|Seniors Kyle Staron, Matt Archuleta, and Porter Smith look on as Rabbi Ken Brickman reads from the Torah in a synagogue in Jersey City. Cadet Ben Salvito|
Fifteen West Point cadets spent three days in Jersey City last week getting a taste of the various religious cultures they might encounter when deployed overseas and learning how the different communities get along in Hudson County.
The cadets, mostly seniors, were participants in an elective course at the U.S. Military Academy called “Winning the Peace.” The course, said instructor Maj. Angelica Martinez, is designed to give students different perspectives on how to interact with local populations with unfamiliar cultures, religions, and languages.
“They not only gain a new sense of cultural awareness, new confidence,” Martinez said, “[but] it brings home how challenging their new positions and duties will be when [they] don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture.”
The course, created in 2004, focuses on understanding political, strategic, and ethical implications of military missions; increasing awareness of cadets’ own perceptions of other cultures and how those cultures perceive them; and understanding the complexity of creating sustainable peace and security.
It culminates in the Jersey City trip, planned with the Cultural Coalition of Jersey City for Winning the Peace, an organization of city elected officials and religious leaders. The trip began last Thursday at a place many immigrant communities value in common: Ellis Island. The students spent two nights sleeping in the Islamic Center of Jersey City and three days visiting Islamic, Hindu, and Christian religious sites as well as Temple Beth-El, a Reform synagogue.
“The cadets really have an eye-opening experience,” Martinez said. “They really get a sense of how this community comes together and, despite the differences, works things out.”
At Temple Beth-El, Rabbi Ken Brickman explained the significance of religious items in the sanctuary, including the Torah, and gave some cadets their first introduction to Judaism.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Brickman said of the program.
Brickman pointed out that during the first Iraq war, the military was not familiar with Islamic customs, creating an additional source of tension. The cadets might not encounter Jews as often as practitioners of other religions when they deploy overseas, he said, so he is happy they took this opportunity to meet them now.
“Having Rabbi Brickman walk us through what Sabbath services look like, it really does help us understand a little bit more – not only about what people believe but about larger conflicts” such as the differences between Christianity and Judaism, Martinez said.
The trip “opened my eyes to a variety of topics I didn’t know about,” said senior Porter Smith, who added that he appreciated the lessons in conflict resolution. “It was good to experience different cultures and interact with different community leaders to see what they’re doing to promote religious tolerance and create a cohesive community.”
Jersey City resident Ahmed Shedeed is one of the trip’s main organizers. Jersey City, he said, is a perfect setting to see a blend of diverse cultures.
“Here in this city we have different cultures, different religions, and different languages,” he said. “And everybody lives in peace and harmony.”
This was not always the case, he said, pointing to a 2005 incident that threatened to shatter the delicate balance between Jersey City’s religious communities. The murder of a Coptic Egyptian family of four spread fear and distrust between the city’s Egyptian Christian and Muslim communities, who had until then managed to leave behind the strained relations experienced in their homeland.
Eventually, authorities apprehended the perpetrator – who was not Muslim – and wounds began to heal. According to Shedeed, Jersey City has since become a model for interreligious cooperation.
“If we can do it here in Jersey City, they can do it everywhere,” Shedeed said. “We can all live together, not by fighting but by creating love and harmony.”