Does seeing other people suffer have a positive side? Yes, according to the Most Rev. John W. Flesey, regional bishop of Bergen County. "When you see other people suffering, you can either turn away or feel more interconnected . It is a moment when you have a greater opportunity to realize we’re all one."
Speaking to the more than 300 people who attended the ‘1st annual Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood Brunch of Bergen County on March ‘5 at the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe, Flesey said, "When you seek unity with all of your heart, you will find it. "
Representing the Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee’s various faith groups are, front row from left, are Joy Kurland, the Rev. Donald Sheehan, Imam Saeed Qureshi, the Most Rev. John W. Flesey, STD, Pat Kinney, Dr. Qutub Nadad, Joanne Karnick (Baha’i), and Leslie Billet. In the back row, from left, are Dr. Khaja Moinuddin, Amrik Singh Sikand, Anne Breslin, Vinay Vakani, Manoj Wagh, Dr. Ramesh Gupta, and Jasjit Ahluvalia. Photos by Alan Grossman
In his keynote address "Faith Welcomes All," the bishop said these ideas crystallized for him while reading Natan Sharansky’s book "Fear No Evil."
Flesey told the group that during a subsequent meeting with Sharansky, he told the former refusenik how powerfully his words affected him, particularly Sharansky’s observation that he felt the interconnectedness of other people’s souls much more strongly after being in the gulag for nine years.
The bishop said that another moment of insight occurred during a UJA-sponsored trip to Israel. "I visited the west bank and went up to the Temple Mount. It was there that I pulled out a copy of Psalm 1”, which includes a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem . It is this longing for peace that is the height of the mystic experience of all faiths."
Groups in the Interfaith Brotherhood/Sisterhood Committee of Bergen County include the Baha’i, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Sikh communities. The Jewish community’s delegation is coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Eric Lawrence, a student at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, speaks with Imam Saeed Qureshi, a member of the Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee of Bergen County from the Muslim community.
In his wide-ranging talk, Flesey spoke about his concern about the rise in binge drinking among youth, violence in sports, and narcissistic tendencies among young people. He said, "All of these show that something is missing, and I think that something is our connectedness to the spiritual."
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in River Edge, who delivered the d’var Torah, said, "I was particularly interested in Rev. Flesey’s urging of faith communities to take a more direct approach to helping those with addictions. We have a responsibility, particularly to our youth, to help them overcome alcohol or drug addiction problems." Joining Borovitz at the luncheon was his brother, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who directs Beit Tshuvah in Los Angeles, a recovery house for Jews seeking working on recovering from addictions.
Flesey told the group that he is also troubled by the way money and "attack ads" dominate the political landscape. He urged the presidential candidates to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address: "With malice toward none, with charity for all."
"That’s the kind of president we need," he said. "That’s the kind of president I hope we get."
Still, he said, no matter who wins the presidency, he is "filled with hope because of people like you." He added, "I have been overwhelmed by the welcoming atmosphere in this room today. This is the kind of United Nations we need not the one where there is constant squabbling and resentfulness . To make this happen, people from different faiths and ethnic backgrounds have to get to know each other better. You can’t love what you don’t know."
Saying we must emphasize the positive things in life, Flesey added, "Many interfaith groups have sprung up all over the world. What a sign of hope that is."
The event, which included discussions on a wide range of issues, also featured a film showing how people can assist Darfur refugees.
In a lighter moment, the Rev. Donald Sheehan, pastor of St. Matthews R.C. Church in Ridgefield and emcee for the day, told the attendees where the kosher and non-kosher food was located for the brunch. "Those kosher meals in the back have been ordered previously. There are to be no conversions," he said.
This year, the various groups had gone to great lengths to bring more students to the event. Noting the increased presence of teens and young adults at the gathering, JCRC director Joy Kurland said, "It was most gratifying to see three full tables of students from various faith communities at the brunch. We hope their participation in events such as this one will have a positive impact on their future involvement in interfaith activities."
Eric Lawrence, a Closter resident who attends the Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest and the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, said, "It’s important for young people from different faiths to get to know one another. I sat at a table with students from the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities. I have a great interest in other religions, and they were all surprised and appreciative about how much I knew about their faiths. The Muslim student I sat next to told me how upset he was that terrorists are misrepresenting his community." The founder of his high school’s multi-cultural club, Lawrence added, "I might one day want to be a rabbi. If I do become one, I’m going to use my influence to bring people of different faiths together."