Calendar for WISDOM and Other Interfaith Events
Sunday, October 15th, 2017, 5:00 PM – 8:30 PM
Tenth Anniversary Celebration of WISDOM
North Congregational Church
36520 W. 12 Mile Road, Farmington Hills, 48331
See Save the Date Below
Sunday, October 14th, 2017
Farmington Public Library Auditorium
See Flyer Below
August through November, 2017
Exploring Our Religious Landscapes
See Flyer Below
SAVE THE DATE!!
WISDOM’S TENTH ANNIVERSARY YEAR
Sunday, October 15th
5:00 PM – 8:30 PM
AT NORTH CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
36520 W. 12 Mile Road
Farmington Hills, MI 48331
Displays/Vendors, Dinner, and Delightful Entertainment
$50 per person
$75 for a display/vendor table
Please register online for this event!
Zoroastrian Association of Michigan
2017 Society of Scholars
of Zoroastrianism (SSZ) Conference
Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA)
at the Farmington Public Library Auditorium,
32737 W 12 Mile Rd, Farmington Hills, MI 48331
Saturday October 14, 2017 from 1015 AM till 530 PM.
“The Legacy Of Zarathushtra and His Vision For The Modern World”
The topics we will be covering will be
1) Zarathushtra’s birth, his early life, his enlightenment and his early teachings
2) the Gathas,
3) Prophet Zarathushtra’s contributions as a philosopher, scientist, astronomer and ecologist,
4) his influence on world religion and philosophy,
5) how his teachings are valuable in today’s modern world.
The Society of Scholars of Zoroastrianism (SSZ) is an initiative to promote study and scholarship of the Religion of Zarathushtra, formalized during the Eighth World Zoroastrian Congress in London in 2005. The mission of the Society is to revive the tradition of scholarship within our community among athornans and behdins alike, and to promote interaction among academicians, theologians (priests), educationists, lay scholars and practitioners of Zoroastrianism, through roundtable discussions, conferences and publications. The aim is to make SSZ a prestigious organization on par with scholarly organizations of other faith communities, and merit affiliation with international bodies such as the American Academy of Religions.
All community members, students, scholars and members of interfaith communities are invited and encouraged to participate. You will no doubt be enriched, your presence gives support to the speakers, and your feedback is invaluable so that future research efforts may be directed in a constructive manner for the benefit of both the academicians as well as the community.
Top religious leaders urge followers to ‘make friends’ across faithsPope, rabbis, Muslim clerics and the Dalai Lama among those championing personal acquaintance as a cure for prejudice and distrust
Go to the following link to view the video!!
In an extraordinary appeal, top religious leaders from across the world called for inter-religious friendships “to counter misperceptions, prejudices and distrust” between peoples.
In a three-minute video made in partnership with Twitter, the petitioners – including Pope Francis, Former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Dalai Lama and Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam – disseminated their message in 16 different languages.
The initiative, organized by the Elijah Interfaith Institute under the slogan #MakeFriends, seeks to “reduce social tension around the world by stimulating interpersonal contact between people of different faiths,” according to a statement from the institute.
The video was released during a London conference organized by the institute to launch the effort.
In it, Sacks says: “One of the wonderful things about spending time with people completely unlike you is that you discover how much you have in common. The same fears, hopes and concerns.”
Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka speak of how their religious experiences have been enriched by their interfaith friendship.
The Dalai Lama says “personal contact, personal friendship” would lead people to the exchange of “a deeper level of experience.” Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, adds: “We are called… to look into one another’s eyes in order to see more deeply and in order to recognize the beauty of God in every living human being.”
American Shia cleric Ayatollah Hassan Al-Qazwini encourages knowing one another “to discover and explore thos commonalities,” while the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden Antje Jackelén explains “This should start a process that will take prejudices away and where new insights and hope is born.”
Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau also contributed a video, in which he says people of all religions should share common values of acceptance and mutual respect.
A second, longer video from the summit issued by the institute included statements by citizens from around the world on religious prejudice.
The initiative hopes to counter the “hazardous and widespread misperception that followers of religions other than our own view us with distrust and disdain.”
Elijah Institute director Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein acknowledged that religious texts were not always helpful in allaying this concern.
“We cannot deny that in the books of many religions you can find texts that are not very open, even hostile, to people of other faiths. Therefore, when the world’s most important leaders call for friendship, they are in fact affirming a particular way of practicing religion and rejecting another,” he said.
Religious leaders launch interfaith rainforest initiative
The Amazonas River on the coast of Amapa state
(credit – Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)
Setting aside their religious differences, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist leaders have launched a global effort to end deforestation. Launching the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative at a conference in Oslo on June 19-21, religious and indigenous leaders from 21 countries spoke with forest advocates, climate scientists and human rights experts to develop goals and actions, along with milestones to mark their progress. They expect to follow up with an action plan and a global interfaith rainforest summit in 2018. Rainforests are pivotal for life on earth, provisioning people’s needs, promoting biodiversity and protecting the climate”, said World Council of Churches general-secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit. “Today when the rainforests are threatened by deforestation driven by a shortsighted, profit-oriented economy, we must use the knowledge of what is good and our faith-driven action to protect and care for the rainforests and therefore the Earth and all life.”
The leaders said the initiative will bring needed moral attention and spiritual commitment to bear on global efforts to end deforestation and protect the tropical rainforests – forests that are fundamental to human life, the planet’s health and reducing the emissions fueling climate change. This marks the first time religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths are working hand-in-hand with indigenous peoples, the world’s leading rainforest guardians, to call upon and activate billions of people of faith worldwide to stand up for rainforests. The gathering was attended by His Majesty King Harald V of Norway.
Tropical rainforests in South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are falling rapidly due to a range of forces, including palm oil plantations, cattle, soy and crop production, and rapacious and often illegal mining and logging operations. The losses amount to an area the size of Austria each year. With their capacity to store billions of tons of carbon, the preservation of tropical rainforests is widely viewed as fundamental to halting climate change. Many climate experts note that forests are the only proven approach for capturing and storing large amounts of carbon. Thus, staving off their destruction could keep carbon emissions at bay, buying time for the world to transition to a low carbon energy future, and also playing an indispensable role in reaching global carbon neutrality in the second half of this century.
Tropical rainforests also provide food, water and income to 1.6 billion people. They contain most of the planet’s land-borne biodiversity and help regulate rainfall and temperature globally, regionally and locally.
The group was convened by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, Rainforest Foundation Norway and the United Nations Development Program, in cooperation with the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, GreenFaith, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Religions for Peace, REIL Network and the WCC. “Our goal – working in concert with the spiritual and indigenous leaders gathered here – is to define a shared action plan to create a popular movement for expanded political will and on-the-ground action to protect rainforests,” said Bishop Emeritus Gunnar Stålsett, honorary president of Religions for Peace. “The scope of this initiative is global. But we are also putting special focus on religious and indigenous leaders, networks and institutions in countries with the most significant tropical rainforests.”
The initiative is linked to a surge of recent grassroots action in which environmental, climate and indigenous rights issues are being embraced as spiritual imperatives that strike a chord with multiple faiths and traditions. Other leaders of Evangelical Christian and Muslim organizations, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, have stressed the shared human responsibility to protect the planet. Lending crucial leadership and indispensable momentum to these efforts was the official letter issued in 2015 by Pope Francis that called on all people of the world to quickly bring, “the whole human family together to protect our common home.” The pope also noted the unbreakable link between indigenous peoples and the environment. “For them land is not a commodity, but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.”
Check out Song and Spirits beautiful interfaiith
mosaic tile project, led by
Mary Gilhuly! Click on YouTube link below.
To get involved or
have a community service project
with mosaic tiles
contact Mary at
Charlottesville Happened On Shabbat.
Here’s What The Rabbis Did That Day.
By Erica Snow August 17
In the days leading up to the Unite the Right rally, the Jews of Charlottesville sensed that the march might put worshippers gathered to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath in danger. They asked the police to provide them with an officer during morning services and were refused, so they hired an armed security guard. They also reached out to their friends among Charlotteville’s other religious communities, so for some of the rabbis of the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, the day started with a sunrise interfaith service. After that, as anticipated, things got scary. Here’s how the rabbis and their congregation experienced the day.
9 a.m. Charlottesville’s only synagogue began services an hour earlier than usual to try to avoid any clashes with the rally, slated to start at noon. It didn’t work. Several neo-Nazis walked by Congregation Beth Israel, shouting “There’s the synagogue!” and “Sieg Heil,” a Nazi cheer meaning “Hail Victory.” For thirty minutes, three men with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the synagogue, wrote synagogue president Alan Zimmerman for ReformJudaism.org.
The rabbi stayed outside to keep watch, and so did a 30-year Navy veteran, John Aguilar, because he “just felt he should.” Several non-Jews came to services to show solidarity, Zimmerman wrote, and at least a dozen strangers stopped by to ask if Aguilar and Zimmerman wanted company.
Shabbat services – “It just really felt like we were in our own place,” said Geoff Schmelkin, husband of the synagogue’s Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, in an interview with the Forward. “Prayers strengthened us and gave us the kind of comfort that we needed. It really felt good to be with the community and to be praying together. … We were just doing our thing and being resilient in the way that we want to be in the face of a crisis like this.” Congregation Beth Israel’s stained glass windows blocked the sight and sounds of the rally outside. For two and a half hours, congregants prayed despite the chaos just across the street.
Services conclude, about 11:00 a.m.
The service ended and people filed out of the synagogue into the main hall for kiddush, the ritual blessing over wine and bread usually combined with snacks and a period of schmoozing. Geoff Schmelkin looked out of the second floor windows to see “gangs of skinheads” marching past the synagogue. The sight was “evocative of the atmosphere of a pogrom,” he said. Rabbi Thomas Gutherz, Congregation Beth Israel’s senior rabbi, said he had not experienced such blatant anti-Semitism from “white supremacist gangs” after living in the South for more than two decades.
“It’s just not part of the ordinary experience of Jews,” he told the Forward.
Zimmerman’s “heart broke” as he asked congregants to leave in groups through the back, he wrote. The rabbis had realized an attack on the synagogue was a real possibility and removed the Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll.
An interfaith safe space, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Several congregants walked two minutes down the street to First United Methodist Church, which served as a “safe space” for counter-protesters during the day, Rachel Schmelkin told the Forward. Among them was her husband, wearing a yarmulke. The short walk was “tense,” he said.
The rabbi and her husband reconnected. She’d been at the church since 8:30 a.m., playing guitar and singing songs of “love and kindness” on the steps. She frequently stopped and hurried inside when a lockdown was announced after reports of violence nearby. “It was really important for people to have their spirits lifted as they were looking at this hatred,” she said. “I wanted to drown out their noise with something beautiful.”
She said her Christian colleagues would take extra care to usher her inside the church out of view of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis just across the street and in the park. “To be at the church knowing that my husband was at the shul was very terrifying,” Rachel Schmelkin said. “I was very relieved to see him when he showed up at the church after services and all was OK.”
2:30 p.m.: the hospital – The Schmelkins left the church to rush an injured woman to the hospital. They returned to the church briefly before going home, worried that police could block off the downtown area and restrict their access to their home if protests became too violent.
Later that evening, the rabbis cancelled the havdalah service, consisting of a braided candle, wine, spices and song, that marks the end of Shabbat, citing safety concerns.
Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Alexander wasn’t in town that Shabbat and instead returned to the community on Sunday. He said Charlottesville, thanks to the University of Virginia, is a progressive town that’s been home to prominent Jewish families since the 19th century.
He said the protests on Saturday felt like an invasion. “Charlottesville (has) now become a buzzword with associations that are not really characteristic of the place,” Alexander said to the Forward. “It feels like a violation that doesn’t feel good right now. In a certain way it’s a kind of a loss.” For Gutherz, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, the violence and bigotry of the day do not characterize Charlottesville. He said the community needs to take time to process the weekend to figure out how to best move forward. “The community was turning to the faith community for leadership, and we tried to provide it as best we could,” Gutherz said. “The war on hate is also a spiritual war … and we need to stand by our principles of love and acceptance and justice.”
Contact Erica Snow at firstname.lastname@example.org
Amid Muslim anxiety, woman
welcomes strangers to dinner
“Welcome to Our Muslim Table”
Detroit Free Press
by Susan Selasky
Every ring of the doorbell signaled another guest or two, arriving for dinner at the Saab home in New Boston. Once inside, the strangers introduced themselves and immediately noted the amazing aromas coming from the kitchen. Fragrant saffron rice warmed, and a pot of lentil soup with carrots and turmeric simmered on the stove.
Amanda Saab was also tending to cumin-and-cinnamon seasoned kefta (ground beef) patties sizzling in oil. And the smell of rosemary roasted potatoes chimed in. While Amanda cut up melon, tended to the salmon and began caramelizing onions, her husband, Hussein, 30, filled hinged glass bottles with water, ironed napkins and set the table.
Amanda, 28, had been prepping most of the day for this dinner with people she’s met only through friends of friends or on social media. There would be nine guests for her Dinner with Your Muslim Neighbor event, her fourth such event held in Michigan.
On this particular Sunday, the Saab family’s personal and loving attempt to facilitate cross-cultural communication happens at a time of heightened anxiety for Muslims, as terrorism by extremists conjure bigotry. The Saabs entertained strangers from Berkley, Chesterfield Twp., Detroit, Eastpointe, Plymouth and Roseville.
Amanda, a Muslim-American, came up with these dinners as a forum designed to build bonds across cultures, demystify and dispel untruths about Islam and Muslims, while also providing insight. Amanda, a social worker at Zaman International in Inkster, believes that sharing a meal can make a difference.
“There is something about breaking bread and sharing a meal that opens a path so people have a better understanding,” she says.
During the presidential campaign, Amanda says, she was overwhelmed while watching the news, listening to the candidates’ messages and all of the anti-Muslim rhetoric. “It was how people were reacting and that it was OK to spew hate and bigotry,” she says. “Specifically, hearing Donald Trump say he was calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims coming into this country.” Instead of sitting at home and feeling helpless, she wanted to do something about it. She put her culinary know-how to work. An amazing self-taught cook, Amanda says she got her first Easy-Bake Oven when she was 5 years old. She learned cooking techniques by watching the Food Network and reading cookbooks. You might recognize her, as some of her recent guests did, from Gordon Ramsey’s “MasterChef” reality show on Fox. In 2015, Amanda was the first Muslim woman on the show. More than a year ago, when the couple still lived in Seattle, Amanda approached her husband about hosting monthly dinner parties in their home.
“Sure, everyone enjoys your food,” Hussein recalls telling Amanda. “Let’s go shopping, here’s a check, 100%, whatever you want to do.”
There was a catch, however. Amanda wanted to invite strangers to their home, not just friends and colleagues. She would cook for them. She would invite them to sit at their dinner table and eat with them. It would be an open dialogue for guests to ask the Saabs about anything about their lives, their Muslim culture, their Islamic faith.
There would be no barriers. Hussein had doubts. “I like to socialize, but not that much and with total strangers,” he says. But, he felt the same way as his wife, frustrated, and isolated. The dinners made sense.
Hussein says he was nervous mostly about the questions that might be asked. “I love Amanda’s creativity with doing this, because cooking is her outlet. And she wanted to combine that with conversation and see what that does.” Hussein says many of the questions are targeted toward Amanda. “They want to know why does Amanda wear the scarf? Did you make her to wear it? Why can’t you eat certain things?”
“It clearly shows many want to ask, but many haven’t met a Muslim in some cases,” Hussein says. “It made it very easy once they got to understand us and why we do what we do.”
The Saabs, now back in metro Detroit after living in Seattle for 5 years, brought their concept here. Their most recent Dinner with Your Muslim Neighbor took place during the holy month of Ramadan, which lasts 30 days. There is no fee for the event, the Saabs pay for everything.
Because their most recent dinner was during Ramadan, Amanda decided the menu would be more traditional to show what the family eats to break the fast; during Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daylight hours. The dinner was set to take place at 9:15 p.m. Now pregnant with the couple’s first child, due in August, Amanda is not expected to fast. Islam allows people for whom fasting may harm their health to refrain from fasting during Ramadan.
Once the guests were assembled, Amanda described what’s on menu. The meal would be served buffet-style from the kitchen island. It included baked wild Copper River salmon topped with a mustard sauce and caramelized onions, a vibrant green fattoush salad studded with pomegranate, spinach pies from Dearborn’s New Yasem bakery and, of course, hummus. Amanda’s famous hummus is beautifully garnished with fresh mint, oregano and parsley, thinly sliced watermelon radish and a sprinkling of sumac. The hummus, she says, is a two-day process that starts with soaking the chickpeas at least overnight.
Before they eat, Amanda explained that she and Hussein needed to pray. While they pray, and since Ramadan is a time for reflection about others who are less fortunate or sick, Amanda had gave her guests a task. She had set out cards, crayons and markers and asked each guest to make a greeting card to be mailed to Cards for Hospitalized Kids.
When the cards were complete, Hussein started the meal with a prayer in Arabic, which he translated to English. The dinner started out with everyone formally introducing themselves. They ate and chatted, talking about how amazing the food was and about Amanda’s stint on “MasterChef.” Armed with conversation-prompt cards, Amanda steered the conversation by asking a question: “What is something you wished someone knew about you?”
She then said, “I wish people knew I choose to wear the hijab on my own. It was my choice to wear it.” Through tears, she explained to her guests: “I asked God for strength to wear the hijab.”
Roberta Mack of Roseville asked: “Is there a certain age that you begin to wear it?” Amanda explained that some say it’s the age of maturity. Amanda was 16. She said when she first wore the hijab to school, her Spanish teacher didn’t recognize her and asked if she was a new student. Hussein talked about how he came to Islam. “I didn’t inherit my religion, I found it,” he said. He also stressed to the group that “with Islam you are not supposed to impose anything on people.”
Aimee Twarek, 36, of Berkley found out about the dinner through a friend of friend. Recently, Twarek participated in a study at her church about Muslims, Christians and Jews. “It was about bridging the gap and finding common ground and about opening up and talking to people of Islam.”
Twarek says she was nervous about going to a stranger’s home. But, she thought it was a great idea, saying “it takes a great amount of bravery to bring strangers in their home. “I thought (the dinner) would be a good way to introduce us to true Middle Eastern cuisine and have an open conversation,” Twarek says. The food, Twarek says, was amazing. A favorite was Amanda’s salmon. Twarek thought the open and honest dialogue was a good fit because “you could see how misconceptions and how misinformed people can be about Islam.”
A plus? It was relaxed, she says. “It was just like having dinner with Muslim friends,” Twarek says. “And nothing beat her hummus.”
The Saabs have partnered with Michael Hebb of Death Over Dinner, another dining initiative that seeks to address pressing social issues like death, addictions (Chasing Addiction over Dinner) and the environment (Earth to Dinner).
“When we met, I got incredibly inspired by the work she had done and wanted to do,” Hebb says by phone from Seattle. “I saw the opportunity for thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousand people.”
Hebb says the two have started to work together to scale the projects, developing guidelines on how the events should be organized and what questions should be asked. He’s worked with Amanda on a few of her dinners and finds her remarkable.
“She’s brave in the larger sense, but her vulnerability and emotional vulnerability is what is so striking as well. She’s willing to talk about an emotional depth of experiences that few people are. As soon as somebody takes a conversation to that depth and other people feel comfortable going there. It’s a real gift.”
The ultimate goal, Amanda says, is to develop downloadable tool kits from her website, www.muslimneighbor.
“I think even just extending that hand and that invitation to reach out to someone and making the invitation and our home available to other people is a success,” she says.
A Newly Minted Rabbi in Morocco
By The Times of Israel
On Thursday, May 18th, I was ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Three days later (and nearly a year after our wedding), my wife Ariel and I departed on a belated honeymoon to Morocco. Ariel is pursuing a doctorate in Byzantine and Islamic art history, so Morocco was the perfect choice for us. As a rabbi, it was exhilarating to walk the streets once frequented by Rabbi Isaac al-Fasi and Maimonides, while Ariel was thrilled to visit some of the most significant sites in the history of Islamic art. In that sense, the trip was everything we thought it would be. What we did not anticipate was the incredibly warm welcome we received as Jews in a North African, Muslim country. Although we were initially wary to divulge that we were Jewish, once we did, we were lovingly embraced like long-lost family. On one of the last days of our trip, we did a seven-mile hike with a Berber guide through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. While taking a short breather to admire a magnificent mountain scene, our guide, Abdul, began to tell us about the history of the Atlas Mountains and the pivotal role that Jews played in the development of the region. Without knowing our backgrounds, he waxed rhapsodically about the significant contributions that Jews made to the growth and cultivation of the area. And most significantly, he spoke about the deep love that Muslim Berbers have for their Jewish brethren.
“The only difference between Jews and Muslims,” Abdul said, “is that Jews drink alcohol and Muslims don’t.” “Well,” I replied, “You pray five times a day, while we only pray three.” At this, Abdul’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “You’re Jewish?” Almost shockingly, tears began to stream down his cheeks as he gripped me in a genuine, loving bear-hug. Until the 1940s, roughly 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco. They began to leave in droves following the establishment of the State of Israel; sadly, the vast majority left for Israel in the 1960s, in the midst of a period of economic downturn. Now, there are only about 3,000 Jews left in Morocco, almost all of whom live in Casablanca. Before meeting us, Abdul hadn’t seen a Jewish person in quite some time. He was profoundly moved to see us in his country.
Jews have been in Morocco for at least 2,500 years, dating back to the Carthaginian and Roman periods of North African history. For most of that time, they were major contributors to Moroccan agriculture and trade. Prior to the spread of Islam to North Africa in the 7th century, many Berbers converted to Judaism. On our trip, we learned that a substantial number of Jews living in Morocco today still consider themselves to be ethnically Berber.
For long stretches under Arab rule in Morocco, Jews were classified as “dhimmi,” or a protected class. As long as they paid a special tax, they were permitted to continue observing Jewish law. But ultimately, Moroccan Jews became far more than a mere protected class-they became an indispensable part of Moroccan culture and society. When we visited the 15th century Mellah (Jewish quarter) in Fez, we discovered that it was built in the shadow of the royal palace; the king wanted Jews in close proximity. Significantly, this trend continues today. The primary advisor to the current king, Mohammed VI, is a Jewish Berber.
While visiting the Jewish quarters in Marrakesh and Fez, we had the unique opportunity to daven with the communities there. In Marrakesh, we connected with the community at the Lazama (or “Al Azma”) synagogue, which was founded in the late 15th century by Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition. Sitting in the beautiful synagogue on a Fridaymorning, we joined with a group of Israelis to hear a captivating talk from a member of the community about his pride in his Berber lineage, and how rankled he gets when he is labeled as Sephardic. He is not Spanish, but very proudly Berber. And moreover, he said, most Moroccan Jews follow Ashkenazic, not Sephardic, religious practices.
We had a similar experience in Fez, where we visited the Ibn Danan and al Fassayine Synagogues in the Mellah, and the Roben Bensadoun synagogue in the new city. We were in Fez over Shavuot, so we davened at the Roben Bensadoun synagogue and then had dinner at their small Jewish community center. It was a fascinating experience; the members of the community spoke to each other (and us) in a blend of Hebrew, Arabic and French and regaled us with tales of Moroccan Jewish life.
The community in Fez told us about Mohammed V, the king of Morocco who protected the country’s 250,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Significantly, following the establishment of the State of Israel, he also reminded his Muslim subjects of the key role Jews had historically played in their country, and implored them not to lash out at the Moroccan Jewish community. This was deeply moving for us to learn, and encapsulated how we felt about our time in Morocco as a whole: we were able to fully experience the culture and history of a beautiful Muslim country and be embraced and welcomed as Jews.
Students Take the Lead Teenagers
for a More Tolerant Future
by Ryan Polsky
“World Religions” is being taken to a whole new level in high schools across the country. Young interfaith activists are bringing it beyond the classroom to engage not only mind, but heart as well. These young grassroots activists are inspiring their peers to learn about different religions through clubs that promote dialogue and service.
In 2014, Jaxon Washburn found himself with a diverse group of friends at Arizona College Prep School in Chandler, AZ. At lunchtime they discussed each other’s cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs. These conversations created a desire to start a formal interfaith club, and soon the World Religion and Tolerance Society (WRTS) was born. In Washburn’s words, WRTS is “a grassroots, student-led, high school interfaith group for students of all different religious and nonreligious backgrounds to come together and have discussions with one another in friendship and relationships based on our shared values.”
When he transferred to Williamsfield High School in Gilbert, AZ he started another WRTS. Today, students meet weekly at both WRTS chapters, and the Williamsfield group has become a Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative. “We bring in guest speakers from around Arizona Valley representing different faith communities. They’re able to come after school and present their faith background to us, hand out materials, and answer questions,” Jaxon says. “Most of all, they are firsthand representatives of these different worldviews. It’s a neat opportunity for high school students to be exposed to cultures and belief systems that they might not have learned as much about, giving them an opportunity to empower themselves and advance their understanding of religion.”
He believes interfaith work is crucial for a better tomorrow: “We live in a pluralistic society, one that, at its core, welcomes people of different faiths and allows them to worship freely. With that, we need to cultivate and cherish the values of interfaith work. Even more than that, being able to communicate with one another in a civil, respectful way, being able to collaborate, work together, and build relationships based on the shared values we have, makes our society a better place.”
Washburn’s leadership and passion has landed him many opportunities, among them visiting the United Nations in New York City and speaking at the 2016 Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, UT. When he speaks, he encourages fellow high school students to start their own interfaith groups: “One of our missions is to establish a stepping stone for high school students to continue interfaith work and get a head start. We feel as though high school students are just as capable of being interfaith activists as the college youth. We’re just trying to bring the interfaith movement to even younger levels.”
Washburn’s work with WRTS has inspired high school students across the country. When Bany Crisp heard about the WRTS from a friend, she immediately seized the opportunity. In fall 2016, she founded a chapter at Midlothian High School in Richmond, VA. Crisp’s interest in interfaith work stems from her curiosity and desire to dive deep. “I read books about world religions and then realized I wanted to meet people from these religions and get to know them,” she said. By doing so, she realized the similarities among world religions.
“There are so many things people of different religions don’t realize we have in common, so I think it’s important to focus on the similarities. And to also learn about the differences, because that can be beautiful, too. It’s important for people to be educated on these issues.”
Interfaith conflict and violence around the world inspire her to be an agent of change. She believes interfaith dialogue and collaboration are key to addressing these larger issues. “You see things that are happening all over the world, conflicts between different religions, and you just want to learn more and help with that in the future.”
Like the Arizona chapters, Crisp’s WRTS club hosts guest speakers and participates in local interfaith service projects. Some of the most notable projects have been partnering with a local church to feed the homeless and organizing a clothing drive for Syrian refugees.
Crisp and Washburn are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and it’s their Mormon faith that drives them. Washburn explained, “As a faithful and practicing Mormon, I feel my faith is very open and inclusive, which drives me to learn more about different faiths, encourages me to find the best in everyone, and to on all the good in the world.”
A semester prior to Crisp starting the Richmond chapter of WRTS, Sana Shareef felt called to start an interfaith club at Saint Edward’s School in Vero Beach, FL. After witnessing and being a target of religious bigotry, she wanted a club that met hate with knowledge.
“I had the idea of starting this club during the beginning of the spring semester of my 10th grade. I wanted to start it because at the time, intolerance was becoming too familiar for a lot people I knew. It became my goal to address that religious intolerance with religious literacy. The reason why I had that goal was because I’m a Muslim, and I have experienced and seen first-hand this religious intolerance that goes on.”
While believing interfaith clubs are important for people at any stage in life, Shareef feels especially strong about the need for them at the high school level: “In high school, not a lot of students are expressive or tend to talk about religion. It’s not something that you would do as a teenager; religion is not a big part of your life. But because of the intolerance I was seeing in the outside world, I wanted to do something about that in my school. While I didn’t see this intolerance inside my school, I thought maybe it was there, but not as explicit as in the outside world.”
Her passion led her to establish the Breaking Barriers Club. Its mission is to help dismantle stereotypes and bring about a greater collective awareness of all religions through discussions and debates on common religious preconceptions and practices, lectures by area religious figures, volunteer opportunities at local religious institutions, and a culminating year-end event that consists of an interfaith panel discussion for the benefit of the school and community at large.
The end-of-year interfaith panel was part of “Finding Common Ground: An Interfaith Conversation.” This first installment was extremely successful, with over 300 people attending the panel of seven speakers. The Muslim panelist Imam Khalid Latif, who shared his experiences as a chaplain at NYU and for the NYPD, impacted Shareef the most.
When he spoke, it was incredible. He started the speech with his experiences as a Muslim in this country and the bigotry he’s seen. For example, when he was in his police uniform at the 9/11 Memorial, he was insulted by a fellow American because he looked Muslim and had the cap on that Muslims wear. He said that the woman next to him, who lost her son on 9/11, had stopped the other man and let him know what an insult that was.” She was also struck by Imam Latif’s discussion of the intersection of intolerance and bigotry. “Even though he’s Muslim, he said he doesn’t know how it feels to be a black person in this country. That was quite eye opening; he’s saying that religion is not the only problem, but race is also a huge problem. It’s not just religious intolerance, but a host of other issues that need to be discussed as well.”
“Bigotry is a huge problem in the world, especially in the United States, even though we are one of the biggest cultural melting pots in the world. Unfortunately, even though you often see it among adults, teenagers and students aren’t immune to bigotry.”
These speakers and experiences have propelled Shareef to the next level of leadership and to interfaith activism. As she focuses on finishing high school next year, she is ready to take on the challenge of standing up to hate. “It’s really important that we, as young people, who will be the future leaders of the world, acquaint ourselves with these issues at this time – now – so that we can know the issues and deal with them correctly. Knowledge and education of religious intolerance will be the solution to the bigotry you see in the community. With the recent Manchester attack and terrorist attacks around the world, this issue is at the forefront of society.”
A new wave of grassroots activists is sprouting up. These youth are breaking barriers, building tolerance from the ground up amidst the chaos that often accompanies high school life.
This piece was originally published by URI North America.