Boston Bombing Is a Chance for the City's Jews and Muslims to Get Closer

Many of Boston's Jews are hoping thatout of the tragic events of last week, we can find opportunities to enrich our relationships with Boston’s vibrant and diverse Muslim community.

Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen
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Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen

Last week was a painful one for Boston, for my family and thousands of others. My wife and I raised three boys who sold Diet Coke and peanuts in the grandstands at Fenway Park, and cheered on the Celtics at Boston Garden. And for many years we stood together each April and applauded – just as the victims of the April 15 bombings did – the countless runners, from countless countries, who dashed, jogged or limped toward the finish line at the magnificent Boston Marathon.

Our warm memories are tarnished now. The harrowing events of last week have left us dazed. Unhappily, Boston now joins the ranks of those many places around the globe that have been victimized by terrorizing, if not always “terrorist,” acts of violence. What twisted logic could have inspired, or what hidden trauma could have impelled, two brothers to inflict wanton destruction on the lives of innocents? When the surviving brother is further questioned, we’ll hope to find some semblance of a response to the nagging question: Why did this happen?

The answer might, or might not, be informed by the revelation that the older, now-deceased brother seems to have veered into the world of radical Islam, perhaps sympathizing with extremists agitating for Chechen independence from Russia. His younger brother, a seemingly well-integrated college kid, might have followed him down that dark path. As of now, though, we still don’t know for sure.

Fallout of the bigoted kind began to appear even before anything was known about the perpetrators. The Boston Globe on April 19 reported an assault by a man in a Boston suburb on a head-scarfed woman pushing her child in a stroller. In New York, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi was attacked by a man uttering anti-Muslim slurs.

And what of Jewish-Muslim relations in Boston in the aftermath? Some relatively recent history is worth noting. Six years ago the minaret of a new mosque – the largest in New England – was capped in Boston's Roxbury neighborhoodfollowing a two-year hiatus in construction marked by tense litigation. As reported in July 2007, the "controversy over allegations that the mosque had ties to terrorism had mushroomed into lawsuits and poisoned relations among the city's Jewish and Muslim communities."

The lawsuits were settled, but the Jewish community in Boston split between organizations and individuals who continued to resist engagement with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center and the Muslim American Society – the organizations that run the mosque – and those who sought to break down suspicions and distrust through renewed dialogue and relationship-building. Even today, remnants of that rift remain. The weeks ahead will test how the various segments of the Boston Jewish community respond to the most recent events.

The ISBCC has been outspoken and unequivocal in its condemnation of the bombings as criminal acts. A recent message to ISBCC members reads: “Presently, our focus will remain on grieving for the victims and their families, praying for a speedy recovery for the injured, and leaving no stone uncovered in finding any other suspects connected to the bombings. We once again emphatically urge any of our congregants who have any additional information on the Boston bombings or the suspects to immediately call 1800 CALL-FBI.”

At the interfaith memorial service on April 18 in Boston’s South End, at which President Obama and a small group of civic and religious leaders addressed the 2,000 in attendance, the imam of the Roxbury mosque was slated to speak. Curiously, in his place in the program, the director of civil-rights outreach for a non-congregational, relatively low-profile organization called the American Islamic Congress was inserted instead. Other last-minute adjustments to the roster of speakers were also made, apparently by the governor’s office, which had assumed primary responsibility for the event. One wonders: Why was the decision made to opt for a Muslim representative who was not chosen by Muslims from their faith community?

Ronne Friedman is the senior rabbi at Boston’s largest synagogue, Temple Israel, and was the only rabbi to speak at Thursday’s interfaith service. He and other rabbis and Jewish communal leaders have met several times with the ISBCC’s Imam Suhaib Webb and members of his staff, at the Roxbury mosque and elsewhere. Rabbi Friedman was both surprised and disappointed that the imam had been removed from the roster of speakers. He told me he’s impressed with the depth, sincerity and religious scholarship the new imam brings, and genuinely delighted with the openness he has expressed to build more bridges and “to recognize the opportunities that exist when we act in concert for the sake of the city.”

Rabbi Friedman’s words capture the hopes of many in the greater Boston Jewish community: that out of the shocking and tragic events of last week, we can – among other ways to heal – find opportunities to enrich our relationships with Boston’s vibrant and diverse Muslim community. Doing so will call for each community to engage the other on terms based not on where we would like the other community to be, but on where that community is. It means both groups deciding to sit down, break bread, speak and listen without preconditions. It means developing sustained relationships that acknowledge and enjoy our commonalities and confront, respectfully and diplomatically, our disagreements.

We can only hope that the Jewish and Muslim communities in Boston honor the memory of the past week by opening a window that broadens and deepens their engagement with each other, including, for some, finding ways to dial down the tensions of recent years. A commitment to that project offers rewards for both groups, not least the enhanced security that's a by-product of mutual respect and understanding. But perhaps above all, as Rabbi Friedman sagely observed, it's "for the sake of the city."

Michael Felsen, an attorney, is president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a multigenerational community organization dedicated to Jewish education, culture and social justice. He also serves as a trustee of the Interreligious Center for Public Life in Newton, Massachusetts.

Rabbi Howard Berman of Central Reform Temple participates in an interfaith memorial service with members of six churches at a makeshift memorial for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Credit: AFP

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