116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Maybe a community best defines itself in its quiet moments, when there is an absence of attention or glare that comes with planning press announcements or sending out notices of achievement.
As I watered the trees at the Eben Israel Cemetery this Labor Day weekend, particularly the tree beside my husband’s grave marker, I found myself smiling, remembering an event held in May, a quiet event, but a capstone moment for sure. Smiling may not be the first emotional reaction one would expect to have in such a place of reflection and heaviness, nor is smiling what I have felt like doing on my nearly daily trips there over three years. But I have a new emotion that surfaces when I am there now, and it is pride of community. The very ultimate honor to a husband who so loved and believed in this town.
When Dan and I were dating many decades ago, and as he introduced me to life and its characters in Cedar Rapids, he always stated with such pride that Cedar Rapids was a place where Jews and Muslims worked in tandem, that cooperation and cohesion existed, and in the business community often “deals” between the two, whether for furniture from Smulekoff’s or carpets from Ajram, came down to one’s word and a handshake. The Cedar Rapids of my courtship days prided itself on being internationally focused, more in part by the businesses we were cultivating than anything else, but we did seem to miss any overt strife between Jews and Muslims.
We attended each other’s community dinners at the mosque and synagogue. It’s not that Cedar Rapids existed in a bubble nor was immune from other ethnic tensions influenced by the outside world. Yet they rarely played out here in our slice of Middle America. I credit the commitment of our community forefathers to keep relationships moving upward and positively. But it is possible over time to become complacent and, in a pandemic era, with declining religious numbers in both communities, our deliberate and visible relationship has quieted. The community dinners are now distant memories. There is danger in not demonstrating to our youth how best to get along in the absence of the business handshakes of old.
Who knew that a violent storm would create an unintended opportunity to again unite our Muslim and Jewish communities. It took the ongoing rebuilding and recovery from the August 2020 derecho to bring our communities together, to step into each other’s cemeteries for the first time, even though for many decades our cemeteries had intersected each other at a corner on the outskirts of a large Czech and Slovak cemetery on the west side of town.
How did storm recovery become a uniting force among these religions three years later? And why would tree replanting by gravesites matter to anyone?
When you think about it, a cemetery actually is an important part of the circle of life of a community. When the storm hit, the Eben Israel Cemetery, which operates as a 501(c) (3) nonprofit entity like other religious cemeteries, faced large-scale destruction. On its west side, its neighbors, the Hawthorne Hills Apartments, part of the Affordable Housing Network, lost roofs which flew into the cemetery. In the case of their tree line, more than 53 trees toppled into the cemetery, causing further destruction of fence line, headstones and the grounds. The tree loss on the north side of the cemetery erased significant shade for the neighbors along that street who found themselves without any protection from the sun and wind and higher heating and cooling bills. The neighborhood had lost its peaceful footpath.
The Eben Israel Cemetery members approached Trees Forever, and with their guidance applied for and received $5,000 from the Planting Hope grant program. The neighbors appealed for support of this grant by writing postcards of encouragement, discussing the impact from tree loss to its neighborhood since the storm.
Ben Rogers, a member of the Eben Israel Cemetery Board, and, in full disclosure, my son, thought it would be a gesture of friendship to offer the nearby Muslim cemetery some of the trees from the Eben Israel award.
“I grew up only hearing good things about the relationship between the Jews and Muslims of our community. I witnessed this in the way my Jewish grandfather and father spoke of their Muslim colleagues and friends. Our family currently enjoys long and rich friendships with Muslims in our community. It seemed to me that now more than ever it would be time to come together and lead by example more than anything. I called Hassan Igram from the Muslim community and we decided to work together to make this planting time together on Sunday May 15 a reality,” Ben said.
Trees Forever Executive Director Kiley Miller said back in May this spirit of collaboration was exactly what their organization had been seeking as it worked tirelessly to help replant trees. “We required that these nonprofit organizations commit volunteer time to plant and maintain these trees,” Miller said. “That the Jewish members invited their Muslim neighbors to be a part of their grant success spoke volumes about our community.”
So on a quiet Sunday afternoon May 15, without local press or fanfare, a planting day occurred. Ben Rogers welcomed the volunteers and gave some history behind the endeavor. Rabbi Todd Thalblum from Temple Judah and Hassan Selim, Imam of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, were invited to make remarks. Thalblum recited the nine lessons learned from trees, as taken from the Torah, emphasizing that like trees, people need to grow deep roots with their faith and make a commitment to do good deeds for others. He continued that growing stronger through life’s experiences is like the development over time of the rings of a tree, and that we need to be respectful to each other and to the ecosystem.
Imam Selim said that Prophet Muhammad teaches that a believer is like a tree, firm but flexible through all of life’s trials and tribulations. Selim said that the Jewish and Muslim faiths have more in common than most believe, along with a desire to protect the state of our planet and to honor the dead with similar reverence. Together Rabbi Thalblum and Imam Selim, along with families young and old from their religious communities, participated in the tree planting in both cemeteries.
Hassan Igram remarked this was his first time setting foot in the Jewish cemetery. “Now I will come here and sit and visit my friend Dan, under the shade of the tree we planted together.”
For the Rogers family, Dan’s graveside is a place where we gather for family meetings, as Dan always called meetings for anything he deemed important to us as a unit. We cry here, we argue here, we discuss and debate any variety of matters, all with the intention of not excluding the essence of Dan from these discussions. Now when we meet at the cemetery, we add a feeling of pride to the myriad emotions being there brings out. We are always searching for ways to emulate the goodness of Dan, and with this simple act of tree planting, perhaps his family did just that.
Marcia Rogers is a freelance writer who divides her time between Cedar Rapids and Chicago.