February is African American History Month. This important annual commemoration of civil liberties was officially recognized by the US government in 1976 during the Bicentennial celebration. The purpose of the month, according to then President Gerald Ford, is to urge Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Some 1,000 Chicagoans of all faiths gathered Wednesday afternoon for an event titled “Love Thy Neighbor: An Interfaith Gathering Against Hate” at Chicago Loop Synagogue.
Sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund, the event featured stirring words against intolerance and for unity from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith and community leaders.
The synagogue was the target of vandalism early Saturday morning, Feb. 4, when an attacker smashed a front window and placed swastika stickers on the building. It was the first such attack on the synagogue, which opened in 1959. A hate crime investigation led to the Tuesday morning arrest of Stuart Wright, 31.
Also last week, the Lake County JCC received a bomb threat and anti-Semitic vandalism was reported at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
Concerned citizens and organizations from many faiths offered support to the Loop Synagogue, including Muslim women and children who sent notes and flowers.
“By coming together, we are reaffirming the best of what our country and our city is about,” said Emily Sweet, executive director of JCRC, who welcomed attendees at the interfaith gathering. She called on Chicagoans to “stand together, not just in response to one crime, but during all the days to come, reaffirming our commitment to the tenet that unites all of our faiths: Love thy neighbor.”
Chicago Loop Synagogue President Lee Zoldan recalled the 1 a.m. phone call she received regarding the vandalism. As she stood in the winter night with her husband, looking at the damage, she said, “We felt very alone. But we were not alone.” She explained that, from that day to this, her job has consisted mostly of saying “thank you” to hundreds of cards, calls, and donations. “One single act of hate led to hundreds of acts of love,” she said.
JUF/Jewish Federation President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir noted that the support from Christians and Muslims at the event mirrored JUF’s commitment to helping others, from the victims in Aleppo to the Federation’s leadership of the Illinois Refugee Social Service Consortium, which over the course of 40 years has “rescued over 125,000 victims of war and persecution of all faiths and nationalities.” He said these efforts emerged from the Jewish belief in “the absolute dignity and sanctity of every person.”
While religious hatred is old, Nasatir said, the level of hate crimes now occurring is “new and alarming. An FBI report released in November 2016 showed 5,818 hate crimes occurred in 2015, up about 6 percent over the previous year. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by 67 percent; Jews, just 1.7 percent of the population, are the target of more than 50 percent of all religious hate crimes.” His response: “Let the word go out from this assembly that we stand together to say ‘No!’ to all forms of hate. Let there be no light between us, save the light of liberty.” ( Read Nasatir’s complete remarks during the program. )
Bishop Sally Dyck of the United Methodist Church warned against the “temptation to go numb” felt by many due to “the outrages that erupt on a daily basis.” She spoke of the community as a unified “body” or “fabric” of neighbors. She said that she came to the gathering “to speak, to pray, and to stand with” the Jewish community in the “hope for shalom.” Dyck read a brief poem about the world — “Where does it hurt? Everywhere” — and said people must unite for “Shalom, everywhere.”
Jenan Mohajir, international programs specialist of the Interfaith Youth Core, told her Muslim parents’ immigration story. She said that she, too, raises her children with positive messages, even as one child asked about the synagogue vandal, “Will he break our window, too?”
To help her children cope, Mohajir had her children write messages of solidarity and buy flowers, then brought them to the synagogue on Sunday morning. “We have to be both vulnerable and vigilant,” she said. “My Islam is filled with love and hope. We leave no room for despair.”
Pastor Chris Harris of Bronzeville’s Bright Star Church recalled the Civil Rights movement, and urged the crowd to “say nothing about violence and hatred until we do something about them.” He recalled a recent news story about New Yorkers using hand sanitizer to scrub swastikas off the subway, responding, “What we need is heart sanitizer, to wipe away hatred and bigotry.”
Harris gave three instructions for dealing with challenges to community solidarity: Show up, step up, and speak up; he concluded with three more guidelines: Be connected, be concerned, and be compassionate. These actions engage the head, hand, and heart, he said.
Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ also spoke of the Civil Rights movement, saying that his father had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and like them, “prayed with his feet.” He explained how jazz music was an amalgam of sounds and instruments from many places that still harmonized, while ensuring that “every instrument has a right to solo.” In this way, he said, “jazz taught America democracy.” He encouraged the attendees to “write, on the blank pages of history … a new song.”
Rabbi Michael Siegel, senior rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue, then led the assembly in prayer. He praised God for “believing in the power of holiness in us — despite our flaws.” He said that the light to dispel darkness comes from “acts of kindness … the power of love.” Explaining that the directive, “Love thy neighbor,” the event’s theme, was from the Torah, he asked God’s help to “meet hatred with love and unity” and “to find peace in the midst of upheaval.” Siegel concluded by leading participants in the singing of “ Oseh Shalom” (Establish Peace).”
JCRC Chairman David T. Brown closed the gathering. ”I grew up in a world of ‘Never Again,’ in which the depravity of the 1930s and 1940s could never be replicated,” he said, “But our work is not done. We must continue to stand up for what is right.”
Brown said the day’s turnout gave him hope: “Look at this outpouring of community. We must continue to build bridges. This is only the beginning.”
Letters of support from Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, both out of town, were in the event’s program, as was a poem written by Chicago-area Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic fourth-graders participating in Poetry Pals, an organization that uses creative expression to promote understanding and peace in a multi-faith society. Poetry Pals received a two-year JUF Breakthrough Fund grant that will help the program expand its reach to middle and high schools, and create a curriculum that can be replicated in other cities.
Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner was in attendance at the event, as were Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley, Aldermen Michelle Smith, Debra Silverstein, and Ameya Pawar, as well as others representing the City of Chicago and Cook County. Also present were: Holocaust survivor Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center; Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Aviv Ezra; Michael H. Zaransky, chairman of the JUF Board of Directors; and representatives of other groups.
Attendees received buttons with the event’s theme, “Love Thy Neighbor,” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. As Brown explained, “This is our clarion call. This is what our Chicago community believes in. And this is the sentiment we want to share far and wide.”
For video clips of all speakers, visit www.juf.org/videos .
Podcast of “Get Down To Business with Shalom Klein” – 2/12/2017 – Sharokina Pazand, David Rubinstein, Beth Rosen and Michelle Sinkovits
Moe Vela says he wears many hats — among them former White House official, Hispanic leader, author of “Little Secret Big Dreams,” motivational speaker, business leader and lawyer. According to his book, Vela became the first Hispanic American and first gay American to serve two senior executive roles in the White House. He recently visited Pharmore Drugs in Skokie.
Q: What were some of your roles at the White House?
A; I served during the Clinton administration as chief financial officer and senior adviser on Latino affairs in the office of Vice President Al Gore, and later during the Obama administration as director of administration for Joe Biden, the vice president of the United States.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in the southern tip of Texas in a little town called Harlingen on the Mexican border.
Q: What was growing up in your hometown like?
A: I grew up Latino Catholic, son of a pioneer family. Going to Mass, my priest was telling me I couldn’t be who I knew I was. I knew I had a little secret since I was 4 years old. I knew I was gay.
Q: What is your book about?
A: My book is not about being gay. My book is about believing in yourself and persevering and understanding that every one of us, regardless of who we love, regardless of who we are, regardless of our religion, our culture, our heritage, that every one of us is worthy of our place at the table of life. That is the crux of the book.
Q: How did you get to Washington and play such an instrumental role?
A: I was working for a private corporation in Austin, Texas and one of my colleagues in passing said a friend is looking for talented people to go to Washington and work with her in the Clinton administration.
Q: What was your work with the Clinton administration?
A: I started at the Department of Agriculture of all places. Three years into the administration, we’re sitting in a bar and a dear friend of mine said in passing Al Gore’s office is looking for some help for six months. ‘We’re looking for a lawyer type,’ the friend said. I said, ‘I’m a lawyer type.’
Q: How did you serve the vice president?
A: I was asked to audit all the files and folders because (the office) was behind in some payments. It was 1995 but they knew (Gore) was going to run even then so they knew they couldn’t owe money.
Q: Where did you move from there?
A: Six months later, when my term was up and I turned in a report, I was called in to meet the vice president because he wanted to thank me. I get goose bumps right now even remembering that. It was such an affirming moment. He said he wasn’t here to just thank me but to ask me to be his next CFO and senior adviser on Latina affairs and LGBT matters.
Q: What is the key to being a good public speaker?
A: Always speak from your heart. If you keep it real, and you’re open, and you’re genuine, and you truly, truly love, I don’t care what anybody tells you, you’ll succeed. There’s two keys — genuine authenticity and humor. If you make somebody laugh, at that moment you actually love each other.