When the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee asked Rabbi Burton Visotzky to lead Hanukkah festivities at the Islamic Center of Middle Manhattan, he thought it was a great idea, but he only expected a few dozen participants.
“One of my former students is involved in a group called the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom which brings Muslim and Jewish women who share common concerns together," says Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. "She recommended me to the organizer and when the organizer called I said sure! It turns out it's very timely… they (the organizers) expected 30 or 40 [participants]. A long time ago that seemed like a good goal.”
A month later the national atmosphere had changed in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks. Numerous republican governors and presidential candidates began to scapegoat Syrian refugees, and Donald Trump became America's Bigot in Chief, calling for Nazi-like registries of Muslim-Americans and a total ban on Muslim immigration to the US.
But far from deterring New Yorkers from attending Hanukah at a mosque, the hateful rhetoric on the right led to an increase in attendees, both Muslim and Jewish, who were eager to express solidarity and defiance. Rabbi Visotzky, who had participated in the White House Hanukah festivities the night before, believes the event sends an important and timely message: “Given the atmosphere of hatred that is being spewed we really need to stand forward and say 'No! We are here together and we are going to have each other's backs.'”
Hundreds of attendees of all ages packed the upstairs prayer room last week. There were young rabbinical students from JTS, advocates for refugees, women in veils and kippot, rabbis and imams, and of course, free challah and dreidles. The atmosphere was jovial, defiant, and above all, very American. A first-year rabbinical student named Lily Magy-Deak said that she was there to fulfill an important obligation as an American and as a Jew. “I heard about it (the event) on Facebook and our rabbinical school listserv sent out an announcement that it was a really fantastic opportunity to experience Hanukah in a way that is different than we usually do. We’ve had a couple people at our rabbinical school speak about how important it is for the American Jewish community to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community. We have a lot of shared experiences of oppression and discrimination.” Diane Savona of Passaic, New Jersey said that she came with her husband in direct response to hate mongering by republicans. “It's sort of the opposite of listening to the Republican debates. It’s the antidote to the Republicans.”
The speakers all made references to American ideals and history in response to the recent atmosphere of xenophobia. Rabbi Vislozky spoke about the recent history of American immigration as well. “I want to close with a poem which is a prayer. It speaks to me of the moment that we are in. It is a prayer that we need to remember very well. It might be the largest written poem in Jewish history because you will find it at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It was written by a woman named Emma Lazarus and it's called 'The new colossus.'" He continued, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Imam Sheikh Ahmed Dawidar, the host of the event, gave a speech that exalted the virtues of America with an eloquence and sincerity that makes Donald Trump look like a Russian spy by contrast. “Welcome all of you here, happy Hanukah to all of you! We are so glad to see you here today with all these smiling faces and it is no wonder that we are living here in America. If we can not make it (the event) anywhere in the world we should make it in the United States of America. And if we could not make it anywhere else in America we could make it in New York City... Here in America we share the beauty of this land. We still remember that the human experience is the same for all. Our teachings are the same; our god is the same; the criteria of goodness and corruption are the same; we are living from one Adam and Eve. We are the same down to the politics and the politicians who will like to divide us [from] the beauty and make us far from it. We are not going to allow the hate to be part of our lives as Americans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, or any religion.” There was a roar of applause.
Event organizer Nabil Ezzarhouni, who is French, asked the attendees to observe a minute of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks. Like all the attendees I spoke with, Nabil sees multicultural engagement as an important tool against bigotry. “When I arrived in New York I was looking to meet people. I was working in France on interfaith activities between Jews and Muslims... I wanted to do something to connect people and I found that this committee was doing what I wanted to do. We had done an Iftar, which is the celebration of the end of Ramadan in Temple Emanuel Synagogue. We had the idea of celebrating Hanukah in the mosque because it was very meaningful. We do cross cultural events like this to give Jews and Muslims the opportunity to go to the mosque or synagogue if they don’t have the opportunity otherwise.” Nabil has only lived in the U.S. for a short time, but he already appreciates the atmosphere of tolerance and multiculturalism. “I feel very happy in the U.S. to do my work. In France the culture is very different. In France, everyone is French - but that means getting rid of all the differences. In the U.S., we actually appreciate and enjoy differences!”