S.F. rabbi, cantor take podium at interfaith peace service

Neither police in riot gear nor barricades greeted this crowd of peace advocates gathered Monday evening in San Francisco. Instead, they encountered the sweet aroma of incense and the gentle sounds of traditional Jewish and Christian liturgy blended with gospel music, Arabic and a Buddhist chime.

Rabbi Alan Lew and Cantor Roslyn Barak joined more than a dozen clergy from several religious traditions to lead a solemn but hopeful "Interfaith Prayer Service in a Time of National Crisis" at St. Mary's Cathedral. Nearly 100 people attended the 90-minute service, sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council.

Lew, of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom, read from Psalm 30, which includes the words: "Hear me, Adonai, and be compassionate. Transform my mourning into dancing, that I may sing to you unceasingly and I may thank you forever." After a moment of silence, he led the Mourner's Kaddish, first in Aramaic and then in English. Lew called the prayer for the dead both a dirge and an affirmation of life.

"Let there be abundant peace from heaven with life's goodness for us and for all the people of the world," he recited. "God who brings peace to the universe will bring peace to us and to all the people of the world."

Barak's powerful voice echoed throughout the cavernous cathedral as she chanted the first four verses of the second chapter of Isaiah, and then read it in English. The final verse also adorns the lobby of the United Nations building in New York City: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

Barak, the cantor at Reform Congregation Emanu-El, departed from the Jewish liturgy and sang "We Can Be Kind," a simple, heartfelt melody. Later, she explained that she chose the tune because "it espouses values all religions share."

"Nobody really wants to fight. Nobody really wants to go to war," she said. "Does nobody understand the power to heal is right here in our hand? Maybe we'll find true peace of mind if we always remember: We can be kind."

Lew said afterward that he supported "this kind of event."

"Why not a prayer for peace by the clergy of this city and the Jewish people? This is the most dangerous moment we've ever lived through."

Unlike the recent anti-war marches where thousands of people blanketed the streets of San Francisco and some harshly criticized the Jewish state, Lew said he found the St. Mary's event extraordinarily refreshing. "It's a relief to pray for peace without hearing such horrible things about Israel."

While he is not totally against removing the threat of Saddam Hussein, Lew questioned the effectiveness of this war. "If it were that easy to go into Iraq, without endangering humanity, I'd say, 'Go for it.'

"But is it worth the risk? Is it good for Israel to make Saddam Hussein a sympathetic figure, to have the whole world embrace him?"

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada set the inclusive tone for the service from the outset. "There is no litmus test of political views to gather here," he said. "With all the religious and cultural diversity here, may we know together that our hearts beat as one in prayer to Almighty God for peace today."

And Norman Fischer of the Everyday Zen Foundation said, "Impure thoughts and actions lead to hate. Hate cannot conquer hate, but only by love can we conquer it. This is an eternal law. We are here to live in harmony."

Barak was drawn to interfaith activities long before the Iraq war. "Praying for peace is an excellent cause," she said. "My presence here tonight showed that Jewish people are just as passionate about peace. And every time I sing something from the Jewish tradition, I educate people in other faiths about Judaism."

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.