Words of love and comfort and healing rang through the chilly night air. For many, they were the only weapons against hatred and disunity and violence.
The Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury hosted one of many peace vigils held in the wake of the murder of 11 Jewish people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 27.
Isma Chaudhry, chair of the center’s board of trustees, emceed the Oct. 29 ceremony.
“This is a time for all of us to reflect, and to take reflective actions. And to make sure that the ideologies of hate and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia must be challenged and uprooted,” she said.
Center President Habeeb Ahmed welcomed the 150-plus people in attendance and quoted the Quran’s Chapter 5, Verse 32: “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as though he has killed all mankind.”
“This attack is shocking, and offends the conscience of every sane person, regardless of their religious identity,” he said. “I wish to stress categorically and unequivocally that this horrific attack is a complete violation of all religious ethos.”
He added, “These ideologies of hate and anti-Semitism must be challenged and rooted out with a proper presentation of true teachings of our shared religious values, the ones that have been passed down for centuries through the wisdom of a collective mass of sages and scholars. They are love, compassion and respect.”
Area Jewish leaders spoke of the spiritual aid they received from the center.
Rick Lewis is executive director of The Mid Island Y Jewish Community Center (YJCC) in Plainview. He revealed that, as the tragedy unfolded on Saturday, the very first text message he received came from the leadership of the Islamic Center.
Lewis also said that when the YJCC received a bomb threat in January 2016, once again, “The Islamic Center, and your friends and your leadership, were right by my side at that time—practically first. The support has been incredible.”
Lewis was struck by what he termed “the beautiful signs” held by a group of Center members, with such sentiments as, “We stand with our Jewish friends.” He asked if he could borrow the posters, or better yet, have the men show up to the vigil planned the following night at the YJCC.
The Islamic Center, Ahmed told the Westbury Times the day after, was represented at that gathering.
Rabbi Jay Weinstein of the Congregation Simchat Halev in Syosset was alerted to the tragedy by “our sisters—not our cousins, our sisters—from the Islamic Center.”
After quoting the admonition, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” the rabbi confessed that when he arrived at “this holy space” he sat with his eyes closed. As soon as he opened them, they filled with tears, for the first thing he saw was the sign, “United we stand, Muslims and Jews.”
Rabbi Lee Friedlander, of the Reconstructionist synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome, related that he was at the Islamic Center’s dedication ceremony and, “I could not imagine then I would be with you in this union of grieving.”
He added, “Yesterday, members of the Center were at our synagogue. I was not. I was in Philadelphia. But it meant so much to me to know friends from here were with my colleagues there. Tonight, they have given me a place to grieve and to come to terms with what has happened. How can we come to terms? By being together. Thank you for this comfort in our being together in fellowship.”
‘We Have Your Backs’
Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan, of New Hyde Park’s Hillside Islamic Center, said, “We all need to come together. On behalf of the Muslim community of Nassau County, I want to assure our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith across the United States—and especially in Pittsburgh—that we are with you. We feel your sorrow. We feel your pain.”
He noted that Muslims, too, have been objects of hatred and violent acts, and Jews “have always been by our side. We have your backs, and we hope and pray that you have our backs.”
Bhuiyan said he “wants to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to fight the bigotry that’s dividing our country that we love so much.”
Dr. Faroque Khan, chair of the Islamic Center’s Interfaith Institute, talked of the recent events, including the shooting of two African-Americans by a white nationalist in Kentucky and the pipe bombs allegedly sent by Cesar Sayoc to prominent Democrats and critics of the president.
He quoted verses from the Quran to the effect that houses of worship, in which God’s name is often mentioned, should be protected.
Khan expressed his gratitude to his adopted country, but was worried about the hatred and anger. He read the names of the victims at the Tree of Life synagogue.
After pleading for changes in the gun laws, he called for spreading what Jews called Tikkun Olam—basically, the “repair of the world” through acts of kindness and social justice.
Khan didn’t want to see armed guards at the entrance of the mosque.
“These should be safe sanctuaries, and we should have the common sense and decency to respect [them],” he said, and added, “ It’s really heartwarming to see this turnout of such a diverse group.”
Human rights attorney Fred Brewington served on the National Council of Churches and is a member of the Westbury United Methodist Church.
“There is a great need among us in this land to unify under a single banner. A banner that unites us far beyond color and our upbringing and our culture,” he said. “One that unites us together as children of God.”
He added, “I believe this is a time of vigilance for us. Not hatred. Not war. We will stand together arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder in the vineyard of peace. And not be afraid to push back against those who would have peace be just a word.”
Brewington concluded, “We are called to unity. I make a solemn vow on this hallowed ground, that those that I have contact with will hear these words from my mouth—that I will seek peace. And have it no other way. I ask you to join us.”
Robert Socolof is the director of the Long Island region of the American Jewish Committee.
“When something like this happens, people of good heart ask, ‘What can we do to counter this?’ My answer is this (waving his hand at the assembly). This is what we can do,” he stated. “People of faith, we can gather together and create unity and make love grow in the shadow of hate. Out of the darkness comes a light. And this is the light that we’ll all live to see.”
Arthur Katz, board member of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, represented Chairman Steven Markovitz.
He quoted the classic words of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, with the poem that began, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a socialist…”
“We are the children of Abraham,” he observed. “Let us fill empty seats with our neighbors and friends.”
Katz suggested that the community can follow what Jews did in response to terror: “Join together to build more, pray more, and sing more. And let us do it together as one human community.”
He ended with Arabic/Hebrew greetings signifying peace, one that others had spoken: “Salaam, shalom.”
Town of North Hempstead Clerk Wayne Wink admitted that, “I didn’t come here to speak words of comfort. I came here to seek comfort. I came here with anger and with disappointment and with the hope—if there is such a thing—of never having to meet like this again.”
What Wink had heard and seen that night did give him hope against what he called the climate of anger and hatred and violence.
“But as I look out over you and hear the words that have been spoken tonight, I do have hope,” he reflected. “It’s a hope I didn’t think I’d really possessed, because we have seen too much of this too much violence and anger and hatred….I do have hope that our hope does prove that love does trump hate. The only way to go on, quite frankly, is to have that hope in our hearts.”
Making one of the few pointed political remarks, Wink stated, “And I hope and pray that those who offer hopes and prayers, provide plans and actions instead.”
He ended with the wish that “we can take this feeling and pain and do something good with it. Because that’s the only way we can move ahead as a people.”
Chaudhry then called up Town of North Hempstead Receiver of Taxes Charlie Berman, a member and past president of Temple Sinai in Roslyn.
“It means so much for all of us,” he said. “This is a very difficult time for us. It’s so traumatic.”
Berman’s grandfather was an immigrant who enlisted in the Army and saw action in all the major battles of World War I.
“He fought for this country, for freedom and for tolerance,” Berman said. “He fought to make this country what it can be and what it should be: a beacon of hope and light for all the world. And it will be.”
“This was a horrible event, preceded by many horrible events just in the recent time, but it’s not acceptable, and we’ll never accept it, because we know how great this country is,” Berman went on.
After mentioning the shooting as the latest in a string of horrible events, he concluded, “Thank you for inviting us to your home so that you can comfort us. We will always comfort and support each other.”
Chaudhry repeated the words of Habeeb Ahmed, who recited the Quran’s Chapter 5, Verse 32, and commented, “This verse ties all humanity together as one. And it is clear that the very purpose of creation is to be each other’s keepers.”
People Of Faith
Reverend Dwight Lee Wolter of Patchogue joshed that it was fortunate that he didn’t know that he would be called on to speak, “or you’d really be cold because I’m a preacher!”
“One of my concerns is how good seems to grow weary quicker than evil,” he remarked. “While goodness is sleeping, evil is doing to push-ups next to the bed. I don’t know why that is or if it’s true, but it seems to be true for me.”
Wolter went on to suggest that when evil inflicts pain and suffering, people of faith fight back.
He called the evening an occasion “where we have gained strength, and where our feet may grow weary, but our hearts grow strong.”
He concluded, “We [can] mobilize people to care, and we’re doing that tonight.”
Rabbi Alexander Kress from Temple Sinai in Roslyn said he had officiated at a wedding in Philadelphia after the mass killings. He explained to the newlyweds that the traditional breaking of the drinking glass signifies that in the midst of this great joy of the nuptials, “there is brokenness in our world. And we must dedicate our love to healing its wounds. When the world makes us feel helpless, as it did at the Tree of Life synagogue, we must remember that we hold immense power to radiate light, to spread love and to heal our world.”
The rabbi ended the prayer in Hebrew, which he then translated: “May the one who makes peace in the high heavens, bring peace to the Jewish people in mourning, to all our partners in peace, and to all who live together on this majestic planet.”
Rev. Tom Goodhue was executive director emeritus of the Long Island Council of Churches and a member of the United Methodist Church.
“I came here not expecting to speak, but for comfort,” he began.
He quoted an iman after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016, perpetrated by New Hyde Park native Omar Mateen: “The people who were killed were my brothers and sisters. The man who killed them may claim to be a Muslim, but he is not my brother.”
Goodhue went on, “This guy in Pittsburgh (accused shooter Robert Gregory Bowers) thought he was part of my tribe. I think the [mail] bomber thought he was part of my tribe. Christians must call out the sin as we struggle to love the sinner.”
He concluded, “When that man went to the synagogue to kill people because he thought that they did not hate immigrants, he did not know the God who [taught us] to love the immigrant and the widow and the orphan. And when that man went there with hatred for Jews, he did not know the God that I worship. And those who hate Muslims do not know the God that I know. As the good book says, if anyone claims to love God and hate their neighbor, they are lying.”
Father Eddie Alleyne had been into his assignment at the Episcopal Church of the Advent at Westbury just a few weeks when he stepped up to the podium.
He had informed his parishioners that among his first acts was to meet the iman at the Islamic Center and other area clergy.
Alleyne quoted Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive away darkness—only light can do that. And hate cannot drive out hate—only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate. Violence multiplies violence…in a descending spiral of destruction.”
“Tonight we’re holding these candles to remind us that indeed light can overcome all the hatred,” he added. “In all situations of life, there is hope, there is peace, and there is love.”
This gathering, he concluded, shows “how much we care and love each other.”
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset began, “I am soooooo cold, but I am not freezing, because of the warmth of this gathering.”
“We know that evil exists and it’s going to exist for a long long time,” he remarked. “But as long as the grandchildren of Ishmael and grandchildren of Isaac get together, and talk to one another, and comfort each other and laugh and share stories, thank goodness, kindness and hope will reign supreme. And that’s all we need to know. And thank you to the Islamic Center.”
Rabbi Randi Sheinberg of Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park told everybody to look at the person next to them, and to look into their eyes.
She then offered the following prayer: “Holy One, Eternal God, by whatever name, help us look into the eyes of our neighbor and recognize that each of us is a child of God. Help us to mourn with sadness, with deep grief, the loss of your children to hatred in whatever form it comes. But help us, O God, to not stop with grief, but rather to look into the eyes of our neighbors, and to join hands, and to know that together, we can build, we can create a world that is brimming with the promise of love and peace. Salaam, shalom.”
Rev. Dr. Natalie Fenimore of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Shelter Rock said, “We grieve and we are angry. We’re also encouraged by this gathering and all the gatherings…by those who are choosing to stand against hate. Who have chosen to turn their face to the light, to love and hope.”
She urged attendees to “renew our commitment to work for love and justice. Let us stand strong and let us be faithful to this cause.”
“We look over the course of humanity and we find out that prayers are usually answered when good people come together and God uses them as an instrument of peace and love and mercy and justice,” said the Rev. Dr. Tim TenClay of the Community Reformed Church in Manhasset. “When we come together in places like this we say…we are made of common stuff. So let’s make Shalom happen. Let’s make the Kingdom [of God] happen. Let’s make heaven on earth happen. And that’s what we’re doing here now. And let’s continue to make it happen.”