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Archive for November 2013

Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah starts at sundown today

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Hanukkiah at the Western wall (Photo by Poliocretes via Wikimedia)

A large Hanukkiah, or Hanukkah menorah, at the Western wall in Jerusalem. (Photo: Poliocretes via Wikimedia.org)

Hanukkah, the archetypal celebration of religious freedom, starts its eight days at sundown today (Nov. 27). Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication, recalls a victory of the ancient Jews over a pagan king who tried to force them to give up their faith.

The founding events took place in the second century B.C.E., when what is now Israel was ruled by the Greco-Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In a ruthless effort to destroy Judaism, the king set up a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. He also poured the blood of a pig — an animal considered unclean in Judaism — over the Torah scroll in the Temple.

Finally, five brothers arose — adopting the name Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for “hammer” — and led a revolt. Despite the superior military machine of Antiochus, they won and set about to cleanse the Temple.

To their dismay, the victors found only one day’s worth of oil for the Great Menorah at the Temple. But according to the story, the lamp miraculously burned for eight nights, enough to purify a new supply of oil.

Modern Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a special eight-branched menorah, called a hanukkiah. One candle (or lamp) is lighted every night, giving the holiday its popular nickname, the Festival of Lights.

Hanukkah’s closeness to Christmas most years cause American Jewish families to lift it above its place as a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. They often hold Hanukkah parties, buy beautiful hanukkiot and give their children one gift each night. Synagogues and Jewish federations often hold outdoor lightings on large lamps as well.

James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

November 27, 2013 at 5:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Typhoon victims include Filipino shipworkers

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Typhoon Haiyan photographed on Nov. 9 2013 by United States astronaut Karen Nyberg from the International Space Station. (NASA photo)

Typhoon Haiyan, photographed on Nov. 9, 2013, by United States astronaut Karen Nyberg from the International Space Station. (NASA photo via Wikimedia)

Among those suffering from Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped through the Philippines a week ago, one group has been drawing little notice: Filipino mariners on the high seas, anguishing over the fate of their loved ones — with little opportunity to express that anguish.

Seafarers’ House is helping to fill that gap. Clergy at the interfaith ministry, based at Port Everglades near Fort Lauderdale, are counseling, saying Mass and leading prayer with the shipworkers.

“People are focused on the devastation on the ground,” notes Lesley Warrick, director of Seafarers’ House. “It’s easy to overlook these people who are bereaved on ships.”

A half-dozen chaplains with Seafarers’ House are working with major cruise lines, including Princess, Holland America and Royal Caribbean, as well as cargo vessels. By the end of Sunday, Seafarers’ House and its volunteers will have visited 20 to 25 ships.

Some of them are among the largest cruise ships, such as the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, each of which employs more than 2,100 workers, including hundreds of Filipinos. For those workers, the Masses and counseling are especially important, says Father Ron Perkins, chaplain at Seafarers’ House.

“They have to be positive and upbeat and smiling and welcoming to passengers, 24/7,” he says. “While they’re doing that, they’re worrying about their loved ones, not knowing if they’re alive or dead or injured or have food or water or a roof over their heads.”

For practical help, Seafarers’ House is giving away 500 phone cards, at least to start. The organization is also handing out 2,000 envelopes of info, with include prayer cards and lists of international organizations with translators in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. Each envelope also has two cards: one with Perkins’ information, another with the Seafarer’s Prayer.

The SEAFRERS LOGOSwitaliclarge Princess and Royal Caribbean cruise lines have also asked Seafarers’ House for contacts to other mariner chaplaincies, including those in Houston and Los Angeles.

Besides Perkins, the Seafarers’ House team includes Filipino priest Father Jesus Medina, of Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School, Miami; retired priest Father John McLaughlin of Fort Lauderdale, and Father Peter Lin of the Catholic Apostleship of the Sea.

Also on the team are two Protestants: Deacon Hal Hurley, an Episcopalian, and the Rev. Steve Wright, a Baptist. Perkins can also call on Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist volunteers when he needs.

“We’re unlike the typical faith-based organization; we’re multifaith,” Perkins says. “You don’t have to check your religious ID at the door.”

Crewmembers who are allowed to leave their ships may visit La Casa, a sort of community center run by Seafarers’ House at the port. There, they can find couches, a TV, books, magazines, a small grocery store and online computers. Perkins has also moved a statuette of Mary — an important lens of faith for Filipinos — from the center’s small chapel out to the rec center.

Seafarers’ House can even drive the mariners there, via its three or four vans that shuttle people around Port Everglades. The free service carries about 75,000 passengers around the sprawling port every year, Perkins says.

Details are still sketchy in some parts of the storm-struck Philippines, especially south of Cebu City. But news reports are cause enough for dread: more than 3,631 dead and 12,000+ injured, with some cities leveled as if pattern-bombed.

Many of the crewmembers fear that their families have lost their homes and loved ones to Typhoon Yolanda, as Haiyan is called in the Philippines. One mariner told Seafarers’ House that he lost 30 members of his family.

“There’s a lot of suffering in that community,” Lesley Warrick says. “Each Mass reconnects them with their faith. And it provides a priest to talk to them about the horrific thing that’s happened.”

Perkins says he has seen “tremendous relief” when his team gathers crewmembers to pray. “It’s a calming of their soul, asking the Lord’s intervention for the lives of their people. They recognize that people outside the Philippines care about them.”

“I’m just honored that we can provide resources and spiritual refuge and pastoral care to minister to them.”

Those who wish to donate to the work of Seafarers’ House may do so through this link or by calling toll free: 1-800-732-6367.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 16, 2013 at 1:25 am

Jewish-Muslim relations to be examined in FIU series

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Religion scholar Nathan Katz of Florida International University helped organize the upcoming series on Jewish-Muslim relations. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Jews and Muslims have been at each others’ throats forever — or so it might seem from blogs and headlines. But a look at history would show otherwise.

“How Islam Saved the Jews,” in fact, is the title of a discussion this weekend planned for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, on Miami Beach. The free forum is the first of a three-part series on Jewish-Muslim relations planned by Florida International University.

“This is so crucial right now,” says Nathan Katz, an organizer of the series and academic director of the museum. “If we can show people that their God wants them to get along with the other side, it will be a big step.”

Amanullah De Sondy, one of the participants in the FIU series, agrees.

“There is a lot of mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims for a lot of religious, cultural and geopolitical reasons,” says De Sondy, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Miami. “But Jews and Muslims have more in common than Jews and Christians.”

The first event, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, will host a talk by David Wasserstein, a professor of history and Jewish studies of Vanderbilt University. Wasserstein will discuss how Muslim rule, including the Ottoman Empire, placed most Jews in a single state, permitting a flourishing of faith and culture.

Responding will be a panel of South Florida leaders and scholars, including FIU’s Katz and Iqbal Akhtar, plus De Sondy of UM and Mohammad Shakir of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS).

Second in the series will take an equally surprising title: “The Shoah (Holocaust) Through Muslim Eyes.” Giving the keynote talk will be Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College.

Afridi will touch on what she has called the “struggle with anti-Semitism within the Muslim community,” including lack of education about the Holocaust. Her topic is also the title of her soon-to-be published book.

Third of the three-part series, “Sufi Music and Poetry,” will bring back New York-based actor Peter Rogen and Turkish musician Alan Amir Vahab to perform works by Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes interfaith harmony and a direct connection with God.

The FIU series has some impressive support. Besides COSMOS, which includes mosques and other Muslim organizations, supporters include the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews. Also endorsing the series is the Jewish Community Relations Council, a branch of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Such endorsement was made possible largely because of Katz himself. Over the last decade and a half, he has built religious studies at FIU through hires like Erik Larson, who currently serves as the department’s chair. And through the spiritual studies program, which he directs, Katz has also brought such diverse speakers to Miami as the Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, Christopher Hitchens, Dominic Crossan, W.D. Mohammed, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Modern eyes can be blinded by the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, a conflict heightened by the creation of Israel in 1948. Katz says that Baghdad, Iraq, was once the greatest center of Jewish learning in the world. Jewish communities also flourished in Egypt, Morocco and Istanbul, he says.

“We have a shared history that is more friendly than not,” Katz says. “I hope some people will come away [from the series] with more appreciation and understanding, and even affection, for people on the other side of the aisle.”

Like other planners, Tudor Parfitt of FIU, who will moderate the panel talk on Sunday, voices a hope that friendships will grow out of the three-part series. “We’re all interested in promoting discussion and interfaith harmony. We hope the communities will get to know each other.”

They have an advantage in South Florida: Leaders on both sides have increased contacts for more than a decade.

JAM & All was formed by Jews and Muslims in 2001 to counter rising tensions after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 that year. Since then, it has expanded to include Christians, Buddhists and those of other faiths.

Shakir says COSMOS, the Muslim organization, was organized in 2010 with a similar impetus: to combat tensions over the planned so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York.

Even before then, he was sent to Israel in 2002 by the Miami chapter of the American Jewish Committee to gather facts about the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule on the West Bank. On returning, he wrote about his impressions for the Miami Herald.

“If we come out of the time box of the establishment of Israel, we can see that Jews and Muslims have been interacting for almost 1,500 years,” Shakir says. “This may not solve the problem in the Middle East, but it shows that our communities are open and willing to work together.

“We can respect disagreements, find ways to heal and move forward.”

Jews and Muslims have also met on the UM campus, discussing matters like the hijab, the headscarf worn by most Muslim women. And in 2012, De Sondy says, students watched a movie called Arranged, on marriage in an Orthodox Jewish family.

The activities have helped students of different beliefs get past stereotypes and see one another as people, De Sondy says.

“Jews, Muslims and Christians can use scripture to build bridges or burn bridges,” he says. “But when you get up close and personal, you see how connected we are.”

The Jewish-Muslim initiative is part of an expansion of Jewish studies at FIU, starting with the merger of the Jewish Museum with the university last year.

FIU has launched a project to examine Jewish communities around the world, working with advanced students. Parfitt, former professor of Jewish studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, cites work with Jewish groups in Israel and Argentina. He and a Ph.D. from Colombia plan to research Jewish communities in Burma and India.

Parfitt has also written a new book about Jewish museums around the world, due out in December.

“The idea is to be a great hub of Jewish intellectual activity,” Parfitt says.

If you go

All the events will be at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

First Event: “How Islam Saved the Jews”

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10

Featuring: Lecture by David Wasserstein, professor of history, classics and Jewish studies, Vanderbilt University, with panel of local experts

Second Event: “The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21

Featuring: Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College

Third Event: “Sufi Music and Poetry”

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3

Featuring: Actor Peter Rogen and singer-musician Alan Amir Vahab performing Rumi and Hafiz

Cost: Free, but RSVP requested via info@jewishmuseum.com or calling 786-972-3175.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 8, 2013 at 3:07 am

Holiday Almanac: After Halloween, a holy day for churches

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Candles on a cemetery on All Saints Day in Poland. (Michal Zacharzewski via sxc.hu)

How did Halloween get its name? From All Saints Day, which falls on today (Nov. 1). The original name was All Hallows Day, which means pretty much the same. (Despite what you may have heard from Harry Potter, hallows are holy persons.) All Saints Day is shortened from the official name, the Solemnity of All Saints and also called All Hallows or Hallowmas.

The root of the observance came from martyrdom, especially in the first five centuries of the Christian era. Churches began honoring members who were killed for their faith, saying Eucharist at their graves on the anniversaries of their deaths; but the task became harder as more died. So by the fourth century, they established one day to honor them all.

The holiday took its present form in the eighth century, when Pope Gregory III declared Nov. 1 as the day to remember the apostles, saints and martyrs. The day was picked to supplant Samhain, a Celtic festival for the end of summer, when the dead returned to visit. Many pagans reacted by simply moving their observance to the previous night. Hence the name All Hallows Evening, or Halloween.

All Saints Day is observed not only in Roman Catholic circles but also Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Wesleyan churches. Whether they see deceased members as especially holy or not, believers emphasize a spiritual bond between Christians in this world and the next.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 1, 2013 at 4:07 am

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