It is perhaps stating the obvious to declare that I believe in community centers. In particular, I believe in the important role our Washington DC Jewish Community Center plays in the life of the local Jewish community, the neighborhood we call home and the program participants of all faiths (and lack thereof) from near and far who find themselves in our facility for any number of reasons. As an American who finds his patriotism most firmly in the exceptional diversity and pluralism of the United States, I am especially proud that our Jewish Community Center sits just down the street from the White House. In short, community centers matter. The location of community centers matter. Which is why it has been especially difficult to observe the acrimony, intolerance and clumsy public debate that has accompanied the so-called Ground Zero mosque, more properly known first as Cordoba House and now as Park51.
My personal feelings aside, our organization has no official position on whether or not an Islamic Cultural Center should be built in the neighborhood surrounding the former site of the World Trade Center. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Park51 is explicitly trying to emulate the role of a JCC — and even consulted with the Executive Director of the Manhattan JCC who advised her to have plenty of space for stroller parking. (Quick fact: leaders of the Manhattan JCC paid a visit to 16th and Q when they were planning their building for ideas on how to structure a new urban JCC. To this day, we both struggle with stroller parking.) The facts seem to be that legally, there is nothing that ought to prevent such a center from being built — presuming factors such as zoning and other vagaries of construction in New York are not impediments.
My personal belief from the limited research I have done is that the spirit and mission of the proposed Center send a powerful message about the resilience of American democracy and offers a platform for mainstream Muslims to demonstrate their participation in and contributions to that democratic culture. My limited research has also shown that while there are passionate people of goodwill behind the Park51 project, they may ironically have lacked the community building skills needed to bring a project like this through to fruition. One needs more than passion to create the community that Park51 proposes, you need political savvy and a public relations plan — both of which have been painfully absent, evidenced best by their surprise at the backlash they now face. One would hope that they could respond to the outrage they face with more persuasive material than an intern’s snarky tweets and their own righteous outrage.
Lofty beliefs and magnanimous gestures are not always received in the same manner in which they are offered. Where the founders of Park51 thought they were offering to create a beacon of tolerance, others chose to see an arrogant monument of Islamic triumphalism. Then there are those who do not embrace that particular hysteria, but come out against it based on an argument that boils down to, “I’m sorry but we’re just not ready. It’s not you, it’s me. Perhaps we can still be friends?” Others point to the parallel of the ill-conceived Carmelite convent that was to be built on the grounds of Auschwitz — no matter how pure the intentions, the locale makes such a presence sacrilege. Still others argue is that while there ought to be nothing preventing an Islamic Cultural Center proximate to the site of a national trauma, a political climate absurd enough to provoke an official statement from the White House as to the President’s religious affiliation makes this at best an inconvenient and unnecessary battle and at worst, provides fuel with which to further derange the body politic.
How on earth do we ever get ourselves out of this place? Is there a way to move forward without moving backwards? My hope is that Park51 does get built, and that over time it proves its worth in building bridges and healing the pathological distrust our culture has developed in response to anything Muslim. But one seldom cures a pathology without treatment, and it may be that at this moment the patient is too sick to take this particular medicine. That would be a shame.
If Park51 has no other goal, it is to reclaim Islam from the 19 criminals whose perverted fervor gave us the trauma of 9/11. To provide a space where an Islamic culture can be in a constant process of creative and dynamic exchange with what gets lumped together as “Western Culture” is an important step in that on-going project.
At our finest moments, that is what the Washington DCJCC achieves — serving as a nexus for the vibrant, multitudinous and often contradictory expressions of modern Jewish culture and then bringing them into creative tension with everything else the world beyond our doors has to offer. The results are by turns thrilling and disappointing, deeply transformative to some and profoundly upsetting to others; and more often something somewhat in-between ecstasy and tragedy. From the diversity of the kids and parents at family night of our summer camp, to the unbridled voices on our stages and screens, to the unlikely alliances formed on our volunteer projects, to the hesitant embrace of a rediscovered Jewish identity by a participant in our GLBT outreach programs, there are small moments every day here that testify to the power of a community center. It is an energy that enriches our Judaism, our neighborhood, and being six-blocks from the White House may I be so bold to say, our country and our world. It is that potential (and perhaps old-fashioned American optimism) that makes me hope that Park51 can become a reality.