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American youths bridge religious divides

Teens in a Boston suburb lead the way in building relationships among religious faiths in their community through Interfaith Action, a program that has captured attention abroad.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 2007

Sharon, Mass.

At Temple Israel, in this small Massachusetts town, young Tehreem Zaidi begins his talk on Ramadan by reciting from the Koran in Arabic. The teenager then explains to the several hundred guests that the main purpose of this Muslim month of fasting is to "attain God consciousness, and to clean up our lives and our souls." He does not consider the fast a burden, "but an honor, to thank God for all my blessings."

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Henal Motiwala follows with a vivid description of the Hindu holiday, Navratri, the "nine divine nights" celebrating the victory of good over evil.

And Jennifer Levy tells the story of Sukkot, the joyous Jewish holiday that expresses "appreciation for nature, food on the table, and friends in our lives."

The three poised high school students are hosting "Sacred Seasons," an evening of interfaith hospitality, including a dinner they and other teens have prepared for families in Sharon.

As members of Interfaith Action (IFA), they are part of an eight-year-old experiment to create understanding and respect across religious and ethnic divides among youths and to spread that healthy pluralism to the entire community. Their endeavors have captured the attention as a model for people as far away as Canada, Poland, and the Middle East.

"What they are doing is quite unusual," says Steve Worchel, a University of Hawaii researcher who is beginning a long-term evaluation of the program. "Many times you can change an individual but not the

system. The potential to reach the broader community is unique."

During their high-school years, the students say, they not only develop genuine cross-cultural friendships but also strong leadership skills.

Mike Garber, now a freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., recalls how meaningful it was to learn how to facilitate an interfaith discussion and then see it bear fruit. He tells of an adult discussion session IFA held one evening between orthodox Jews and religious Muslims.

Devout Jews, devout Muslims find commonalities

"When they arrived, the Jews sat on one side of the room and the Muslims on the other," he says. "After we split into groups and facilitated dialogue, they returned later to the main room and kept sharing with each other. They talked about how similar the faiths were, and how they actually had more in common with each other than with less-religious members of their own faiths."

Sharon, an upscale but highly diverse Boston suburb of about 18,000, is a microcosm of a changing American landscape. While the majority of residents is Jewish, the town is home to a large Islamic center and Islamic school, a variety of Christian churches, and several Eastern religions. More than 10 percent of the citizens speak a language other than English in their homes, including Urdu, Hindi, Hebrew, Russian, and Chinese.

At the Sacred Seasons event, guests include people whose background is Pakistani, Indian, Israeli, and Korean. "My daughter joined because she had a friend who was involved, and I think it's a very good idea to get to know other religions," says Kyung Yoo, who has lived in Sharon seven years and attends a Korean Christian church in a nearby town.

For some adults present, it's their first interfaith venture. After the student presentations, the crowd files outside and into a sukkah, the temporary dwelling Jewish families build to eat in during the days of the Sukkot festival. There, special plates of food are laid out so that local Muslims celebrating Ramadan can break the day's fast. A tarp has been spread on the ground for the Muslim sunset prayer.

The guests then join in a South Asian-style dinner, where they are asked to sit at tables with people they do not know. The teens have been careful to ensure that the food meets the dietary needs of all the faiths, though one says finding kosher Indian rice was a challenge!