Members of faith communities to join for uplifting, politics-free service

Members of faith communities to join for uplifting, politics-free service

Left, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, top right, Umair Khan, bottom right, Rev. David Horst
Left, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, top right, Umair Khan, bottom right, Rev. David Horst

Sometimes it’s necessary to try to make the political apolitical, or at least nonpartisan.

It’s particularly necessary when partisanship is as high and the feeling in some communities of being stuck through the heart is as strong as it is this election season.

As the culmination of a campaign that was full of surprises, shocks, unanticipated turns, stirred passions, and brand-new styles of electioneering (hello, Twitter!) comes with the inauguration of this country’s 45th president, Donald J. Trump, next Friday, just as many faith communities will be rejoicing, many others are beginning to look for ways to begin healing.

And the more apolitically they can do it, they think, the better.

On erev Shabbat — that’s the evening of Friday, January 20 — Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities, the Rev. David Horst of the Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, and Meryem Teke of the Peace Islands Institute will welcome anyone who is interested to what they call “Inauguration Day Shabbat Gathering of the United Faiths of America.”

“This program was born out of my feeling that without being partisan, Inauguration Day should not pass without some kind of communal affirmation of the values that we hold sacred, both as Jews and as Americans, in order to make sure that this country continues to embody a commitment to dignity, freedom, and justice for all,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

“This will not be a political event, but it will bring together different faith communities who all feel that the last 18 months to two years took a dramatic toll that tore through so much of the fabric of our communities, and undermined the progress that we all worked so hard to build,” she said. “The kind of American society that we dream of for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

“This is our way of participating in the call toward unity. The call toward healing. The call toward hope.”

Although it will be on a Friday night, Rabbi Lewittes, who lives in Closter, will not lead a full Shabbat service. Instead, “I will offer Jewish teaching, Jewish music, and ritual inspired by Shabbat to create this sacred space,” she said. “I may make Kiddush there, as part of creating attention and focus, and bringing the sweetness of hope.

“The Kiddush itself makes reference both to the joy of creation and the story of liberation and its sacrifices. It sanctifies the time and space where we gather, and roots it in both pain and possibility.

“Each of the religious communities represented will offer something from their own traditions to create a sacred space,” she added.

Rabbi Lewittes hopes that her daughter, Nomi Tannenbaum, a junior at the Heschel School in Manhattan and chair of the interfaith club there, will speak as well, and “we hope to have some local or regional leaders join us,” she added.

Most importantly, “it’s a chance to build relationships, not on the leadership or institutional level but on the personal level, where things happen.” Toward that end, building on a concept she’s seen elsewhere, she will ask people to come to the service with their names and email addresses written on slips of paper. There will be three baskets in the room, one for each faith community; if they are interested in participating, people will put their names in the basket for their own communities, and pull out a name from another basket. Then they’ll write to each other; if they’re lucky, a real relationship, built on shared interests and acknowledged differences, can grow.

Although the meeting is for members of faith communities, among the groups welcomed by name are atheists. “I feel very strongly that as a Jewish leader, it is my responsibility to create inclusive opportunities,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “I would never limit my sense of commitment only to those who have some kind of theological basis to their commitment to Judaism or social action.”

Rev. Horst is pleased to join with Rabbi Lewittes. The evening will be in his church, which is centrally located, in Paramus. Because it is Unitarian, moreover, it is free of all religious symbols, so “our sanctuary is neutral space,” he said.

“Like many progressive religious communities, we are struggling with the question of what we do now, given the drastic change in the national political scene,” he said. “How do we continue to bear witness? To speak up? To stand up for our values? Which are also democratic values. We have been looking for opportunities, so when I met the rabbi, it was perfect.”

The religious community in Bergen County is very diverse, Rev. Horst said. “There are Christians, Muslims, Jews, an active Bahai community, Hindus…

“And as religious people, one of our first principles is to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That is a pretty tall order. So here is how I approach it — I can say that, and yet speak out against racism, misogyny, hate. I would say that there are no deplorable people — but racism, sexism, and religious bigotry all are deplorable.”

Without overlooking the real differences in religious tradition — “we all pray differently,” he said — “I think that there is a common prayer that we can find and speak authentically from our own traditions, each of us from our own place of faith. We can find a commonality of strength and purpose.”

He also is moved by the idea of sanctuary, Rev. Horst said. “The idea of sanctuary as a place and as a metaphor is very powerful. When I interact with Muslims, I say, ‘We stand with you.’ That means a lot. I know that for the Muslims who come, this will be a place of safety, where they are respected and cared for. We need to stand in solidarity with them — at the moment, they seem to be the most targeted group in the country. Simply gathering in safety and acceptance is powerful.”

Umair Khan is going to give the keynote talk at the service. A newlywed lawyer, he lives in Manhattan, the son of immigrant Pakistani parents, and the brother of one sister — teacher — and three brothers — one a doctor, and two in medical schools. (“I was the disappointment,” he joked.)

Mr. Khan is also a member of the Shalom Hartman Center’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, a program led by Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli. The initiative takes “young and youngish Muslim American leaders to Israel to understand Judaism and Zionism,” he said. “They teach us about the Jewish faith and tradition not just in the abstract, but to think about it in the context of society and the world today.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “We are engaging with the Hebrew Bible, and learning, studying, doing critical reading of text. There is a lot of that in my own faith tradition. We talked about the historical stuff, and also related it to modernity and the challenges of today. It really was incredibly valuable.

“Going to Hartman and studying about Judaism made me a better Muslim. It has made me want to study more. It has enriched my life.”

Valuing diversity as he does, and with his Hartman background fresh in his mind, Mr. Khan was glad when Rabbi Lewittes asked him to speak. “I think that the reality is that our community and our nation are going to have to face and is facing a slew of challenges,” he said.

He is less guarded in talking about those challenges. “The fact that someone who disparages the disabled, who disparages people of other faiths and other traditions, who has made the most lewd and disgusting remarks about women — we would not accept that from anyone in normal society,” he said. “People would be fired for saying such things. For that person to become president, without any record of accomplishment — it goes to a deeper ill in our society, and I think that it will take a lot of time to work on that, and to heal.”

The election jarred him into doing more to help others, Mr. Khan said. He’s doing pro bono work for undocumented aliens. “When God has blessed you with certain abilities, not to use them when you can, when you should, is wrong. We have to have a little bit of soul-searching within ourselves. We know from our traditions of those before us who lived under suppressors, but yet they persevered.

“We have to accelerate our own good works. If you are a teacher, an actor, a lawyer, a doctor, or if you work in a convenience store, find something that you are passionate about. Volunteer in a school or at an afterschool program. Advocate at the local or state or federal level.

“Turn it into a catalyst to reinvigorate yourself,” he added.

Who: Members and leaders of at least three faith communities, including Sha’ar Communities, will gather for

What: Inauguration Day Shabbat Gathering of the United Faiths of America

Where: At the Central Unitarian Church, 156 Forest Avenue, Paramus

When: On Friday, January 20, at 7 p.m.

For more information: Email

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