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Local theological leaders offer message of unity at St. Leo

Matt Tapie, director of St. Leo University’s Center for Catholic-Jewish studies, Muslim educator Souheil Zekri and Congregation Beth Am Rabbi Jason Rosenberg recently spoke at St. Leo.

Photo by Matt Bakker

Matt Tapie, director of St. Leo University’s Center for Catholic-Jewish studies, Muslim educator Souheil Zekri and Congregation Beth Am Rabbi Jason Rosenberg recently spoke at St. Leo.

In response to recent acts of hatred committed against Bay area Muslim and Jewish communities, theological leaders gathered April 3 at St. Leo University.

Congregation Beth Am Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, Muslim educator Zouheil Zekri and Matthew Tapie, director of the University's Center for Catholic-Jewish studies sat side by side for a panel discussion.

The three men addressed the February firebombing of the Islamic Society of New Tampa, recent threats made to Tampa Jewish organizations as well as Islamophobia and anti-semitism nationwide.

Tapie opened the discussion.

"The Islamic Society of New Tampa was the fifth Mosque burned in seven weeks," he said. "Since the beginning of 2017, there have been 90 bomb threats made to Jewish organizations."

"Catholics must not remain silent," Tapie added. "We want to do whatever we can to respond to these events, to what seems to be fear driven actions against religious minorities."

Rabbi Rosenberg joined the conversation, noting a recent discovery regarding threats to Jewish schools, which resulted in evacuations and parents permanently pulling their children from affected institutions.

"They arrested someone a week ago, the vast majority of the calls were made by a Jewish man from overseas, and what that means is a separate conversation," Rosenberg said. "What it did is show how vulnerable we are, that one person making robo calls can suddenly impact material institutions of the Jewish world. It's amazing how easy it is to cause real damage."

Rosenberg then shifted the conversation to Islamic-Judaic relations. Following the New Tampa incident, Rosenberg and Congregation Beth Am members donated to the attacked Mosque. The two communities bonded together, attracting national media attention.

"I like to think whoever it is that set the fire is reading the news and going, 'That's not what I meant to happen,'" Rosenberg said. "I hope the person knows the effect it had is minor fire damage, which was covered by insurance, and Judo-Muslim friendship."

Muslim Americans often feel misjudged and isolated from other citizens. When a differing religious community speaks out against Islamophobia, Muslim men and women appreciate it, Zekri said.

"It's a mix of surprise and happiness," he said.

Zekri said Muslim Americans, specifically women, experience Islamophobia in their daily lives.

"My wife has been cursed at as with most of her friends in the community," he said. "A lot of community members are self-employed because they can't find jobs anymore. They've been battling an identity crisis since Sept. 11. Many Mohammeds are Mo now because Mohammed doesn't get the job, Mo does. I have a friend who is Maurice now."

Tapie said open dialogue helps bridge the gap between religious communities.

"In the darkness of this storm, there is an interfaith story being written," he said.

Rosenberg suggested more organizations host interfaith events. Congregation Beth Am hosts an annual Thanksgiving open to people of all faiths. On Feb. 5, Tampa Islamic groups hosted a multi-religious event attended by more than 200 people. An interfaith rally will take place at 6 p.m. on May 4 in Tampa. The location is still under consideration.

"If you don't know the name of a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim, then you are failing at this," Rosenberg said.

For more information on Congregation Beth Am, visit, on the Islamic Society of New Tampa, visit and on the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, visit

Contact Sarah Whitman at [email protected]

Hillel Academy of Tampa, 2020 W Fletcher Ave., will host a student Seder from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 7. For more information, visit

The United Methodist Church of Sun City Center, 1210 W Del Webb Blvd., welcomes singer and impressionist Mark Ralston for a benefit show at 7 p.m. April 28. Proceeds will go to Kiwanis to raise money for scholarships for local high school seniors. Tickets are $10 and are available at the church office. For more information, visit

Local theological leaders offer message of unity at St. Leo 04/05/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 5:17pm]
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