Mahmoud and Rayah Shilleh walked silently across the Islamic Garden at Westminster Memorial Park toward the six-day-old grave of their father, Hashem Ahmad Alshilleh. They passed row after row of identical tombs — plots ringed by concrete curbs and covered in white stones, with raised headstones that serve as the resting place for over 1,500 Muslims. “This is all my father’s legacy,” said Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Corona Police Department officer, as he waited for his siblings to arrive. “It’s just humbling.” For over 30 years, Alshilleh helped to bury a generation of Southern Californian Muslims. The Riverside resident washed and shrouded the corpses of men per Islamic customs and drove the bodies of men and women to cemeteries from Rosamond to Victorville, San Diego to Orange County. The slight but strong truck driver stayed with each body until it was lowered into the ground. He would then climb down to ensure the deceased lay on his or her right side, facing toward Mecca, to await the Day of Resurrection. Afterward, Alshilleh emerged to deal with the living. He broke up arguments, offered gravesite prayers, did whatever grieving families asked of him. He never charged for his services, relying only on donations. In many cases, he’d pool those funds to pay for the funerals of strangers, Muslims and not.
His five children — two police officers, two construction contractors and a nurse — knew their father was an important part of the local Muslim community. But it wasn’t until Alshilleh passed away Jan. 8 at 75 that they realized the magnitude of the man.
“We knew he was a great guy, but talking to people, that’s how we found out he was a legend,” said his oldest son, 33-year-old Ahmad. “Baba stayed quiet about who he was,” said Ahmad’s twin sister, Ayah Shilleh-Velazquez. “We knew what he did, but he just didn’t boast about it.”
“I received over 300 calls from around the world when my dad died,” added Mahmoud. “The messages were all the same. ‘He buried my mother-in-law. He buried my son. He buried my father, my friend.’”
Hashem Ahmad Alshilleh came to his vocation by necessity. As a teenager, he took it upon himself to prepare his father’s body for burial after no one else was available. After that, he promised to God that he would provide the same service to others.(Mahmoud Shilleh)
“There’s no Muslim family in Orange County or the Inland Empire who hasn’t directly benefited from Abu Ahmad’s help,” said Hussam Ayloush, referring to Alshilleh with an Arabic honorific meaning “father of Ahmad.” The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Los Angeles office estimates he has seen hundreds of funerals, “and Abu Ahmad was the person helping in the overwhelming majority of them.” Including those of all his relatives.
Alshilleh came to his vocation by necessity. When he was a teenager, his father died suddenly, and no one wanted to prepare his body. So Alshilleh, as the oldest son of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, took it upon himself to do the task. He asked elders and imams and anyone who might know something, anything. “After that,” said his son Mohammad, “Baba promised God he would do it for others forever.” He continued his charity in the United States — first in New York City, and then Riverside, where he settled in 1993 and promptly volunteered at mortuaries in the Inland Empire. Muslim migration to Southern California was rising, and the funeral industry needed people like Alshilleh. The more bodies he washed, the better and more knowledgeable he became, until he was widely acknowledged as the best of the best. On this day, the last two rows of graves that the Shilleh siblings passed were little more than dozens of mounds of dirt. Framed papers topped each to denote the departed. So many Muslims in the region have died of COVID-19 these last couple of months that there’s simply not enough time right now to fully finish new tombs.
One of those victims was Alshilleh. His grave is one plot over from the last person he buried.
“His good deeds will always protect his family,” said Isa Farrah, who worked alongside Alshilleh at his father’s Olive Tree Mortuary in Stanton since he was a teenager. He greeted the Shilleh siblings and offered his condolences anew. The 30-year-old looked around. “Look at how many people benefited from him. This is what he lived and died for.”
Farrah then paraphrased the Quranic verse that Muslims recite at every burial:
From the earth, we were created.
To the earth, we shall return.
From the earth, we shall rise again.
He said it as everyone jostled for space next to a fence that temporarily abutted Alshilleh’s grave. Next to it, three freshly dug burial plots awaited coffins for later that day.
Goulade Farrah, owner of Olive Tree Mortuary and funeral director for the Islamic Society of Orange County, met Alshilleh 16 years ago. The two became colleagues and fast friends.
“Abu Ahmad was one of those God-sent people,” Farrah said. “I thought I knew what I was doing, but seeing this guy — he was a university.” Farrah recalled multiple times when family members of the dead would complain to him that Alshilleh wasn’t honoring the specific funeral customs of their home countries. “So you’d hear them doing a phone call to someone who they thought knew better,” Farrah said, awe in his voice, “and they’d tell the caller, ‘No, [Alshilleh] is doing it right. Leave him alone.’” Alshilleh eventually left his truck-driving job to prepare bodies full time as demand grew. He taught his sons the basics: Start the ritual bath by washing the right hand three times. Wrap the body in three simple white cloths. Wear personal protective equipment at all times. Be mindful of how to place arms — Sunnis want corpses with their arms crossed over the midsection, while Shiites prefer them on the side.
“He would always tell me, ‘Don’t ever fear death, son,’” said Mahmoud, who apprenticed under him for two years, “‘because it’s all going to be us one day.’”
His children tried to slow down their father as the years passed, but Alshilleh always waved them off. “Baba would say it wasn’t work for him,” said Rayah, a Los Angeles police officer. “That it was a blessing.”
Mohammad Shilleh, left, Rayah Shilleh, Ayah Shilleh-Velazquez and Mahmoud Shilleh offer prayers at the grave of their father. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
But they saw a change in him as the coronavirus swept through Southern California. He could no longer enter burial plots to position bodies toward Mecca. He couldn’t even bathe them with water anymore, instead relying on a different type of purification called tayammum which involved dirt rubbed over the deceased — but now, it had to be done over the body bag.
By the fall, Alshilleh would leave home at 4 a.m. and often wouldn’t return until nine at night.
“He just looked so tired,” Mahmoud said. “He’d say, ‘Everyone I’m burying, it’s all COVID.’”
On Dec. 21, Rayah received a call from the Ontario Police Department that they had found her father disoriented and wandering on the street. He had just finished work and had a bad cough. It was COVID. He died three weeks later. Goulade Farrah prepared Alshilleh’s body, with Mahmoud in attendance. “He was like a father to me,” Farrah said. “It was difficult trying to hold my emotions, because I wanted to do my best for Abu Ahmad.” Farrah rubbed dirt on Alshilleh over the body bag, reciting the proper prayers. And he made sure, of course, to position his mentor toward Mecca, like Alshilleh had made sure to do with the thousands upon thousands of faithful under his care. Over 40 people made sure to show up at Alshilleh’s funeral, socially distant, to fulfill a hadith that stated that if someone had that amount of people praying for them at their burial, Allah would accept their intercession. One of those was Ayloush.
“My biggest regret as an activist is that we didn’t get to honor Abu Ahmad and recognize him while he was alive,” the CAIR L.A. director said. “It breaks my heart. These pioneers are disappearing, people who were selfless and gave with no expectations when the community needed them the most.” Alshilleh’s children plan to start a nonprofit in his memory to pay for the funerals of people who can’t afford them, even though they know their father would’ve frowned at any recognition. “He never called it work,” Ayah said. “He never did it as a source of income. He would always tell us the same thing: ‘I’m not doing it for money. I do it for God.’
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, left, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff.
Faith and the COVID-19 vaccine: ‘I’m a member of a community with duties’
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a theologian and ethicist specializing in medical ethics, talks about what we owe each other when it comes to being vaccinated.
Nearly 9% of Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and with the announcement of a third vaccine in Johnson & Johnson’s new single-dose version, the United States’ campaign is showing promise despite initial stumbles. But more than a third of Americans still say they have no intention of receiving the vaccine or are unsure. It’s well-known that faith leaders can change minds about public health measures. “Congregants are more likely to trust not only their leaders but also those who share their faith, particularly people from their own tradition,” wrote Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Baylor University researcher, in a Religion News Service op-ed last year. To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the former CEO of the Conservative Jewish movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and now a master’s candidate at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health, is interviewing a series of faith leaders about their traditions’ views on public health and vaccination, and this vaccination effort. You can find the entire series here.
This week Schonfeld talks with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Dorff is a theologian and ethicist specializing in medical ethics.
How is health viewed in Judaism? One of the ways I put it is that there’s been a virtual love affair between Judaism and medicine for the last 2,000 years. Many rabbis have also been physicians — Maimonides is probably the most famous, but there were many, many others. There are fewer rabbi MDs now than in times past, but in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 21, when somebody has assaulted somebody else, among the remedies that the assailant has to provide is, “He must surely heal him.” From this, human beings got permission to engage in healing. It’s not taking away God’s prerogative — quite the opposite. In the Torah, quarantine is used to prevent communicable diseases, in Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Leviticus. In the 18th century, when Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine, the question was, should you take it? The answer was yes, you should, because we owe it to each other to prevent diseases not only for ourselves but others.
So there’s a very strong sense in the Jewish tradition that we ought to, to get involved in medicine, both to prevent disease and to cure it both on the clinical level and on the public health level.
Why does that figure so strongly in our faith?
Well, I’m very proud to be American for all kinds of reasons, but the American side of us is that we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights. And among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So I, as an American, I’m an individual with rights. The central Jewish story is at Sinai, we got 613 commandments. So as a Jew, I’m a member of a community with duties. As an American, I’m an individual with rights. If I get up in the morning and I’m an individual with rights, then the world owes me. But if I get up in the morning and I’m a member of a community with duties, then I owe the world. In the American understanding, furthermore, going back at least to the 1990 Nancy Beth Cruzan decision at the Supreme Court, I own my own body. As long as I’m 18 or older, I can refuse any kind of medical intervention. I cannot demand it, but I can refuse it. Whereas in the Jewish tradition, my body belongs to God. I have a fiduciary relationship to God to take care of my body during my life as if I were renting an apartment.
How can faith leaders help communicate this sense of duty to those who are hesitant to take the vaccine? The first thing is public education. This vaccine, unlike the smallpox vaccine or the flu vaccine, has no trace of the virus. Even those vaccines you should take, because we have proven that those vaccines prevent very serious diseases. But they contain forms of the viruses that they’re trying to prevent. This one is not that at all; it works with our DNA. Second, we need to take what public health officials are saying seriously. We need to wear masks whenever we’re outside of our homes. We need to publicly distance, right? We need to wash our hands frequently. We need to do all those things that these public health officials are saying to us, and we need to get vaccinated when it’s our turn.
We hear about “jumping the line” — people who are not yet eligible getting vaccinated or attempting to get vaccinated. Could you address that from a Jewish perspective? I mean, it goes back to “Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” from the Book of Deuteronomy. There is a line because there is a shortage, and the Jewish tradition knows about allocation of scarce resources. Namely, how do you decide among the poor: Who gets what and who pays for it? Jewish communities through the ages were not rich. What emerged in the Jewish tradition is an order of who’s most vulnerable, who are the people that have to be helped first?
That is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tried to do. We need to understand that the most vulnerable are the ones that really need to have that vaccine first. We need to be able to wait in line, even though it’s scary.
The mental health ramifications of COVID-19 have affected everybody. What does Judaism teach about managing the risks? Genesis, Chapter 2, says it’s not good for a person to live alone. We are indeed social animals, as Aristotle put it, and a large part of the mental health piece of this pandemic is that people are feeling very depressed, very isolated. That has led to increased alcoholism, increased family violence. We have seen a real uptick in the need for clinical care. If we did not have Zoom, if we did not have FaceTime, this disease would have been much, much worse.
That said, we should take advantage of the fact that you’re isolated at home. Think about people that you’ve known in your life or that you haven’t talked to in a while. It will brighten your day to get in touch with them, and it will really serve to keep you mentally healthy. In the Jewish tradition, that is part and parcel of what it means to take care of yourself.
Dream of 3 faiths worshipping in one building meets reality in Berlin
Its designers and leaders hope it will be used by Jewish, Christian and Muslim members as a place to pray, worship, gather and, perhaps above all, host a dialogue among their respective religions and with society at large.
An artistic rendering of the House of One design in Berlin. Design by Kuehn Malvezzi, photo by Ulruich Schwarz, courtesy House of OneFebruary 15, 2021
(RNS) — Three religions. One building. The concept could be profoundly simple or particularly complex. For Berlin’s “House of One,” it’s turning out to be a bit of both. Dubbed “the world’s first churmosqagogue” by one Reddit user, the House of One — “the world’s first hybrid church-mosque-synagogue” — will break ground in Berlin on May 27, 2021. By then, it will have been a project 12 years in the making, at an expected cost of at least 47.2 million euro ($57.2).
Its designers and leaders hope it will be used by Jewish, Christian and Muslim members as a place to pray, worship, gather and, perhaps above all, host a dialogue among their respective religions and with society at large. But while the House of One is intended to show that peace is possible among — and through — the world’s so-called “Abrahamic traditions,” some Berliners regard it as an overwrought symbol that has little practical purpose in the heart of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. The idea for the House of One came to Protestant pastor Gregor Hohberg after he discovered the ruins of Berlin’s first church. The late Romanesque building, dating to the 13th century, had been destroyed and reconstructed repeatedly, most recently in World War II, before being torn down during the Cold War. Hohberg wanted to honor the history of the place with a new building, but not just another church. “It had to be something that spoke to Berlin, to our world today.” With the support of his parish, Hohberg sought out Jewish and Muslim partners. First came Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin, later replaced by Rabbi Andreas Nachama, a former rabbi for the American military synagogue in Berlin’s southwest. Then, Imam Kadir Sanci, of the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, joined them.
The three began the slow process of getting to know one another and raising funds for the massive building project. “At first we were conversation partners,” said Sanci, “then we were colleagues, and now we are friends.
“The focus was on togetherness, spending time together, learning together and cooperating on a major construction project,” he added. Hohberg chimed in, “and by cooperating on a major construction project, you learn a lot about people through that!” The three have grown to become more than just friends, said Sanci, but “Seelenverwandte” — or “soul relatives,” who plan to seal their friendship at a groundbreaking ceremony at Petriplatz, in the center of Berlin, in May.
“On our way to peace in heaven, we have the chance to create that here on earth,” said Nachama, “but that’s not to be taken for granted. You have to work at it and build a place for peace on earth.” The House of One’s architectural design has received lots of attention over the last decade. Its layout provides equal space for Jews, Christians and Muslims to pray, worship and gather under its roof. But the emphasis is on the spacious “Begegnungsraum,” or meeting place that connects them, where people of all backgrounds will be invited to build relationships of peace like the one Hohberg shares with Nachama and Sanci.
“In this room,” said Sanci, “the House of One becomes more than a house of prayer, but a house of understanding.” The House of One is not the first attempt at housing the Abrahamic faiths together. The House of Religions in Bern, Switzerland, opened in 2014, and the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2020. The Temple of All Religions in Kazan, Russia, and the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., are both under construction. Other similar meeting places in Haifa, Vienna, and elsewhere have been compared to the House of One.
“This idea is exportable,” said Nachama. “The House of One is just a ‘test-case’ for how we can actually build peace.”
In Tbilisi, Georgia, Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the metropolitan bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia, drew inspiration from the House of One for his own “Peace Project,” which locals also refer to as the House of One. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, center-left in purple, during a service in Tbilisi, Georgia. Courtesy photo Established as the First Baptist Church of Tbilisi in 1867, the Peace Cathedral is the mother church of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. “In the course of its history, Peace Cathedral has repeatedly taken bold stands in support of oppressed minorities,” said Songulashvili, “even as the church has suffered periodic harassment from religious extremists.”
Painfully aware of religion’s role in violent conflicts, such as the recent nearby Nagorno-Karabakh war, Songulashvili’s congregation took the bold step of constructing a mosque and a synagogue attached to its church building, “creating a spiritual home for Abrahamic faiths, including both Sunni and Shia Muslims,” he said. Bishop Ilia Osefashvili said that without the House of One in Berlin’s support, the project could not proceed. More than money, he said, “a project like House of One helps us to build bridges of peace and friendship with other religions. Without it, alienation and hostility are difficult to overcome.”
The House of One has also established a formal partnership with “the House of Peace and Religions” in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, a majority-Christian country where faith has fueled conflict in recent years.
Berlin’s House of One has worked with the country’s cardinal, Dieudonné Nzapalainga; the former president of its Islamic Council, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama; and president of its Evangelical Alliance, Pastor Nicolas Guérékoyaméné-Gbangou, to further efforts at unity.
For all its influence abroad, however, the House of One has faced criticism at home. While the House of One’s intentions are in the right place, various multifaith activists say, the details have been problematic. Some have complained that the exorbitant cost could have been better spent.
An artistic rendering of the central, communal gathering area in the House of One design. Design by Kuehn Malvezzi, image courtesy House of One
Dagmar Apel, pastor and consultant on migration and integration for the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), expressed concerns that the House of One will showcase its founders’ hopes more than bring faiths together in the city.
“We need something that speaks to Berlin on the inside and not just on the outside,” Apel said. “The design is beautiful, but we need a place that is more than a meeting point for tourists, but for true religious exchange.”
Apel, who pastored in Berlin’s diverse Neukölln and Kreuzberg communities, said interreligious work is difficult in the city, especially given Germany’s “disastrous national history.” Berlin, with its diverse, young international mix, can be a place where “Germans can develop a better intercultural competence,” she said, but added that “the House of One lacks grassroots support.”
Apel and others fear that Sanci’s association with Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish imam who founded the Hizmet Movement, will deter many of Berlin’s Muslims. Hizmet describes itself as a “faith-inspired civil society” but has run afoul of the ruling AK Party in Turkey for its supposed political aspirations. It is a lightning rod in the broader German Muslim community, particularly for its large Turkish minority.
“The Gülen movement is not representative of Muslims in Berlin,” said Apel, “and could never be because of the political situation.”
Moreover, said Apel, “where are the Asian religions? The spiritual-but-not-religious? You can’t have a ‘House of One’ without involving people of other religious groups.” Michael Bäumer, the managing director for the Berlin Forum of Religions, agreed that the House of One missed an opportunity by not speaking to Berlin’s broader religious diversity.
“It’s a difficult task to bring different people together for dialogue,” he said, “and a lot of religious people in Berlin aren’t really interested in the House of One.”
As a Buddhist, Bäumer said, “I don’t know why I would go there. They have a lot of work to do to reach beyond the three religions.”
Bäumer has cooperated with the House of One on different multifaith initiatives and admires the leaders’ meaningful multifaith relationship.
“I like the people involved. They are good people and we often talk together. I really like them,” but, when the House of One is finally finished, Bäumer said, “the important question will be whether they can open their relationship of peace to other persons of belief.”
Farmers, agricultural scientists, policy makers address Iran’s Chief Justice and Minister of Agriculture
SYDNEY — Farmers as well as agricultural scientists and policy makers from Australia, Africa and North America have joined the global outcry at the unjust confiscation of lands belonging to Bahá’í farmers in Iran, as the Iranian authorities face mounting criticism over the widespread and systematic persecution of the country’s Bahá’ís.
In an open letter to Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and acting Minister of Agriculture Abbas Keshavarz, figures in the field of agriculture from several countries across the world—including Canada, Ethiopia, Mali, and the United States—say they are speaking out because they “are concerned about the plight of smallholder farmers throughout the world who often face injustice from arbitrary authority. In an open letter to Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and acting Minister of Agriculture Abbas Keshavarz, figures in the field of agriculture from several countries across the world—including Canada, Ethiopia, Mali, and the United States—say they are speaking out because they “are concerned about the plight of smallholder farmers throughout the world who often face injustice from arbitrary authority.
“These recent land seizures take place within the context of escalating raids on Bahá’í owned homes and businesses in Iran,” they say, expressing their alarm at the latest stage in the ongoing persecution of the Bahá’ís of Ivel who have been displaced and economically impoverished by Iranian authorities solely because of their religious beliefs.
The open letter states: “We understand that Bahá’í families have farmed land in Ivel for over 150 years and that these families have been constructive members of the local community, by, for instance, starting a school for children of all faiths and by carrying out measures to improve the hygiene and health of all community members.
“Despite their contributions to the community,” the letter continues, “they have faced a series of persecutions throughout the years, characterized by mass expulsion and displacement, and the demolition, bulldozing and confiscation of their homes.”
The signatories call on Chief Justice Raisi and Minister of Agriculture Keshavarz to end the persecution of Bahá’ís, saying, “We write as fellow agriculturists to bring attention to this instance of persecution and urge the Iranian authorities to overturn their decision with regard to the farmers of Ivel.”
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