Quran reading in Berkeley brings Jews, others together

Lainey Feingold had never read a line of the Quran or heard its verses chanted in Arabic prior to Sept. 11 of this year.    

But she could not imagine Islam’s most holy book engulfed in flames.

“We as Jews need to be present against this anti-Islam wave sweeping the country,” said Feingold of Berkeley, a member of Chochmat HaLev. “These two religions need to stay in solidarity with each other.” 

Around 300 people gather at Ohlone Park in Berkeley on Sept. 11 to hear a reading from the Quran. photo/courtesy of alex madonik

To express her support for the Muslim community, Feingold joined an estimated 300 people at Ohlone Park in Berkeley on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, to hear a portion of the Quran chanted and translated from Arabic to English. 

Robin Braverman and Joel Siegel, coordinators of Berkeley-based Or Hadash USA/Return to Daylight, organized the reading. The initiative enlists members of the Jewish community to stand in solidarity with minorities, religious groups and institutions under siege.   

The turnout surprised Braverman, who originally made just 25 copies of the two suras, or chapters, to be recited aloud. She ran off to make more.

Interspersed with the readings were remarks from religious leaders — some of which drew parallels between the rising bigotry toward Muslims and anti-Semitism — and testimonials from participants on why they were compelled to attend.

Feingold said people raised their hands to speak without hesitation.  

“The atmosphere was one of inclusiveness and warmth,” Feingold said. “Most of the people who spoke didn’t identify with a specific religious institution. It created this feeling that we were all there as people of faith supporting each other.” 

Five local rabbis were present, including Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. He was in New York at the time of 9/11 and remembers how people chose solidarity over fear in a time of great need.

That feeling was replicated at the Sept. 11 public reading.

“The Jewish community must be proud of the Zionism that unites us with Israel,” Creditor said, “and not ignore the fact that we have an obligation to create community with everyone, including people of many different faiths. We shouldn’t be so fearful of the other that we don’t engage.”  

Among the Muslim speakers at the reading were Imam Ali Saddiquo, president of the California Muslim Institute and Center for Interfaith Studies, and Ali Sheik-holeslami, executive director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California.

Also in the crowd was a woman from Gainesville, Fla., where Dove World Outreach Center Pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn the Quran on Sept. 11. He called off the plan days before. 

The Gainesville woman was visiting Berkeley and clarified that many people in her Florida hometown had organized protests against Jones and his 50 or so followers.

The reading ended with the reciting of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and the singing of “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” in Hebrew and Arabic. As the eventcame to a close, Muslim participants answered their call to prayer.

“To those of us who consider ourselves inclusive, the reading was a good reminder that we need to show up in whatever way we can when other people are being attacked,” Feingold said. “This is part of being Jewish.” 

It was with that same spirit that Braverman and Siegel formed Berkeley-based Or Hadash USA three years ago. Concerned by “the erosion of civil liberties and increased intolerance” in the United States that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, the pair wanted a way to educate the public and take action.  

“After 9/11, the Muslim community as a whole was cast as an enemy of the U.S. as opposed to terrorist groups using religion to further their political aim,” Siegel said. “We began looking at our own lives and realized the Jewish community was a good place to begin our work.”

What developed was a project dedicated to creating a network of Jews nationwide ready to “take a stand for liberty and the rule of law, and against torture and abuse of power,” according to Or Hadash’s website. 

News of Jones’ plan to burn the Quran prompted solidarity gatherings and public readings of the Islamic sacred text across the country. E-mails to Or Hadash asking for a local event stirred Braverman and Siegel into action.

“Reading the Quran in public is the exact opposite of what the pastor was threatening to do,” said Braverman of Walnut Creek. “We wanted to affirm that this is a holy book, even if it’s not necessarily our holy book, and it should be respected.”

In the days after the reading, Braverman’s e-mail inbox filled with notes of appreciation.

“It gave me a small spark of hope for America,” one person wrote. “I found myself in tears, at times from sadness and at times from joy,” said another.

Braverman recalled some participants at the Sept. 11 community event who hoped similar gatherings wouldn’t have to happen again. She feels quite the opposite, adding that she and Siegel would capitalize on the momentum to continue forging solidarity between Muslims, Jews, Christians and the nonreligious.

“[The reading] clearly spoke to a great hunger of people of all faiths and no faiths,” Siegel said. “It’s important for people to have a dialogue, learn from each other and stop viewing each other with suspicion, animosity and as potential enemies.”

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