‘People were so open,’ Barnert rabbi says
Gathering in friendship over food breaks down barriers
What keeps her awake at night is fear, Rabbi Elyse Frishman wrote in a recent article. Fear of wasting time and of spending “more time thinking about why I can’t do something than getting out and doing it.”
To address at least one communal fear — the fear of Muslims — Frishman, the religious leader of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, joined with other members of the Oakland/Franklin Lakes Interfaith Clergy, as well as with religious leaders from the wider Muslim community, to bring their diverse congregants together for an evening of “safe conversation.”
Since there are no mosques in the group’s catchment area, the council invited representatives from the Islamic Center in Midland Park, from the Muslim Society of Ridgewood, and from the Peace Island Institute, a Turkish Muslim group involved in outreach and education.
In publicizing the meeting, the council issued a statement noting that it “came to the realization that conversation between different faith groups, in a person-to-person setting, was crucial to create understanding of, and relationships with, each other.”
Taking this to heart, Rabbi Frishman wrote to her congregants, telling them that after the shul’s High Holy Days drive to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis — every member of the congregation was asked to call President Barack Obama, urging him to accept more refugees — she began meeting with her interfaith colleagues to discuss the issue.
“We realized that many people are afraid of the refugees because they are afraid or suspicious of Muslims; much of this stems from not knowing any Muslims,” Rabbi Frishman said. To rectify that, she told her members, “we have organized the first social gathering of Muslim, Jews, and Christians in western Bergen, hosted by us at Barnert.”
The gathering, held on March 6, was hugely successful, Rabbi Frishman said. Jews, Christians, and Muslims talked to each other for hours, despite the fast-approaching final episode of “Downton Abbey.” Some participants were so energized by the table talk — they chatted during a potluck supper — that they resolved to go out to eat together at a later date to finish their conversation.
The evening, called “Make Love Not War — Christians, Jews and Muslims from Our Neighborhoods,” began with a brief cross-denominational service, including elements of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayers. The dinner that followed, to which all attendees contributed, was vegetarian.
“That way, we didn’t have to worry about dietary restrictions,” Rabbi Frishman said. “Everyone brought food, and it was so much fun that people asked for a cookbook of all the recipes.”
In planning the evening, she added, “We decided not only to bring people together in the sanctuary but to have a potluck supper where we could break down xenophobic barriers.” Members of the interfaith council brought members from their own congregations, and tables were arranged so that they included people from all religious groups. It also was geared to all age groups, with separate rooms for teens and elementary school students.
“There were facilitators at the tables, asking social questions like where are you from, and what books do you like to read,” Rabbi Frishman said. “It was safe conversation, nothing controversial. And it was the first of what will become many opportunities for people to get together.”
In all, the gathering drew some 200 adults and 40 teens. “There was something for everyone,” Rabbi Frishman said.
And when it was over, “there was phenomenal feedback,” she added. “It was so simple it was brilliant — opening the door to look into each other’s eyes. I was surprised by how easy it was.
“People were so open. Especially with what’s going on in our nation right now — we’re overwhelmed by absurdity, anger, polarization, and we don’t buy into that. People want to get to know each other, to break down barriers. They don’t want to be afraid or ignorant of the other. They just need the opportunity.”
Rabbi Frishman said the clergy council will meet soon to brainstorm its program for the coming year, looking to facilitate “small and large gatherings for further dialogue and conversation. We need to build faith and trust one another.” Eventually, the communities may move on to discuss more controversial issues. In the meantime, “There are a lot of different opportunities, like book groups, and teens working in the garden. It depends on what people are interested in. The door is wide open.”
Other religious leaders were thrilled as well.
Rev. Alison V. Philip, pastor of the Franklin Lakes United Methodist Church, said, “Sometimes, without realizing it, cynicism builds up within me. Last night at the interfaith friendship gathering, instead I felt filled up with hope that change can really happen in our world and that it happens through human relationship.
“One thing that sticks with me is a conversation I had with an imam who identified the struggles refugees face in this country,” she continued. “Prejudice is a huge problem from elementary-aged children and up, and it only perpetuates animosity between groups. Distrust of the stranger in turn produces distrust within the stranger.
“My hope going forward is to find ways as faith leaders to address prejudice, perhaps by continuing to offer opportunities for people to connect human being to human being, and to become truly neighbors rather than strangers.”
Asked if anything surprised her at the gathering, the Rev. Philip said, “It shouldn’t surprise me but it still does — each time when I meet someone who seems different from me and as we talk I realize how similar we are. It doesn’t erase differences, of course, but it grounds me in the truth that people have shared hopes and values and dreams.”
Rev. Nathan Busker of Ponds Reformed Church in Oakland was moved as well, noting that “With all the rhetoric about building walls and fearing the stranger, the power of love during the interfaith event was palpable. Last night, the space between us disappeared as bridges of friendship were built.”
Ercan Tozan, executive director of the Peace Island Institute, said, “We are polluting the world with our anger, jealousy, envy, animosity, hatred, prejudices, ego, and many other contemptuous feelings with the excuse of a better life, nationalism, or religion.” For harmony to flourish, it is “vital that we get to know each other. Knowing is the first step in the road leading to love and peace.”