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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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."

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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!

The IFA's overall program involves youth meetings twice a month, as well as outreach to the public schools and other community agencies.

"During the first half of the year, we learn about different faiths and visit houses of worship," explains Aleena Zaidi, a senior on the leadership team that plans events. "The other half of the year, we put into action what we've learned, through dialogues, conferences, and community service projects."

Active in IFA since her freshman year, Aleena says one of her favorite projects is the antibias and antistereotyping workshops they hold each semester at the middle school.

"We asked the teens a few years ago, 'How do you want to make a difference?' " says Janet Penn, IFA executive director. "They created a program to go to public middle school to teach four classes."

When students first join IFA, they go through a 12-hour leadership training program involving self-awareness and deep listening skills, run by program director Tabitha May-Tolub. Later, they are trained to facilitate programs in the community.

Last March, the group hosted 15 Middle Eastern imams who were on a State Department trip across the United States. The Muslim leaders participated in a public meeting held at the town library, where tough questions were raised, creating some challenging moments.

"The imam from Syria afterward came up and said, through a translator, 'This was the best part of our trip.' " Ms. Penn recalls. "Youths led the dialogue and shared what it was like for them to combine their Muslim identity and their American identity."

That has led to an invitation for the group to travel to Jordan.

Dr. Worchel – who has evaluated several programs aimed at reducing religious and ethnic conflict, including camps such as Seeds of Peace in Maine – says the effects of one-shot programs often don't last over the long term. IFA may show more lasting benefits, he says, because students participate over a two-to-four-year period.

"It's like a farmer tending a field. You plant the seeds, then you water and weed and fertilize," he says. "Also, it's easier to do prevention before a crisis arises than to try to treat it once there's a history of violence and distrust."

$25,000 grant to spread religious pluralism

Dan Resnick, who grew up in Israel and came to the US as a teen, has felt the impact. He joined IFA because his parents wanted him to. "Experiencing that kids from different religions and cultures can come together as friends and work together to produce amazing results really encourages me," he says. "I see it's not just war and conflict and that diversity can actually be good."

Dan suggested that IFA hold a conference for teens throughout the Boston area to share their experience. They partnered with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, and found that interested high school students showed up from several states in the region.

IFA now has a $25,000 grant to work with other town institutions like the recreation department and the public library to develop long-term programs that foster healthy pluralism more broadly, such as among elderly residents.

The teens are enthusiastic about how interfaith engagement has changed their own lives, too. Aanchal Narang, a Hindu, says she had to go into her own faith more deeply in order to talk about it with others. Many are pleased to have gained new leadership skills, including confidence in public speaking. Virtually all speak of having good friends of different faiths who "hang out together," where before their close friends were like themselves.

"At first maybe you don't expect much from Interfaith," Dan says. "But it really comes through and means a lot to people. And when you apply to college and write about your favorite activities, it stands out."

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