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Temple Beth Sholom

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HARRY A. MANHOFF, PhD
Rabbi

LINDA HIRSCHHORN
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HEIDI KOLDEN
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Bay Area Living Logo

Friday, September 14, 2001


Clergy struggle with words for Sabbaths

By Jennifer Baldwin
STAFF WRITER

Nearly 48 hours after the terrible images of death and destruction in New York and Washington hit the world this week, Rabbi Harry Manhoff awoke with a migraine. Caught halfway between sleep and consciousness, thoughts wracked his mind.

It was Thursday, the day he would have to write a sermon for the following night's service at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro.

Of all the Sabbaths he has presided over in his 25 years as a rabbi, this would be one of the most important, as he faced the sadness, anger, fear, frustration and countless other emotions felt by his congregation - emotions that are also being felt throughout the country.

"I knew that whatever I was going to say was either going to say we have to punish the bad guys or we shouldn't stoop to their level and engage in violence. And I knew that neither of those were the right answer," he said Thursday afternoon.

"Even though I know people of goodwill and people I respect feel this way - and they have the right to feel this way and I would never say they were wrong - there's never a right or wrong. I was looking for something that was not a hard answer."

Religious leaders all over the Bay Area struggled over the right words this week as they planned their messages for the weekend's services.

In their places of worship would be friends, family and loved ones of those who were either on one of the four hijacked jets, at the Pentagon or at the World Trade Center on Tuesday when suspected terrorists successfully launched the worst attack in U.S. history.

In the congregation would also be many who are strangers to the injured and deceased, but still hurting inside for the loss of fellow Americans. There would be children and adults alike feeling confused and scared. There would even be some, who by ethnic or religious affiliations, are afraid of retaliation by angry U.S. citizens.

As the Fremont Police Department patrolled the mosque of the Islamic Society of the East Bay, Dr. Mohamad Rajabally and other leaders met during the week to plan the traditional Friday prayer speech - called the khutba - and other special services.

Members of the Muslim community have already been the target of obscene phone calls and other threats, and they are cautious but not afraid, Rajabally says.

"We are not scared," he says. "The climate now is of hope, mercy and togetherness. No matter what denomination you are, that's the common theme."

For his speech Friday, he had planned to talk about comfort and peace, give reassurance to his congregation and stress that "evil exists everywhere, that's why we have the spirituality in us, the goodness in us," he says.

"We have to pray especially for the families of victims," he says. "It's hard for us all, but it's hardest for those who've lost their dear ones. We'll also be talking to our children, and about our appreciation for the spirit of concern from other communities."

For Hafiz Khalid Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Education and Information Center in Newark, Friday's khutba was as much about educating the public about the Islamic religion as it is a message from the holy scripture.

"I will be reminding everybody that in Islam there is no room whatsoever for any kind of terrorism, any kind of taking of life, and anybody who does that is committing one of the greatest crimes that should result in capital punishment," he says.

"I want to convey in my message in no way any human being should condone these acts The whole of human kind should be horrified by this. We should all be equally shocked," Siddiqi says.

As an Arabic language teacher at local community colleges, Siddiqi has also been consoling Muslim students this week who have been subjects of obscene language. He is telling his fellow Muslims not to be afraid, but to let people know the Islamic faith does not condone these acts of killing and whoever caused the terrorism is not a true believer in God.

"If we are able to educate the masses, then we can change people's attitudes," he says. "Let us turn this incident into an educational one and let us come out with new lessons which will be helpful to us ... in creating unity and understanding and concern for all people."

President George Bush has called the suspected terrorist attacks "an act of evil," and religious leaders across all faiths agree. At St. Raymond Catholic church in Dublin, leaders met Wednesday to plan their Sunday sermon.

"The theme will be the mystery of evil and the power of goodness and that goodness will always win out," says liturgy coordinator Cathy Brady.

At St. Bede Catholic church in Hayward, Father Seamus Farrell not only plans to intertwine this week's tragedy with his scheduled sermon, but also has declared this coming Wednesday a day of prayer at his church and in the community.

"All of us are wounded and hurt by the tragic violence that has occurred on the East Coast. In our sense of helplessness at this time, we turn to God. We go to him in prayer," he says.

This Sunday, Farrell says he will speak of "what faith invites us to do and how it challenges us and at the same time gives us a great vision." In a daily mass last week, the gospel reading was of Jesus' command to love your enemies, he said.

"We find it difficult, but the Lord ... gives us courage and faith to go beyond the human point of view and see how God sees it," he says.

And Farrell says he knows that believers of all faiths are coming together now for a higher understanding of what happened this week.

"All people of good will are praying in their own way and trying to say what can we do? And we feel so limited," he says. "What we can do is symbolically get on our knees and turn to God, to comfort those who are suffering, help us somehow to look beyond, to make our nation a better place, and make our community better, and to become people of good will and compassion."

As Rabbi Harry Manhoff awoke Thursday morning from his nightmarish struggle to write the following night's sermon, his headache gave way to clear conscious thought of peace. And then he wrote a story - called a midrash - which rabbis construct to augment the Bible.

He wrote of a sukkot, a temporary hut that Jews build during their fall festival celebrating the harvest and their exodus from Egypt. The sukkot is meant to be fragile, with holes in the roof to see the stars. And families decorate the hut with fruit and homemade items and spend time in the hut in remembrance of the exodus.

"In the story, a rabbi and his family have built a sukkot and it is beautiful," Manhoff said. "People come from far and wide to see it. So when a newspaper shows a picture of it, an anti-Semite sees the picture and wants to destroy it. So he burns it down in the middle of the night.

"So the rabbi and his family are looking at it and sobbing. And others come and they are hurt, angry, upset, shocked and not knowing how to handle it. And the non-Jewish neighbors see it and start to cry."

Finally, Manhoff says, somebody picks up a shovel and starts to rebuild it. The Christians bring palm leaves for the roof, the Hindus bring fruits, the Buddhists bring flowers and the Muslims bring a prayer rug.

"And together they rebuild the sukkot," he says, "more beautiful than ever was before." This story he related to his congregation Friday night.

"It's very helpful to try to put things in that perspective," Manhoff says. "Peace and justice are incredibly important to all of us and there's no simple solution to any of these problems. We're all saying it's OK now to turn to God and say 'I'm scared, I'm hurt, I'm angry, I'm upset, I'm mourning. But once you turn to God and say 'Help me through this,' you can start looking through the tragedy to the other side. Turn your back on the horror and the evil and look at the good."

The ultimate theme of Manhoff's - and many other religious leaders' - messages during this Sabbath weekend are of peace.

"In a world like we live in, we can't give up on the need for peace," Manhoff says. "And if we pray for peace, which we must, then we believe it and we have to act as if we believe it. It's going to be difficult ... but there really is no alternative to peace."

The Rev. Donna Allen of Parks Chapel African Methodist Episcopal church in Oakland says her prayer will be one of peace: "It is my prayer that we be mindful that our children - no, the children of the world - are watching. What will we teach them through our actions and reactions? We lament violence in our schools. We teach our children that they must use conflict resolution and not seek solely to return violence with more violence.

"Protect yourself yes, of course. But we tell them, what the Gospel teaches us, 'to turn the other cheek.' So even when we are the prey we should not set ourselves on becoming the predator but instead embrace the peculiar teaching of our faith 'love your enemy' ... 'pray for your enemy.' I will preach a message of peace."


You can call Jennifer Baldwin at (925) 416-4814 or e-mail jbaldwin@angnewspapers.com.

© 2001 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers