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A rabbi and imam on how they're counseling their communities


Watching events in Israel and Gaza over the last week has brought grief and pain to many Jews and Muslims in the U.S. Hamas launched its surprise attack last Saturday, and Israel's retaliation is still unfolding. This is a time when many people turn to their faith and their community. So we've invited a rabbi and an imam to share how they are counseling their congregations here in the States. Imam Mohamed Herbert is a resident scholar of the Islamic Center of Johnson County, Kan., and Sharon Brous is senior rabbi and founder of IKAR, a Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, Calif. - good to have you both here.

SHARON BROUS: Thank you, Ari.

MOHAMED HERBERT: Absolutely a pleasure. Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: What will be the message that each of you give to your congregations as people gather to pray together this weekend? Imam Herbert, your holy day is today. Why don't you begin?

HERBERT: Yeah. I think when we speak about a message, I think you elaborated it so eloquently when you mentioned that a lot of people turn to faith when they're looking for answers, when they're looking for that guidance in life, that light. And for our sermon today, what we've prepared is kind of a reflection piece, taking an opportunity to reflect on our lives internally and then to think about how it is that we will respond externally, right? Faith without action is absolutely useless, and action without faith is misguided. And so when we speak about an internal response to how it is that we internalize everything that's happened, one of the key things that I hope for my community to step away from the sermon with is understanding that there is pain on both sides, right? Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala, or God Almighty - he mentions in the Quran in chapter three, in verse No. 140, (speaking Arabic) - that if you have suffered injuries in the battlefield, understand that the opposition has suffered injuries and pain as well.

SHAPIRO: Rabbi Brous, what is your message going to be this weekend for your congregation when they gather for Shabbat services?

BROUS: What I've been focusing on all week, since the moment that we heard about this attack on Shabbat, which was also the holiday of Simchat Torah last Saturday, a day in which we are commanded to experience joy as a Jewish people - so there is an added heartache that it happened on this holy day. I think the first role of a pastor in this moment is just to create sacred space where people can grieve together and hold an uncomplicated sorrow with one another. I also see the pastor's task as offering some kind of moral clarity, which in this case means both repeating again and again that there is no justification for crimes against humanity, that the rape, kidnapping, murder of innocents is never justifiable. And I also need to remind my community that Palestinians are suffering terribly also now and will continue to in the days ahead. And so just as we ask the world to see our pain and stand with us in our sorrow, it's our moral and spiritual obligation to do the same, to expand our lens of care and concern to also encompass the Palestinian people.

I was on a briefing yesterday, and there was a Bedouin doctor from Soroka Hospital in the south, Dr. Yasmeen Abu-Fraiha. And she's been treating many of the people who came in from the massacre site. And she said the real dividing line is not between Israelis and Palestinians but between those who believe violence is the answer and those who believe there is another way. And I believe there's another way. An Imam Herbert believes there's another way. And most of us believe that there's another way. So together, we have to reject the very reductive idea that Jews and Palestinians must be enemies eternally and instead create a different way of finding one another in relationship and lifting up and affirming our own humanity and one another's.

SHAPIRO: I know that this is personal for people in both of your communities. Imam Herbert, people in your town have relatives in Gaza. Rabbi Brous, people in your congregation have family members in Israel. Can you each tell me about a conversation you've had with a specific person this week, what they've needed and what you've offered them? Rabbi Brous, do you want to begin?

BROUS: Well, one of my closest friends - her best friend and lifelong friend is among those who have been abducted and taken into Gaza. And I want to say her name. It's Vivian Silver. She started an organization called Women Wage Peace. She literally has dedicated her life to making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. She is a mother, a grandmother and a worldwide activist, and she is among those who we have not heard from since she texted her sons that Hamas was in her home.

SHAPIRO: Imam Herbert.

HERBERT: We have community members who have family in Gaza (ph), and when it comes to reaching out to some of our Palestinian family members, I can certainly sympathize with Rabbi Sharon and her friends. It's hard. It's very difficult knowing that your friends and family are in pain. It's even more difficult when you can't reach them. One brother in particular who reached out to me just a couple of days ago - he's a doctor in the community, actually. And so this is someone who - but they're thinking to themselves that there's nothing that we can do. And then obviously, you know, we yearn as a community for everyone that's losing lives.

SHAPIRO: Could each of you give us one passage in your sacred texts that have been meaningful to you this week that you've turned to?

BROUS: In the Jewish community, we start reading at the beginning of the Torah this week. This is Parshat Bereishit. It's called the very beginning of Genesis. And I've been thinking about the end of the sixth day of creation, which is the first day that Adam and Eve are alive. And the rabbis tell us in the Midrash that at the end of the first day, when it grew dark - that Adam got really scared because he had never seen darkness before. And he started to weep and scream and cry. And Eve came over and just sat right across him and cried with him all night long until the dawn came. And I feel it's such a beautiful, powerful statement about how there's always a dawn that comes after even the deepest darkness. And our job as human beings is to come and sit with one another and hold each other in the sorrow until we're able to once again walk toward the light.

SHAPIRO: Imam Herbert.

HERBERT: For me, I think the passage that I mentioned in the beginning of the interview is one that really sticks out - that just as you have suffered injuries and losses, the people that you are fighting have also suffered injuries and losses. And I think during times like this of extreme loss, it's easy to lose sight in God. It's easy to take the easy route out or the scapegoat route out and to say something like, how can a God of mercy allow something like this, right? But the truth of the matter is there are ups. There are downs. Stay connected with God, and at the end, you'll find your Paradise.

SHAPIRO: Before we say goodbye, is there anything you would like to say to each other?

BROUS: I will say to you, Imam Herbert - I'm holding you and your community, your beloveds in your mosque and their families in Gaza in my heart and in my prayers. And I know that there is a better way for humanity that we can walk together toward peace, dignity and justice for all people. And I really appreciate you as a partner in that work. Thank you.

HERBERT: Absolutely. I think also I - sharing the same sentiment. For me, I think one of the most profound things that I heard you say that really, really stuck out to me, rabbi, was you mentioned that the real enemies of this war are not the Jews or the Israelis or the Palestinians. It's those people who have decided that violence is the only answer. And that really, really stuck with me - that this shows that there actually is a way to have a conversation.

SHAPIRO: Imam Mohamed Herbert of the Islamic Center of Johnson County, Kan., and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles. Thank you both.

HERBERT: And thank you.

BROUS: Thank you, Ari.

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Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.