muslim-American Society / Islamic Council of North America's inaugural interfaith panel. Today, I am deeply honored to be back here, alongside my colleague Lesley Williams, to accept this award from Karen Danielson and MAS on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace.

We have come together again to celebrate Interfaith partnerships. Let us applaud Pope Francis, who has spoken publicly against the U.S. administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to the State of Israel from Tel Aviv to the Hoy City of Jerusalem. In so doing, the Catholic church has joined the largest Jewish denomination, the Reform movement and MAS-ICNA. Jerusalem, a city that is sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths, cannot be turned into a political tool. 

As we just heard, Jewish Voice for Peace is speaking up for human values and Jewish values. Each of the members of JVP has their own story. 

Let me tell you where my story begins:

One day in early December 1938, in Vienna, Austria, Rosa and David Schiffman, packed three small suitcases. They took their three young daughters to the train station. They hugged their girls. Along with her sisters, Ilse and Trude, eight year old Ruth, kissed her mutti and papa goodbye. The girls walked together past the barrier and the Nazi guards. They climbed aboard the train en route through northern Europe to the English Channel. A few days later, their group arrived safely in London. Nine months later, WWII broke out. The girls never saw their parents again. Rosa and David were murdered by the Nazis.

But  a network of Jews, Quakers and others forged a human bridge across several countries and carried the children to safety.

Ruth Schiffman was one of 10,000 German-speaking Jewish children who escaped Nazi Europe in this manner. Without the collaboration of thousands of people of good faith of different religions and nationalities, all these children would have perished along with the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Ruth went on to finish high school and marry, start a family and live to see children, grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren and counting. 

Ruth Schiffman is my mother.

My mother’s story illustrates to me how precious our liberties are and how human beings can be so easily destroyed in the machinery of war and hatred. It also informs how much can be accomplished in the face of adversity when people join together.

*    *    *

I was born in the United Kingdom and moved to Israel with my parents as a young boy. We sailed by boat from Athens, Greece across the Eastern Mediterranean. When the ship docked in Haifa, we were greeted with joyous Jewish music coming over the port’s p.a. system. My family was welcomed by Israeli government officials and granted automatic citizenship. After all, we were Jews coming to the Jewish State.

Which is why it is all the more jarring to me and my fellow JVPers that among you are so many Palestinians who are barred from living in your ancestral homes or even visiting them.

Jews and Western Christians can make pilgrimages to the Holy Land without interference. Not so, Muslims.

What I love about this conference is that we meet in a spirit of mutual respect. Elsewhere, that is not the case. If Muslims want to enter into Interfaith dialog, they must first agree not to bring up their legitimate grievances about Israel.

At my synagogue, Makom Shalom, we don’t agree on everything. We have a range of views on Israel. But we are committed to not letting these issues around Israel get in the way of being good neighbors to the Muslim community. When leaders from MAS-ICNA visited Makom Shalom for a Shabbat dinner, we were deeply moved by your stories of discrimination. Which Jewish person does not remember a time when we Jews were the ones who were shunned as outsiders?

Immediately after the elections last year, my synagogue, Makom Shalom, and other Jews, joined with Christians and Muslims in asking the residents of Oak Lawn in Chicago to embrace their Muslim neighbors. This was one of many events that JVP has organized to bring people together. As Rev. Koy and Karen Danielson and I walked down the main street -  a Christian pastor in his clerical collar, a rabbi wearing a kippa and a Muslim woman in traditional dress - an African-American man called out to us: “I’m with you.”

Interfaith partnership benefits all people.  Ours is an expansive view of religion. Holiness is found not in defending my narrow interests but in an inclusive vision for all.

This is what the world expects from religion. This is the message of hope and holiness that we serve.

On behalf of the dozens of rabbis and hundreds of thousands of members and supporters of Jewish Voice for Peace, we say shukran. 

We bless you and we thank you!

Makom Shalom is proud to be a diverse community with a range of views in current affairs and matters of faith. The views I present on this blog are my own and not a statement on behalf of the Makom Shalom community. I encourage you to share your views here in the comment section on this blog. I welcome respectful and engaged dialog.