One Missing Yarmulke, Several New Friends

We tend to see the differences that separate us from other religious groups rather than the commonalities. That sounds so cliché, but it’s true.

When some Jews hear of an Islamic religious school, called a madrassa, they make assumptions about what might be taught there. They don’t take the time to even consider that the Arabic word madrassa is very closely related to the Hebrew word midrasha, a Jewish religious school.

And when some Jews see a Muslim man wearing a skullcap called a kufi, they make assumptions about his religious views, political sentiments, and opinions on a range of social issues. They tend to forget how similar the kufi is to our kippah, or yarmulke.

One day recently both of these similarities struck me. My plane landed at Chicago’s Midway Airport. It was an early morning flight and I felt like I had traveled back in time since I actually arrived at an earlier time in Chicago than when I had taken off in Detroit thanks to the one-hour time zone difference. During the flight, I fell into a deep sleep.

It wasn’t until I got into my rental car that I realized I wasn’t wearing my yarmulke, as I normally do. At some point during my “nap,” my yarmulke must have fallen off and was lost on the plane. I pulled over to the side of the rode and checked everywhere — pockets, carry-on suitcase, and briefcase. My yarmulke was nowhere to be found.

I was on my way to a small Illinois town south of Peoria to check out a large spice factory that was interested in kosher certification from my agency. I knew I couldn’t walk in there without a yarmulke on my head. I was on a tight schedule though and at a loss for what to do.

I called my wife back in Michigan who began researching if there were any synagogues between my current location and my destination in Pekin, Illinois. While she did that, I continued to drive and search the sides of the highway for any random Judaica store where I could purchase a replacement yarmulke. And that’s when it caught my eye.

Off the highway on what seemed to be a service road was a small mosque. Would that work, I wondered. After all, there’s really not much of a difference between the Muslim kufi and some of the larger yarmulkes that my sons wear to their Jewish school every day. Would a kufi be a better option for me than stopping at a gas station and buying a baseball cap? It was worth a shot.

I exited the highway and did a quick turnaround to try and find the mosque I had passed a few miles earlier. It would be my first time entering a mosque despite the fact that I live in Metro Detroit with its dense Muslim population and abundance of mosques. Alas, the doors of the mosque were locked and it was dark inside. I quickly Googled the address and called the phone number that was listed, but it just rang and rang. For no good reason, I knocked on the doors again and then left.

As I drove away from the mosque I spotted what looked like another mosque in the distance. Perhaps that was the administrative office I thought. Maybe they could sell me one of those Muslim skullcaps (I hadn’t yet learned the word kufi). It was worth a try. I turned down the next street and headed for the building with the star and crescent on the roof. I couldn’t find the street that led to a parking lot so I parked at an auto repair shop and walked across a field to the building.

The doors were locked but I could tell there were people inside. I rang a door bell and a very nice woman opened the door. I saw classrooms up and down the hallways and immediately determined that I had just entered a madrassa. Cute little children were in a large room singing songs and playing games. That was obviously the pre-school. Older children ran up the stairs to a second level of classrooms. I went up to the reception desk and explained my situation. Rather than giving some story about being curious about Islam and wanting a kufi, I explained that I was a rabbi who customarily wears a Jewish head covering and somehow lost it on my flight into Chicago. I asked if they could sell me a Muslim head covering.

She seemed confused by my request, but explained they had no store in the building and didn’t sell kufis. But just as I was about to head back to my rental car, the woman found another woman and shared my story. She told me to wait a moment and about five minutes later she returned with a large, black knitted kufi for me. I asked her how much it would cost and she insisted that it was free. I took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to her as a donation. The idea that I had just made my first charitable gift to an Islamic school was not lost on me. With some trepidation I placed the kufi on my head and thanked the kind women as I left.

Just as I got back in the car and took a look at myself in the rear-view mirror my phone rang. It was my wife telling me that there was an Orthodox synagogue in Peoria. I told her I was wearing a Muslim kufi on my head and shared my story of the welcoming women at the madrassa.

I called the Orthodox synagogue which didn’t have a gift shop or any complimentary yarmulkes,but the woman on the phone referred me to the Reform congregation that shared a building and had a gift shop. When I called that number I got the recording telling me to call the husband-wife rabbis on their cell phone. I called and found myself talking with Rabbi Karen Bogard who told me that her husband Rabbi Daniel Bogard had dozens of yarmulkes and I could drive to their home to pick one out.

Rabbi Karen told me that she and her husband had just graduated from rabbinical school and begun to serve this small congregation in Peoria. We played the game of Jewish geography and learned we knew many people in common. After driving for another couple hours she called me back and directed me to a park close to their home where she would be with the couple’s newborn baby. I drove to the park, gave Rabbi Karen a hug, picked out a yarmulke and then began telling her the story of my visit to the Islamic school. I proudly showed her my new kufi.

While I wore the borrowed yarmulke to the visit at the spice factory, I still felt appreciative to the generous women at the madrassa who provided me with the kufi. It is a story I will continue to tell with pleasure. Losing a yarmulke led me on an adventure to a mosque, a madrassa and a neighborhood park where I met a new rabbinic colleague.

I keep that black kufi on the desk of my office and every once in a while I smile as I consider the similarities between Jews and Muslims. Perhaps, my kufi will serve as a reminder to others to seek out the connections with members of other religions and to explore what we share in common rather than what divides us.

Cross-posted to the Forward’s Arty Semite blog, MyJewishLearning’s Members of the Scribe blog, and the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

My Teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky Does Dinner with President Barack Obama

It’s not everyday that you know someone who gets to have a meal with the President of the United States. Last week, one of my favorite teachers (if I don’t say “one of” I’m bound to offend) had just that honor.

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, whose Midrash courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary I thoroughly enjoyed, was invited to the White House for the annual Iftar dinner and had the privilege of sitting at the President’s table.

This year the Jewish month of Av coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when pious Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to show their devotion to Allah. After dark, they break their daylong fast with an evening meal known as the Iftar. President Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar dinner at the White House and it became an annual tradition under President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and is now hosted by President Barack Obama.

This year’s White House Iftar meal was held on August 10 with approximately 120 guests, including two Jewish people in addition to Rabbi Visotzky. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren (pictured with me at right) and Bahraini Ambassador Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo.

According to a JTS press release, Rabbi Visotzky sat at President Obama’s table and brought the president up-to-date on JTS’s most recent and noted Jewish-Muslim dialogue programs, along with JTS’s other forms of Jewish-Muslim engagement, including 2010’s two-day workshop entitled “Judaism and Islam in America” and this past May’s “Our Better Angels,” a three-part program that anticipated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discussions on the themes of tragedy, mourning, and healing.

While it’s usually teachers who are proud of their students, I must say that I feel much pride for my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky’s devotion to Jewish-Muslim dialogue and his great honor last week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

In Desire of a Less Political 9/11 Anniversary

Last week, I was asked by the Detroit Free Press to submit three paragraphs reflecting on where I was on September 11, 2001 and how my life changed as a result of that day. The irony for my wife and for me is that we made the conscious decision to go ahead with our plans of moving to Israel for the year even though there was violence in Jerusalem throughout the summer of 2001. It wasn’t until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred here in the U.S. that we made the difficult decision to alter our plans and not move to Israel.

This year, the anniversary of 9/11 was a collision of religious events as it fell on the Sabbath following Rosh Hashanah — a fast day were it not the Sabbath — and on the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr — a holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. 9/11 was turned into a political storm as a result of the explosive debate surrounding the planned Islamic cultural center and mosque just blocks from Ground Zero.

There are some similarities between the planned building of Park51 (formerly known as Cordoba House) two blocks from the Ground Zero site and the potential building of a convent near the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1989. However, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, writing in the Washington Post, explains that the lesson taught by Pope John Paul II in not allowing the nuns to move their convent to that site is not necessarily what the “‘move the mosque’ spokespersons would want to hear.”

More than the debate on whether to allow the Islamic cultural center and mosque to be built so close to Ground Zero, what has surprised me is that the family members of the victims from the Twin Towers have not voiced loud opposition to the fact that their loved ones’ graves will become a shopping mall. The lower floors of the rebuilt World Trade Center will be stores. Some will argue that this displays our resolve to rebuild that site as a place of commerce. Others will recall the debate, again at Auschwitz, of constructing a shopping mall in a building once used for storing hair and possessions from murdered prisoners of the camp. A mile from the Auschwitz camp, the site of the proposed shopping mall had been a disco until it was forced to close.

All of this controversy comes down to the issue of space and how we seek to sanctify it. Ultimately those who argue that a mosque would desecrate the hollowed ground of Ground Zero, the burial spots of thousands, and attempt to prove their point by burning copies of the Koran are just as guilty of desecration. I’m hopeful that in the end, calmer heads will prevail, and the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be a more civil display of remembrance rather than a petty political debate. I’m nostalgic for the passionate displays of patriotism that prevailed in the weeks following the attacks in our country.

Here is the unedited reflection I submitted to the Detroit Free Press last week:

My life was in limbo on September 11, 2001. My wife and I had spent our first two years of marriage living in a small apartment in Manhattan, just twelve blocks from the Jewish Theological Seminary where I was studying to become a rabbi. We planned to relocate to Jerusalem after the Jewish holidays where we would experience life in Israel for the year and I would continue my rabbinic studies. In the week prior to Rosh Hashanah, I traveled by plane to Chicago to visit my friend who had just moved there. Little did I know I would be stranded in Chicago and our plans to move to Israel would be canceled.

I woke up on the morning of 9/11 in my friend’s Chicago apartment. Jeremy told me to turn the television on to the Today Show on NBC because a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I couldn’t believe my eyes and then we saw another plane fly into the other tower. The world would change forever, and so would the way people talk about that date in history. My flight was canceled, but I was able to take a train back to Michigan a couple days later. Air France, with whom we had booked our flights to Israel, decided they would no longer fly to Israel and immediately refunded our money. We made the difficult decision, along with many of my classmates and their spouses, to stay in the U.S. for the year rather than spend it in Israel. Ironically, it was a choice we made because of the terrorism in America and not because of the scary terrorist acts that had plagued Israel all summer long.

My wife and I had already rented out our New York City apartment so returning there wasn’t an option. Instead, we took our possessions out of storage and moved to Caldwell, NJ – close enough to commute into Manhattan and live in a vibrant Jewish community where I would intern at the local synagogue. For us, 9/11 altered our plans. We never had the chance to live in Jerusalem for a year (at least not before children), but that is certainly no comparison to the way so many lives changed dreadfully as a result of the horrific events of that day. We made the best of a change of plans, while so many families will never be the same. Our country will never be the same after being shaken from the acts of 9/11 – as much as we came together as an American people in the weeks that followed, the events of that day have also torn us apart.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller