By Jackie Hajdenberg
(JTA) — Before he paid his respects at the funeral of Wadea al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy stabbed to death in what police are calling a hate crime, Rabbi Ari Hart called the officiants of the funeral to make sure his presence would be welcome.
“’I’m an Orthodox rabbi, I’m a Zionist rabbi, I need you to know that,’” he recalled telling the Chicago-area Muslim religious leaders. “And they said, ‘We understand. We would like you to come.’ And that was not easy for them. And it was not easy for me.”
Al-Fayoume’s killing, reportedly connected to his assailant’s rage over the war between Israel and Hamas, has drawn shock and condemnation from government officials as well as religious groups. On Tuesday, a broad coalition of Jewish organizations made a statement calling the murder “despicable” and speaking out against anti-Muslim hate.
Hart and three other Chicago-area rabbis — Hody Nemes and Josh Feigelson, who are both Orthodox, and Lizzi Heydemann, who runs an independent synagogue — wanted to deliver those sentiments in person. They attended the boy’s funeral in the village of Bridgeview, Illinois — a community known as “Little Palestine.”
Hart said that what drove him to attend the funeral wasn’t only his horror at Al-Fayoume’s death. It also flowed from his outrage over Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians.
“Islamophobia is wrong and killing anybody because of who they are and what they believe is wrong,” Hart said. “And we need to speak out about that. We certainly know what happens when there’s hatred and we’ve experienced that in our history. And we experienced it this week, the hatred and the mass murder.”
Hart added, “This little boy was killed solely because of his religion and his identity. We need to try to build a world where it doesn’t happen to anyone.”
Hart is the senior rabbi of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a Modern Orthodox congregation in a heavily Jewish Chicago suburb. His career as a rabbi has featured interfaith and social justice work in the area that has addressed topics including medical debt and racial justice. He said that through attending the funeral, he wanted “to try to affirm our shared humanity, try to stand up together to any form of bigotry and hatred and murder.”
Feigelson wrote in a Facebook post that the funeral “wasn’t an uncomplicated visit.” But he said that felt safe and welcomed the entire time
“Dozens of people came up to me to shake my hand and thank me for coming. A few of us hugged,” he wrote. “While I’m sure some assumed that my presence meant that I was an anti-Zionist, those who asked learned of my Zionist attachments and commitments. And everyone seemed able to share the sentiment that what the vast majority of people want is simply to be able to raise their families and live in their communities in peace. That felt like a small glimmer of hope.
Fayoume was allegedly stabbed 26 times by his family’s landlord, Joseph Czuba who, according to reports, had previously been close with the family. According to NBC News, Czuba “listens to conservative talk radio on a regular basis” and recently began fixating on the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Czuba was also worried about reports of a call for a global “day of jihad” on Oct. 13, a country prosecutor said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Czuba believed Fayoume’s mother, Hanaan Shahin, who is a Palestinian immigrant, was “going to call Palestinian friends to come and harm them,” the prosecutor said.
The funeral wasn’t easy, Hart recalled, describing cries of anguish, pain, and yelling that hit home for him in part because he is the father of a 5-year-old son.
“If I was in their shoes, I would have the same raw pain,” he said.
“They spoke a lot about feeling demonized and targeted. And that’s what happened to this boy,” he said. “The vast majority of us want the same things. We want our children to be safe and happy and flourish.”
Al-Fayoume’s mother was not in attendance because she was still recovering from the attack, when she was stabbed 12 times. Palestinian flags were hanging on the inside of car windows headed toward the mosque, where a digital billboard read: “Stop inciting violence and hatred against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities.”
“I can’t solve the conflict between Israel and Hamas,” Hart said. “But maybe I can do something about how we live together here in Chicago. And I think their leadership probably feels a similar way.”