Watching Pope Francis speak at the multi-faith ceremony at 9/11 Museum in lower New York brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t expect it—I hadn’t really focused on the pope’s visit much except to plan my schedule around traffic snarls in Midtown, but when I tuned into this ceremony I became transfixed.
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Anchored by Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue and Imam Khalid Latif, chaplain to Muslim students at New York University, the diversity of religious life in New York was clear with leaders from the Catholic Church, and Hindu, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox and Sikh religions. Dr. Sarah Sayeed, also Muslim and a senior adviser to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, prayed, “lead us to your abode of peace.”
For a mushy moment, I watched with pride as Sen. Chuck Schumer beamed in the front row near the other elected officials. Schumer, a neighbor, a fellow-congregant at my Reform Congregation (Beth Elohim), and possibly the next leader of the U.S. Senate Democratic Caucus, had just been singing these same songs in synagogue two days ago, clapping his hands with the rest of our congregation as we ended the Yom Kippur fast. The poignancy of the role that so many American Jews play in high positions of government couldn’t be clearer from his presence.
Park Avenue Synagogue Cantor Azi Schwartz sang El Malei Rachamim, in honor of those first responders during that tragic day. He prayed for “the souls of the victims of Sept. 11 who have gone to their eternal home,” and said “may their place of rest be in Gan Eden, may the All-Merciful One shelter them with the cover of His wings forever.” I got chills as I do each time I hear this haunting memorial prayer, but this time, even more so, as these words floated near the remaindered steel beams of the World Trade Towers that stand in the memorial hall, over the sea of clergy.
Then, surprisingly, Cantor Schwartz broke into Oseh Shalom, a joyful song about working for peace, and I got chills from my chills. I couldn’t believe it when the camera panned to show leaders of the Catholic Church and Greek Orthodox Church in full religious garb singing along with the Hebrew!
New York City is nothing if not bold and we, its residents, are nothing if not in your face about our beliefs. This service was a New York City in-your-face gracious presentation that showed the world not only what we are, but also who we are. The news commentators on MSNBC kept pointing out the diversity of New York City, and so, of course did the pope. This event was organized precisely to show the harmony in diversity, which actually does work in New York.
The night before, another New York figure decided to stake his claim in this diverse America. Steven Colbert, who has labeled himself “America’s most famous Catholic,” is one of our nation’s top entertainers and social commentators, but he is especially known for inserting his liberal political views and his religious faith into his prime time slot. This time, he took the opportunity to present the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus and St. Jean Baptiste Choir to sing together in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Introducing the choir as “one of the only groups bringing young Jewish and Christian and Muslim youth together in the Holy Land in song,” Colbert did a mitzvah for his audience. He showed a face of Jerusalem so unseen in the news headlines, away from the stone throwing, the checkpoints, and the inequities toward a different reality that exists, if only in this tiny bubble that few are lucky enough to inhabit.
We, American Jewry, thrive in our role as a minority because we thrive on the commitment that American democracy makes to the rights of minorities and to the belief that diversity gives our nation strength. The flourishing of Jewish life in America, in all of its iterations except for the minority of fundamentalists, is based on the openness of American society. We teach our Jewish children that democracy enhances minority rights. This is what allowed our grandparents and great grandparents to create the most successful and diverse Jewish community in the world.
But there is also something about this pope that compels us to respect religion in the public sphere. There is no arrogance from this pope. Pope Francis shows that religion can bring together people who normally can’t sit in the same room. Imagine if the situation in Israel and the Middle East today could be energized to show religion as a way to reach out, not a way to divide, including among the different forms of Judaism inside of Israel itself.
As Israel becomes more parochial, less welcoming to the strangers in its midst, less welcoming of its own Arab minority and less willing to negotiate an end to the occupation with the Palestinians, these values diverge between the shores of the vast ocean.
For too many in Israel today, democracy means majority rule at the expense of the minority, especially as it relates to Israel's Arab citizens. Also, religion is not experienced as joyous or inclusive, rather it is exclusionary, especially where the differing Jewish streams are concerned. This divergence between religion in America and religion in Israel is an impediment for American Jewry's engagement with Israel.
My bet is that American Jewry will not give up on our commitment to minority rights and to inclusion and freedom and my hope is that we will insist that these values grows in the country of Israel that so many of us love and that is the heart-center of our spiritual and emotional identity.
Jo-Ann Mort is a writer and consultant. She co-authored “Our hearts invented a dream: Can kibbutzim survive in today’s Israel?” and is CEO of ChangeCommunications, a strategy firm that works with clients in the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority area.