I first learned the word neighborhood from the tv show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Every day after school I would come home, have a snack, and watch Mr. Rogers sing the opening song while changing his shoes and putting on his sweater. The show was designed to build tools for imagination and learn what it means to be a neighbor. I have fond memories of the show and find myself singing the opening song with my own children while they watch its cartoon spin-off, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” Fred Rogers (and his tv descendants) remind us that in our fast-paced, technologically-savvy world, it’s vital to cultivate relationships with people in our actual neighborhoods.
When our national discourse is marked by divisiveness and fear, our congregation has the responsibility to be good neighbors, protecting even those — especially those — who are different, foreign, outsiders. Strangers. Our Torah says,
כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ
כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am Adonai, your God.
Thirty-six times our Torah commands us to have compassion and provide protection to the vulnerable because we were vulnerable in Egypt, a vulnerability that isn’t necessarily limited to our distant past. Indeed, it is deeply distressing that recently, many Jews (and others) have begun to feel a renewed sense of anxiety and discomfort amid the current political climate.
But this is not Egypt. The strength of our neighborhood and communal bonds can provide comfort and unity, whether it’s us who feel vulnerable or it’s our neighbors who need our support.
For that reason, we have recently reached out to begin building relationships with our neighbors at the Yaseen Foundation, a Muslim community association and mosque with centers in here Burlingame and in Belmont. In light of political talk of a “Muslim registry” and recent moves to close our borders to immigrants, for many Muslim-Americans, it’s hard to avoid a pervasive sense of vulnerability. Just as we fight anti-Semitism, so too do we need to fight discrimination affecting our religious cousins. Our history has taught us that their vulnerability is our vulnerability.
The word “yaseen” يس is spelled with two Arabic letters, yah and sin. Though many say the word’s meaning is unknown, it is also the name of the 36th surah (chapter) of the Qur’an. Because that particular surah contains the core pillars (the “heart”) of Islamic faith, the word “yaseen” is often understood as a reference to the “heart” of Islam, of humanity, and of God.
Together on February 17, our communities will share a day of prayer. At 12:50 pm Rabbi Feder will deliver brief remarks at Friday prayers as an honored guest. And at our Shabbat service, a representative from their congregation will address us.
Just after the election, Rabbi Feder, Lauren Schlezinger, and I met with the leadership of the Yaseen Foundation. Unsurprisingly, they’re also interested in making our neighborhood safe and peaceful for everyone. We are hoping that through this interaction and others, our congregations will get to know each other, enabling cooperation to combat issues that face our respective congregations and our entire community.
Being a neighbor means more than sharing the borders of our homes. It means engaging with each other, supporting each other and working together to make our community a peaceful place. We hope you will join us in building this relationship with the Yaseen Foundation and other faith houses in our area.
This work is not always linear. And sometimes it’s messy. Despite that, and perhaps because of it, both Mr. Rogers and the Torah teach that it’s our obligation.