BY HELEN KLEIN & MEAGHAN MCGOLDRICK
In the wake of Paris, San Bernardino, divisive statements by presidential candidate Donald Trump – who has called for a stop to allowing Muslims into the United States – and a perceived backlash against Muslims in the neighborhood, Bay Ridge’s Unity Task Force is springing into action once again.
Formed in October, 2000, the interdenominational group composed of religious and civic leaders had its first test after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as it worked to make sure that Bay Ridge and southwest Brooklyn – an extremely diverse area that sustained large losses in the terrorist attacks – remained calm and unified.
Now, says one of its founders Larry Morrish, the group is poised to begin a new initiative being developed by two of its leaders, Rabbi Dina Rosenberg of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center and Father Khader El-Yateem, the pastor of the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church.
“When 9/11 came, we all came together,” Morrish recalled.
“It’s a disgrace to attack any religion,” he contended, citing angry postings on local Bay Ridge Facebook groups, as he slammed people who vilify an entire faith based on the actions of a few individuals. “We are all coming together and we’re going to be strong. The architectural work is being done by Pastor El-Yateem and Rabbi Rosenberg. This is the way to go, and I can’t wait till we unleash the new program. It is going to bring people together even more.”
The initiative, Rosenberg told this paper, is twofold.
“I think it’s really important, especially in Bay Ridge where we have such a large Arab, Palestinian and Muslim population, to have a conversation out loud about what’s going on,” she said, noting that, on Tuesday, December 8, she and El-Yateem got together with Chaplain Major Tracy Hudgins of the Fort Hamilton Army Base, and other members, to discuss the plan which, so far, includes both visual and physical components.
“We already have about 15 to 20 different members of the clergy, and other professions creating posters and banners that are going to show, through different topics, how different people are actually similar,” Rosenberg explained. “We’re going to post them in windows up and down Bay Ridge so that when everyone walks into a restaurant or a store, they don’t think of who might be the owner, they think of the entire community, coming together as a whole to support that business.”
Those topics, she said, will consist of things like healing and reconciliation.
“It will focus on the similarities so that people can begin to see each other as human beings, and not as someone who needs to divide from others,” she went on, adding that next on the agenda is what she called a “Worship Walk.”
“We hope to have some kind of a walk, making stops at a mosque, a church and a synagogue, to show the value of each of our places of worship,” said Rosenberg, happy that, in a time where hate has sometimes run rampant, the Unity Task Force was quick once again to come together.
“I can’t be silent when I see members of my community being labeled and condemned for their faith,” El-Yateem told this paper. “That’s not who we are.
“I believe leaders of all faiths need to stand together,” he said. “I believe we need to reach out to the neighborhood, stand together, work together, and set up an active strategy to promote peace.
“Mr. Trump,” he added, “is making us weaker and more vulnerable. Terrorists recruit members by playing on their fears and hatred. Why are we helping those who want to destroy us? To hear what he’s saying takes away from the beauty of this country, from the opportunity for everyone who wants to come to live here in peace and enjoy the American dream. I understand there are some bad people out there, but you can’t generalize. You can’t demonize a whole community because of a few bad people.”
Dr. Ahmad Jaber, president of the Arab American Association of New York, agreed. “I feel sad,” he told this paper, “that presidential hopeful Donald Trump is engaged in such rhetoric against Muslims, against humanity in general, against the Constitution and against international law. You can’t discriminate against people because of their religion, creed or color. That’s a tenet of the United States.
“The sad thing,” he added, “is that he has some audience that is supporting him, and applauding his approach. It seems that he forgot his ancestors who came to this country as immigrants.”
If Trump’s rhetoric and his supporters sadden Jaber, he takes heart in the backing of other community leaders and members. “I’m happy,” Jaber said, “about the overwhelming support from our community and interfaith leaders who have come together to condemn what he is saying.”
And the Unity Task Force is not alone.
While the Bay Ridge-based organization has a laser focus on southwest Brooklyn, We Are All Brooklyn – founded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – takes in the entire borough in its mission to “strengthen Brooklyn and value its diversity by proactively uniting communities, building partnerships, and advancing the next generation of leaders,” as its website states.
WAAB’s board President Mohammad Razvi, also a co-founder of the group (as well as of the Council of People’s Organizations, also started after 9/11), noted that, “The objective of ISIS and other terror groups is to destroy the unity of people living together in western countries. If we do what Donald Trump and what some other presidential hopefuls are saying, then we are giving in to their objectives. We must collectively work together and stay united, to get these evil-doers, these terrorists.”
Trump’s approach, which Razvi stressed is “unconstitutional,” will not endear him to the voting public in general, he said. “If he assumes that the people of the republic of the United States of America, who fought for the right of freedom of religion, are going to vote for him to repeal their constitutional rights, he is mistaken.”
Jaber agrees. “I am sure it is going to work against him,” Jaber said. “It doesn’t seem like intelligent thinking, and everybody understands that it isn’t the culture or idea of the United States of America.”