At Boston Interfaith Service, Jewish Ideas Invoked in Memory of Marathon Victims

Religious leaders, President Barack Obama counsel compassion, caring for community in wake of Monday's marathon bombings.

BOSTON - Muslim and Christian leaders invoked Jewish principles of the sanctity of life at an interfaith service on Thursday to honor the victims of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings.

The service was held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and was attended by U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama.

"Whoever kills a soul, it is as if he killed mankind entirely, and whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved all of mankind," said Nasser S. Wedaddy, chairman of the New England Interfaith Council and civil rights outreach director of the American Islamic Congress. He noted that the passage from the Koran was inspired by the Jewish tradition.

"We saw souls murdered, but also lives saved on Boylston Street," said Wedaddy, referring to the street where a pair of bombs ripped through the crowds near the finish line at the Boston Marathon on Monday.

Rabbi Ronne Friedman, the senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston, who also spoke at the service, told Haaretz how moved he was that Wedaddy, who later spoke to him in fluent Hebrew (and went on, he recalled to speak to another clergy member in fluent Spanish), chose to select that sentiment which is described in the Talmud.

“For me it was a powerful reminder of possibility, a reminder that this day was an expression of our common humanity and our connection to one another. I thought what he did really brought that home.”

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, said he had recently returned home after a visit to Israel with 30 other Boston priests. As the city began the process of healing, he invoked the Jewish concept of "Tikkun Olam," Hebrew for "repairing the world."

"The Jewish people speak of Tikkun Olam," said O’Malley. "God has tasked us with repairing the world. We can only do that as a community, as a family."

During his spiritual retreat in Israel, he said, he and his fellow Boston priests traveled to Galilee to pray at the Mount of the Beatitudes and listen to the words of the sermon that Jesus gave there, according to Christian tradition.

O’Malley spoke of the difference between crowd and community that Jesus described in those teachings.

"We can see the contrast between the crowd and the community," he said. "The crowd is made up of self-interested individuals. A community is where people come to value each other, to find their own identity in something bigger than themselves."

The idea of community and people helping one another was a central theme of the service. Speakers repeatedly referred to the stories of bystanders rushing in to help the wounded. Obama spoke of the surgeon who finished the marathon and then continued running to hospital to the hospital where he works. He quoted Dick Hoyt who has pushed his disabled son in 31 Boston Marathons who said, “We can’t let something like this stop us.’ This doesn’t stop us.”

Friedman, the rabbi, read, in Hebrew, a passage from Psalm 147, speaking to the mending the city, the families of the victims and the injured, must now undergo.

Translating to English he said, "God, healer of the broken hearted and binder of their wounds, grant consolation to those who mourn and all those who suffer loss and pain and restore to them and all of those who grieve with them a sense of life’s goodness and purpose."

Friedman also cited the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Hasidic sage who said "the entire world is a narrow bridge." He said that image should encourage people to be compassionate to each other and "somehow transcend our fear as we share our grief."

Wedaddy, originally from Mauritania, spent time in Damascus as a child. He spoke of experiencing the terror of a car-bomb explosion in the street on his way home from school, when he was seven. "I will never forget that," he said, "And that anger and fear returned on Monday."

Just a week ago, he told the audience, he became a naturalized American citizen, pledging to "do work of national importance." He said he could not have known that he, and the people of Boston, would be called to do just such work so soon after he spoke those words.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was among several Jewish communal leaders attending the service. Pesner, who lived in Jerusalem in the mid-1990s during a spate of bus bombings and lost people he knew in those attacks, said that experience informed his Zionism and his life as a rabbi.

“Now 18 years later the people of Boston are feeling what that feels like,” he said. “And Americans now understand what Israelis understand: that our freedom not to be taken for granted.”

In an interview with Haaretz, Pesner spoke of the juxtaposition of sorrow and mourning felt on Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel’s memorial day, with its near instant transformation to celebrations for Yom Ha’Atzmaout, the country’s independence.

The opposite experience happened in Boston, he said. Here the joy and festivity of the Boston Marathon, always held on Patriot’s Day, which marks the beginning of the American War for Independence, turned to tragedy in a split-second.

Obama closed the service with words of healing but also resolve. "Have no doubt. You will run again. Because that’s what the people of Boston are made of. Your resolve is the biggest rebuke to whoever did this," he said.

And for those who carried out the bombing Obama had this message: "Yes, we will find you, and yes, you will face justice." 

Reuters