2017-09-27 / Voice at the Shore

Leaders call for action to end injustice and hate at emotional 9/11 commemoration

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

Dr. Beverly Vaughan of Stockton University led everyone in singing “God Bless America” with one voice at the 9/11 commemoration at Beth El Synagogue. Dr. Beverly Vaughan of Stockton University led everyone in singing “God Bless America” with one voice at the 9/11 commemoration at Beth El Synagogue. As Hurricane Irma tore through Florida, local leaders and residents of all faiths, races and ethnicities came together on September 10 to commemorate 9/11 and speak out against hate at Beth El Synagogue in Margate. The event, “One Voice, One People, One Community,” brought together roughly 150 people for a powerful and emotional afternoon of speech and song.

“We are here today representing different faith groups, different political viewpoints, different ethnic and racial origins, but united in memorializing the victims of 9/11 and paying homage to the first responders who saved countless lives,” said Cantor Harvey Wolbransky, chair of the local Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which helped put together the event along with more than a dozen other community organizations.

“We are here to proclaim with ‘One Voice,’ as ‘One People,’ and as ‘One Community’ that we will not stand for senseless words or acts of hate…that we will come together, work together, to shout from every pulpit and every podium, wherever and whenever possible, that hate has no place in our hearts, in our community, or in our nation,” added Wolbransky, who is also the cantor of Shirat Hayam synagogue in Ventnor.

“It’s important to focus on 9/11, not for the horrific attack, but for the unity experienced afterward,” said AC Councilman and activist Kaleem Shabazz, a member of the Atlantic City mosque Masjid Muhammad and leader of Bridges of Faith, a community-wide interfaith group. After 9/11, “we had a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood” that is now receding, he noted. “Today, we will try to get it back.”

Shabazz also acknowledged that civil rights battles won in the past had recently lost ground and needed to be revisited. “Let us recommit ourselves to fighting these fights, to making a better day, a more equal day, for all of us,” he stressed.

Religious leaders and politicians who subsequently spoke echoed these themes, with many also expressing an urgent need for meaningful action to create social change. Their speeches were interspersed with inspirational performances by church and synagogue choirs, as well as by professional singer Suad El-Amin and the Sally Mitlas Ensemble, which performed several songs in Hebrew.

The choirs also came together in the end for a truly moving combined performance of “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”—a musical rendition of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem on the Statue of Liberty—and all attendees were asked to raise their voices together for “God Bless America” and the National Anthem, which were passionately and impeccably led by Dr. Beverly Vaughan of Stockton University. Donations were also taken for the Jewish Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund.

“In so many ways our nation is broken and yet there are rays of light,” Rabbi David Weis of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield told those assembled. Among those rays, he noted, was the fact that “we are standing here together.”

“Peace starts with us,” said Reverend Dawn Fortune of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Pomona; it starts in our own hearts, minds, communities and nations, and flows out from there.

“My faith calls me to see the humanity and dignity of all people. How can I see the humanity in hijackers?” she asked, referring to the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11. To do so might be difficult, but was necessary for healing the future and ending the cycle of violence that our own nation has also played a role in perpetuating, said Fortune.

“I believe humanity’s default setting is goodness,” she said, adding that when one group feels attacked, they will attack back. “Let us work together to disrupt the cycle of violence between people and within our hearts,” said Fortune.

“I was fourteen years old when the towers came down,” said Reverend Willie Francois of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville. At the time, Francois said he wondered why terrorists would attack America. He has since come to a new understanding of terrorism, where it is perpetrated, and by whom.

“We can’t say we are against terrorism when domestic terrorism has been normalized” in the form of ever-present poverty, violence and racism that is tolerated in our country, stressed the pastor.

Francois saw hope in the fact that “people of conscience” had the imagination to envision a society without such domestic terrorism. “We are the people who can remake America. We don’t need to be elected to have power. Pharaoh had position but Moses had the power. The bus driver had the position, but Rosa Parks had the power…We are people of faith with imagination and power. Let’s get to work!”

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian agreed with the need for social change. He stressed that people in AC and elsewhere resorted to crime, prostitution and drugs largely because they saw no alternatives. “You think that people want to live in poverty and not be able to feed their families? No,” he said. “We have to work on making this a perfect world.”

In an unusual benediction, Reverend William Williams of the Asbury Methodist Church in Atlantic City concluded the speaker presentations by asking everyone to “take out a pen” and write down “your goal, your strategies, your steps” to fulfilling “the vision of One Voice, One People, One Community.” That vision, he explained, was “moot without strategies to make the vision happen.”

One Voice, One People, One Community was presented by numerous groups: the American Legion, Kenneth B. Hawkins Post 61 and the Post 61 Auxiliary; the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey Region; the Atlantic City NAACP; the Atlantic County Coalition for a Safe Community; Atlantic County’s Democratic and Republican Committees; Bridges of Faith; the Fellowship of Churches of South Jersey; the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties; the Jewish Community Relations Council; Jewish War Veterans, Post 609; and Sisters Together Against Racism.

Choirs performing included those of Beth El Synagogue, the Parish of Saint Monica, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and the Blessed Sacrament.

In addition to providing musical entertainment, Sally Mitlas of Mitlas Productions also provided sound and large screens showing inspirational film and images throughout the event. Among those was the image of Israel’s 9/11 memorial in Jerusalem, a 30-foot-high granite statue of an American flag that morphs into a flame. Created in 2009, it is the only memorial outside of the United States that includes the names of all 2,996 victims of the 9/11 attack. 

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