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Interfaith leaders double down against religious intolerance after Jewish cemetery vandalism

A crowd waits to enter Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery for a volunteer clean-up event in February 2017.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
A crowd of nearly 700 volunteered to clean Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery after it was vandalized. Many attended an interfaith vigil that followed.

In the wake of vandalism at a historic Jewish cemetery last week, the St. Louis region showed an outpouring of solidarity that reflects its long-standing interfaith relationships.

But some faith leaders also said they have renewed urgency to build on these existing bridges and further spread their message of tolerance to a region of diverse religions and backgrounds.

Though police haven't called the incident at Chesed Shel Emeth a hate crime or religiously motivated, Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, acknowledges people across faiths were "personally offended." That's because the St. Louis region is considered fairly religiously tolerant, she said, noting her center has received few complaints.

FBI statistics show the St. Louis region has seen four or fewer reports of religiously motivated hate crimes per year for the last six years. It’s unclear exactly what those numbers mean because police aren’t required to track hate crimes, and the reports are not necessarily prosecutions.

Nevertheless, Wittels believes, things have changed in the last year, including after the divisive presidential election. She noted that the dozens of Jewish community centers that have been threatened. And over the weekend, a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia also was vandalized.

"I think with all of the bomb threats across a number of Jewish agencies, including our own, and even the acts of hatred that seem to be acceptable in certain aspects of our community, we need people with power to speak out against it and take the next step," she said.

For some, that meant raising tens of thousands of dollars for restoration and security at Chesed Shel Emeth. For others, it meant attending a regional unity event near the cemetery Sunday or an interfaith vigil last week.

Running through all was a strong message of standing beside other religions, which Gov. Eric Greitens reflected on during the prayer service.

"I reached out to the archbishop and he said, 'I stand with you,'" the state's first Jewish governor said, referring to the Catholic archdiocese leader, Robert Carlson. "And I reached out to Baptist leaders and Protestant leaders and they said, 'I stand with you.' I reached out to the imams here in St. Louis and they said, 'I stand with you.'"

Working together

Ferrahs Abdelbaset, a board member at Hazelwood’s Dar Aljalal Islamic Center, has seen the region's tolerance firsthand. In the last several months, community members sent flowers to show support against against anti-Muslim rhetoric. And in response to the cemetery incident, Jewish leaders are also helping Muslim centers shore up their security.

He said these acts show religious leaders will quickly stamp out a "brush fire" of intolerance before it threatens any unity.

“The Muslim community, the Jewish community and the Christian community came together to say we’re not going to have religious intolerance, you mess with one religion, you mess with all the religions," he said.

Abdelbaset said St. Louis' diversity — and its robust immigrant community — help create this level of tolerance.

St. Louis also benefits from being small enough so that people know each other personally, said Faizan Said of the Council on American Islamic Relations of Missouri.

"We're not calling the Jewish Community Relations Center, we're calling Rori [Picker Neiss, executive director], who's on my cell phone," he said. "We're not calling the rabbis, we're calling Rabbi [Susan] Talve [of Central Reform Congregation]. All of them are on my cell phone, they have us on their cell phones."

Strong ties

Many faith and civic leaders also believe the region’s lack of religious divides is due to its strong and long-standing interfaith network, due in part to the work of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis.

"People have grown to know each other and then work to solve problems together," co-executive director the Rev. David Mehl said. "St. Louis is kind of a big small town. There are relationships that are fostered in this environment that run deep and they are very loyal to each other."

He also said religion is a big part of life in this region, and that shared value has helped create deep and loyal relationships. His group has regular meetings between faith leaders, tours of houses of worship and monthly dialogue groups  — some of which have been meeting for years. Similarly, Wittels said the Jewish Community Center is known for its open doors to all people, and Abdelbaset said his center is hosting job fairs and volunteering to expose others to people of the Muslim faith.

But Mehl said interfaith leaders need to push people beyond their comfort zones and find out what the actual level of tolerance is.

"If I would critique us, we're really good at talking to each other, and part of the growth and sort of compelling need is to really discover and imagine places where those conversations are more of a stretch," he said. "People feel tolerant, but they haven't really had an opportunity to push that a little bit."

Abdelbaset said he knows of some situations where Muslim groups looking to build mosques have been stymied by municipal ordinances that he sees as coded language, but that usually it works out once interfaith conversation begins. He noted that at his mosque, Hazelwood leaders enthusiastically supported its building expansion.Heather Gutting, of Florissant, picks up leaves with her six-year-old, Pippa at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery.

Heather Gutting, of Florissant, picks up leaves with her 6-year-old, Pippa, at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Heather Gutting, of Florissant, picks up leaves with her 6-year-old, Pippa, at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery.

More to be done

Still, Said of CAIR-Missouri said the cemetery vandalism shows that more needs to be done to bring tolerance to all.  His organization is holding open houses at area mosques to teach politically conservative residents about Islam and bringing presentations to small towns.

“I could easily get 4,000 people to come to a march for Muslims and immigrant rights in St. Louis, I probably couldn’t even get even 50 people in a rural town because people don’t know the Muslim community, so until we outreach to them I don’t think that’s going to change," he said.

Said says faith leaders also need to be more open to dissent from within their communities. For example, some people of Palestinian descent wrote negative posts on social media after the local Muslim community raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Jewish cemetery. 

“I said rather than block them, I organized lunches to sit down with them so they can at least address it," he said.

Leaving judgment behind

To keep building interfaith relationships, there must also be spaces for people to ask hard, and even awkward, questions about different religions without judgment, said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The ADL works with the U.S. attorney's office on a Hate Crimes Task Force that brings together interfaith, education and law enforcement leaders for quarterly public discussions.

"The idea is to figure tangible ways from a community basis all the way up to create those opportunities to break down the bias and stereotype that keeps us apart," she said.

But Said notes that it isn't enough for people to verbally support each other; it's time to start tackling common problems together.

"How do we create a real umbrella group that's policy driven that faith communities can then go behind and support, so it's not just dialogue?"

Turning the talk build through interfaith conversations into action, he said, is the next challenge.  

Marie Schwarz and St. Louis on the Air contributed to this report.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @stephlecci

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