It isn’t easy to make something good out of something horrible, but something positive has occurred in the aftermath of the sickening anti-Semitic graffiti incidents in Pawtucket and Cranston last month.
First, it’s been heartening to see the united front of the Rhode Island Jewish community in denouncing the episodes. Sadly, recent years have seen too much fighting among Jewish denominations worldwide, so it is meaningful to see many strands of the Jewish community coalesce to denounce the attacks.
And there has been another profound blessing in the wake of the hateful graffiti: the outpouring of support that Jews have received from many other faith communities in Rhode Island. In a state where the Jewish population is so small, the help and solidarity of neighbors is essential.
In the hours that followed the discovery of the swastika defacing the Kollel sign at Congregation Ohawe Sholam in Pawtucket, there were statements condemning the incidents from Christian and Muslim organizations and clergy. Similarly, when anti-Semitic graffiti was found at the Cranston Stadium sports complex, there was rapid condemnation from both Jews and non-Jews. In both cases, when Jewish leaders faced the media to talk about the incidents, they were not alone - they were accompanied by leaders from a range of religions.
That other religious leaders speak up counts a great deal, and what they say can make the entire community stronger. For instance, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said, “There is no possible justification for this awful misdeed, and no room for it in our community. The members of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island stand in spiritual solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters, now and always.” That statement brought great comfort, as did the words of Imam Farid Ansari, president of the Muslim American Dawah Center, in Providence, and of the R.I. Council for Muslim Advancement: “There’s a verse in the Quran that talks about whenever houses of worship are attacked, we should be supportive of one another.”
Such statements, as well as those from Episcopal leaders and others, not only are supportive of Jews but also put society on notice that there is unity against such abhorrent behavior. When there is powerful consensus in society, institutions such as police and courts, as well as people, are pushed to respond more strongly.
This kind of support in our multi-faith society and the relationships behind it does not develop overnight. A number of far-sighted people in the R.I. Jewish community, and other local communities, have spent decades growing these bonds, and many constructive initiatives have sprung from these efforts in recent years: focusing on the long-term has paid off.
Some of the multi-faith efforts have been based on the spiritual or on doctrine. At Providence College, scholars such as Prof. Arthur Urbano have made important advances in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Rhode Island rabbis and other Jewish leaders have been reaching out to Muslim colleagues for some time, and this year alone has seen a vigil for Muslim refugees and immigrants and a collaborative performance by Muslim and Jewish fifth-graders. There are also other successful relationships, such as a multi-faith memorial for victims of gun violence.
One of the important lessons of multi-faith work is that it often grows from grassroots and one-on-one interactions. Everyone has the possibility of making a difference. An act as personal as supporting a neighbor of another faith if he or she has a crisis or pressing need can be pivotal. So can going to another faith’s service to learn more and be supportive, or joining a multi-faith group or campaign.
Religious tolerance is a bedrock Rhode Island tradition going all the way back to Roger Williams’ actions here nearly 400 years ago. It is not fanciful to think that Williams would have spoken out at our current-day news conferences after blights such as anti-Semitic graffiti.
Jews came onto the scene in Rhode Island in about 1658, a couple of decades after Williams. While much has changed in the state in the intervening centuries, the imperative to work for greater tolerance through multi-faith cooperation remains urgent.
NOEL RUBINTON is a consultant and writer based in Providence.