|The Interfaith Youth Choir performs at the event under the direction of Gale S. Bindelglass, left, Cantor Ilan Mamber of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and Jane Koch.|
This is Bergen County – we talk to each other here.
That sentiment might well have been the theme Sunday at the Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee of Bergen County’s annual brunch. It was the group’s 24th such event, at which representatives of the religious and secular sectors of society gathered to celebrate the county’s diversity and unity.
“The world is one family,” said Jyoti Gandhi of the Hindu community, which was the host for this year’s brunch. “We are here to find commonality in diversity,” she said.
“Sit with someone you don’t know, come out of your comfort zone,” Gandhi told the gathering of some 420 guest as they filled the banquet room and looked for seats.
The group is composed of eight faith groups – Baha’i, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Sikh -and representatives of each were on the dais, sharing their prayers. Each year a different community hosts the brunch, giving insight into its beliefs and practices, and this year the Hindus filled that role.
Gandhi served as mistress of ceremonies, introducing the guest speaker, Rita Sherma, a professor at Binghamton University and a theologian. She spoke about the Hindu tradition – what makes it unique and what it shares with other faiths. “It sanctifies and bestows meaning to our lives,” she said.
Sherma dispelled what she said is a misconception that Hindus believe in multiple gods. “We don’t have gods,” she said. “We believe in the one God who is personal and beyond personal. That God has many powers and energies for us to harmonize with.”
“Our many traditions are different windows in which to see God, but our vision is clouded,” she said. “If we step out of our boundaries, we see a panoramic view of God, of truth, of reality.”
She spoke of the Hindu concept of “dharma,” explaining that it refers to what “sustains you and allows you to unfold into your true self.”
“If you follow the dharmic way, you are on track with God’s purpose,” she said. “It is the unity that pervades the cosmos and creation.”
Sherma shuns the term “Hinduism” as too limiting. She spoke of the Hindu path as “a way of life” with an extensive tradition involving medicine, drama, aesthetics, dance, nutrition, economics, ethics, “and so much more.”
“The thread is that everything is connected, interrelated,” she said.
Gandhi said that while the brunch is a focal point for the interfaith group, there are activities year-round. As an example she cited a model seder last Passover.
Performances were woven into the program, beginning with a prayer-in-song by Sunia Kapur Aurora and singing by the Interfaith Youth Choir. When the choir sang “America the Beautiful,” it was impossible not to feel the warmth of the gathering.
Young women from the Hindu community staged a dance program, and Gandhi explained that the dancing is a form of worship, rather than entertainment.
She praised the Interfaith committee’s youth group. “We think we are teaching them, but they are our gurus,” she said.
Habib Hosseiny of the Baha’i community continued the tribute to the youth group, noting how they themselves came up with ideas such as attending one another’s services and holding interfaith classes. “Our hope, our future is on their shoulders,” he said.
Commenting after the event, Father Donald Sheehan of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Ridgefield said that Sherma clarified the idea that Hindus believe in one God. He said her talk was a demonstration of “how much holds us together.”
“We are looking for a denominator that is common, not the lowest common denominator,” he said.
“This is a very diverse community,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. “We don’t often see that diversity, but we can today,” said Sirbu, vice chairman of the Intergroup Relations Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersy.
Sirbu noted that the Hindu tradition shares the value of reaching such a point of enlightenment that we would never cause a “sentient being to suffer.” “That is a basic value of the Torah and prophetic tradition,” he said.
The attendees included the secular as well as the religious. Emerson Police Chief Michael Saudino was there in his role as president of the Bergen County Police Chief’s Association, and his mission was to glean a better understanding of the county’s diversity.
“The more we can learn about each other, the better we can work together,” Saudino said.
The brunch served as a window on the religious makeup of the county. Wendy Martinez, the director of the county’s Office of Multicultural Community affairs, said that, “little by little,” Bergen is learning about and honoring the various religious and ethnic groups that make up its population.
“As we talk, we learn that we are all human beings and that is the most important bond,” she said.
County Executive Dennis McNerney read a proclamation setting May 1 as “Interfaith Bortherhood-Sisterhood of Bergen County Day.”
“Diversity diminishes no one,” he said.
Prayers were offered by the representatives of the eight faiths.
“Let our eyes be open to the divine image of one another,” said Sirbu, quoting from the morning prayer.
“Where there is hatred, let us bring love…. Where there is darkness, let us bring light,” said Imam Saeed Quareshi of the Dar Ul Islah mosque in Teaneck.
The event was “a wonderful collaboration of the interfaith community and an appreciation of working together,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council and a key organizer of the event. “Bergen County is a tapestry of groups that form a beautiful quilt,” she said.
“Whether we like it or not, our community is becoming more and more diverse,” said Gandhi, so it’s important to learn about one another’s faith.
The youth choir, under the direction of Gale Bindelglass with Cantor Ilan Mamber and Jane Koch of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, closed the event, singing, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me….”