A Sign of Division

Moments before a youth-organized interfaith event, Rabbi Barry Starr is asked to remove a sign supporting Israel from the synagogue lobby.

Case Excerpt

The full case is comprised of an (A) Case and a (B) Case.

The day had finally arrived. After months of preparations, Janet Penn and a group of teenagers from Interfaith Action, a youth interfaith group, were busy cooking, making signs, moving tables, and readying Temple Israel for a special event. In October of 2007, the Jewish high holidays and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincided; it would not happen again for more than 30 years. The teens from Sharon, Massachusetts envisioned an interfaith event they called “Sharing Sacred Seasons.” It would bring together Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Christians, and neighbors of other traditions in celebration. Some four hundred people were expected to attend, and the temple was buzzing with excitement. 

The teens from Interfaith Action had planned the whole event: they would begin with Indian dancing to celebrate the Hindu festival of Navratri and continue with an educational program featuring youth speakers. The event would culminate with an Iftar fast-breaking in the sukkah. The meal would be South Asian; it had taken some time to find kosher basmati rice, but like many obstacles, this had been overcome. Such details mattered, Penn explained, in an event that was meant to build trust. As the executive director of Interfaith Action, Penn observed that in Greater Boston and beyond, Jewish-Muslim relations had suffered in recent years. She and the teens viewed Sharing Sacred Seasons as a symbol of hope and possibility. Yet, as they made their final preparations, Penn saw something she feared would derail all of their plans.

As guests entered the synagogue, they would be greeted by a large sign, poised on an easel, which read: “We Support Israel.” It occupied a central position in the entryway, and, as Penn knew well, a central place in the identity of her Conservative Jewish community. For many, “Israel is absolutely essential to the survival of the Jewish people and therefore for their own survival”[1]. Many had lost relatives in the Holocaust and felt that this wasn’t merely a matter of politics; it was deeply personal. Yet, over the years of her own interfaith involvements, Penn had become aware of another, competing narrative: for many Muslims, Israel was seen as a symbol of oppression. She feared that the sign would be viewed as “an unbelievable insult: ‘You bring us into your home, and then you’re slapping this into our face?’” She added, “For Muslims now, in this country, they are dealing with incredible discrimination on an ongoing basis. So there’s fear, there’s anger.”

As a member of Temple Israel, Penn had walked by the sign a thousand times. But that night, standing in the entryway, she recognized that the sign represented everything that divided the Muslim and Jewish communities. In keeping with the philosophy of the youth-led program, she gathered a group of teens to ask their opinion: “Would this sign be a problem?” Their answer was a resounding “Yes.”

Discussion Questions

1. Why is Janet Penn concerned about the sign? Is she right to raise this issue with the students?

2. Based on the case, what does the sign represent to the temple? What might it represent to some of the interfaith guests? Are there ways to bridge this gap?

3. Interfaith Action is a guest; Temple Israel is the host. How might their respective roles of guest and host, and ideas about hospitality, inform how to approach this dilemma?

4. What options does Penn have? How might the students be involved in figuring out the next steps? What is at risk if she does nothing?

5. Is it always possible to build a bridge between different communities? Are there limits to pluralism? Is there a place for politics in interfaith relations?



Expand for Citation

[1] All quotes from Janet Penn: Janet Penn, interview by author, September 2008.