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Love Unites at Interfaith Dinner

by Sara Weiss
On a rainy Friday evening, over 120 people of different faiths, ages, and cultures gathered to break bread. Members and clergy of Jewish, Islamic and Christian places of worship in and around Nyack met at Congregation Sons of Israel (CSI) on March 31 for a family-style dinner.
“The religious communities are recognizing the need for coming out of our silos,” said Rabbi Ariel Russo of CSI. “With a growing sense of vulnerability and polarization across our country and local area, our synagogue wanted to provide an opportunity to bring people together.”
We’ve seen news across the country about communities standing up for one another and carrying out acts of generosity and kindness in response to hate crimes. After the arson attack of a mosque in Tampa and the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, people of other faiths reached out to their neighbors to help repair the damage.
Communities in Rockland are supporting one another and strengthening their bonds as well. The dinner is representative of the kinds of events that are popping up in response to a tense political climate.
The negativity has gone too far, according to Dr. Mohammed Hafeez, a member of the Islamic Center of Rockland (ICR). “When we reach that limit, people realize hate doesn’t have a place,” he said. “We find common ground.”
Dr. Hafeez and his wife, Dr. Ghousia Pasha, looked proud when their fifteen-year-old son, Ali, stood in front of the guests to recite seven verses from the first chapter of the Qur’an. Ali has actually memorized the Qur’an in its entirety, which is more than 6,200 verses, an accomplishment that his father refers to as “a feat.”
Clergy from five different places of worship each shared a small ritual to represent their faith at the dinner—Rabbi Ariel Russo and Cantor Michael Kasper of CSI, Pastor Everett Newton of The First Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church, Azeem Farooki of ICR, Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of the Reform Temple of Rockland and Father Owen C. Thompson of Grace Episcopal Church. Also present were Sister Cecilia LaPietra of Marydell and Imam Ali Kamel of the Andalusia Islamic Center in Yonkers.
“Something great is happening right here in Nyack,” Pastor Everett Newton said to the guests. “We’re a melting pot. And we’re sitting here together. And oh yes, the hummus was outstanding.”
The chef who deserves credit for that was Tamara Duker Freuman, a registered dietitian in NYC and a member of CSI, who prepared the kosher, dairy-free Moroccan/North African meal.
“We knew that this had to be an event around food, and that the meal had to be homemade,” said Freuman. “After all, food brings people together, and cooking a meal for someone is an act of love.” She chose Moroccan cuisine because “a sizeable Moroccan Jewish community lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors for centuries” and she viewed this meal as a way to “communicate an appreciation for all that we have in common.”
Farooki, who is the Chairman of the Interfaith Communications Committee of ICR, said we’re unifying now more than ever because “discrimination struck a chord for people of all faiths.” After President Trump’s executive order banning immigration from a number of Muslim-majority countries, Farooki received over 150 emails from people he didn’t know asking what they could do to help. ICR hosted an Open House in March and over 80 guests and politicians came out on an icy day to attend the event. He credits the kind response the center received to a “commonality in our beliefs and acts” and empathy. “Some people in the Jewish faith—they’ve gone through this way back. So, they obviously feel strongly about the anti-Islam sentiments,” he said.
Common ground and commonalities: These were the terms guests and clergy used a number of times to describe what brought them all together. And what is it exactly that we all have in common? According to Pastor Everett Newton, it’s love. “Commonality begins with an open ‘Hello. How are you?’ And God calls on us to celebrate and to share our common goal, and that’s love.”
Russo said the Interfaith Clergy Association has done amazing work in the past to bring religious communities in the area together, but that now “we’re thinking about how to connect on a more intimate level—not only to pray together, but to really talk to each other.”
She was thankful to the participants, volunteers and sponsors who stepped forward without hesitation. “Our hope is that everyone walks away with new and strengthened relationships across the diverse tapestry that is our country and greater Nyack community. May this only be the beginning of future events to come.”

Sara Weiss’s writing has been published in Bustle, Brain Child, Literary Mama, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Underwater New York, Outbreathe, The Hook Magazine and on her blog She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches yoga and lives in Nyack with her husband and two beautiful girls.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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