As hate incidents spike, faith groups rise

An anti-gun violence advocacy group convened by Pastor Carl Day and Jason Holtzman visits the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. — Courtesy of Carl Day

Jason Holtzman and Muhammed Said Selmanlar met in April at an interfaith iftar — the meal eaten to break the daylong fast during the Muslim observance of Ramadan — at Philadelphia’s City Hall and struck up a friendship. When Selmanlar’s wife took a job in New York this summer, Holtzman helped Selmanlar explore towns across the river in New Jersey where the couple might relocate to split the commute. 

When the news broke of Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise terror attack in southern Israel, one of the first people Holtzman, director of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council, heard from was Selmanlar.

“I said, ‘Look, what’s happening now, it’s probably going to get worse and worse and I’m so afraid; I’m so worried about hate happening in our community, especially, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hatred,’” said Selmanlar, executive director of Peace Islands Institute Pennsylvania, a nondenominational organization founded by Muslims inspired by the teachings of the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen.

Relationships like Selmanlar and Holtzman’s have helped to sustain ties across all of the metropolitan area at a time when Philadelphia’s Jewish and Muslim communities in particular are suffering a spike in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents. (In one week in late December, 13 Jewish sites across Philadelphia received bomb threats.)

“On Oct. 7, I heard from Christian and Muslim community leaders expressing sorrow about what had happened, checking on me to make sure if I was OK, personally. And since then, we have received plenty of support from members of the non-Jewish community,” said Holtzman. 

After they spoke, Selmanlar and Holtzman convened a group of about 15 Jewish and Muslim community leaders to discuss a path forward. 

“There’s a lot of work to do, and these conversations that we are having are extremely sensitive,” said Holtzman. “But we have brought the group together to talk about the rise of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry and what we can do in our own community, in Philadelphia and the greater Philadelphia area, to push back against some of the hate.” 

Another faith leader Holtzman heard from was Pastor Carl Day, of Culture Changing Christians, a ministry focused on combating gun violence, homelessness and mass incarceration in inner-city Philadelphia. The two have been in touch since May, when Holtzman reached out to express interest in Day’s anti-gun violence advocacy. Their first meeting lasted close to five hours as they discussed their communities’ shared interest in social justice work and the historical partnership between the city’s Black and Jewish communities.

Soon after, Day and Holtzman organized an interfaith group where Jewish people and Black Christians could come together to share, learn and advocate on important issues together. The group has been running since June.

On Dec. 10, the fourth night of Hanukkah, Ambler Church of the Brethren, in a suburb next to North Wales, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hosted a Hanukkah menorah-lighting event co-sponsored with the Wissahickon Faith Community Association where the candles flickered in front of a 12-foot-tall Christmas tree on the church’s altar. The roughly 50 clergy and laypeople from Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish congregations and Baptist, Mennonite and Lutheran churches joined together to sing, pray and eat.

To continue the city’s interfaith work, Holtzman and Selmanlar have discussed bringing Young Peace Builders, developed by the Peace Institute’s New York chapter, to Philadelphia. The program provides Christian, Muslim and Jewish teenagers the opportunity to learn about each other and work together on a community service project. Introducing young people from different faiths is key in creating successful partnerships, according to Selmanlar. 

“It’s important to start the exposure, start the empathy, start seeing the similarities, and after that, maybe they are also able to start seeing the differences as beauty, as our richness,” he said. 

Meanwhile, last month, Day and Holtzman’s group carpooled to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, to advocate at the state level against gun violence. 

“We really believe that we’re much stronger together,” said Day. “It’s one thing if you’re just going up there representing yourself, as members of the African American community, or members of the Jewish community. But when communities can team up and show we’re not only just advocating for our own issues, but we see the bigger issues at hand for all people, those things really create a greater avenue for change.”

Tori Luecking

Tori Luecking is an author with Religion News Service.

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