Bnai Israel interfaith service brings healing to Vallejo

Shalom, Peace, Salaam. Whatever the language, those filling the sanctuary at Vallejo's Congregation B'nai Israel came to pray for it as Christians and Muslims joined Jews in recent Friday night services.

Joining Cantor Bella Bogart-Gelven in leading the services were Shaykh Taner Ansari, who heads a Sufi Muslim congregation in Napa; the Rev. Tony Ubaldi of Fellowship United Methodist Church in Vallejo; and Father Leon Juchniewicz, pastor of St. Basil Catholic Church in Vallejo.

Bogart-Gelven invited the clergy, she said, in an attempt to diffuse any ambivalent feelings people might have had toward Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and to promote unity.

"As Jews, particularly, we should be more sensitive to baseless bigotry," she said.

The cantor explained that she was troubled by the growing number of reported assaults in the United States against Arab-Americans and others mistaken for them.

"I became aware from reading various articles and watching the news, of a surge of hostility against people others perceived as being Muslim or Arabic or who reminded them of the terrorists," Bogart-Gelven said. "And I thought that by inviting some Muslims into our synagogue, we could do something to counter that kind of baseless hatred.

"I also thought," she added, "that it would be healing for our community to remind ourselves that not everyone who belongs to the Islamic faith is out to slaughter us."

Ansari, who was born in Tarsus, Turkey, and now resides in Napa with his family, said there is nothing in Islam that permits the killing of innocent women and children. And Islam does not permit Muslims to be the aggressors — only to defend themselves, he said.

"Just because we're Muslims doesn't mean we don't care about America; we'd fight for it if we had to. But we'd rather have peace," Ansari said.

"How can these terrorists think they're going to paradise by committing suicide? How can you expect to go to paradise by doing this? This is not helping Islam."

Congregants and guests seemed to agree that the interfaith service was positive.

"I think it's a good idea," said B'nai Israel member Joyce Scharf, 75, of Vallejo. "We can't stoop to the level of the terrorists; after all, [Muslims] honor Abraham, don't they?"

"I think it's fabulous," said Sharon Doty, 87, of Crockett. A woman of Irish and Welsh descent, she said, "The more we know about other peoples, the less we're afraid of them and consider them enemies."

What seemed to strike many in attendance was the possibility, as demonstrated in a small way at the service, that the tragedies in America might, in the end, serve to unite the world.

"Everybody's coalescing," said Mary Sinclair, 78. "And that's the main thing. At least to me."

Ansari said that this was his hope, as well.

"We all like to bring about a better understanding between religions, so there can be peace in the world, and that can only happen by people knowing each other."

He said that immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some in his congregation were apprehensive about their safety. But their fear didn't last long, he said.

"Some people were afraid, at first, because there are fanatics in every society. But there's been a lot of love expressed by the people of Napa," Ansari said. "People have written us letters of support. There was a rally put together by the students."

Each cleric who spoke at the Independent synagogue conveyed the need for solidarity among all people, regardless of creed or color.

"In Sufi we say that the shortest distance between here and Allah is love," Ansari said. "And there is no love in fighting, only in peace. But first we have to know the enemies of peace.

"Ignorance is the greatest enemy to peace, and ignorance gives birth to hatred. We must teach our children to love not just the likenesses between people, but also the differences," he continued. "The third enemy of peace is greed — the number-one enemy of humanity.

"Today's globalized economy knows no nationalities. It's time for human beings to be the same."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."