Ramapo to create spiritual center for students of all faiths

Ramapo to create spiritual center for students of all faiths

In the late1950s, Anthony Padovano was just a young boy, but his first visit to the Meditation Room at United Nations headquarters made a vivid impression. Created by the late Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who was the U.N.’s second secretary general, the small, stark space welcomes all people of good will of any religious faith looking for peace and serenity.

Years later, Padovano was reminded of the Meditation Room by the Parliament of World Religions, a group of religious leaders and thinkers who gather every five years to foster world peace through interreligious dialogue. Padovano has attended these gatherings since 1999, when the parliament was held in Cape Town, South Africa.

Rabbi Ely Allen delivers a blessing at the construction site for the Salameno Spiritual Center at Ramapo College in Mahwah. Photo by Carolyn Herring

Now, thanks to Padovano’s persistence and donors’ gifts totaling $1.’ million, Ramapo College will have a spiritual center modeled after the U.N.’s Meditation Room and inspired by the Parliament of World Religions. It is Padovano’s legacy to the state’s liberal arts campus in Mahwah where he has taught for nearly 40 years. One of the founders of the college in 1969, today Padovano is distinguished professor of literature and philosophy.

Ground for the Salameno Spiritual Center — Theresa and Lawrence Salameno of Franklin Lakes provided the initial $500,000 challenge gift — was broken last month on a half-acre site on the south bank of Kameron Pond, "one of the most beautiful spots on campus," observed Padovano. While secluded, it is easily accessible to the college’s main buildings, including the student center. New York architect Malcolm Holzman has designed woodland gardens and several indoor and outdoor single-story structures, anchored by the Padovano Peace Pavilion, constructed in the form of a tent, evoking an ancient symbol of spiritual connection and hospitality. Completion is scheduled for spring of ‘009.

(Holzman was also the architect of The Angelica and Russ Berrie Center for the Performing and Visual Arts at Ramapo.)

Padovano first conceived the project in ‘001, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center. "So many students who had lost relatives were distraught, and there was no place on campus to gather and grieve," said Padovano. "I thought it would be wonderful if we had a place where students can go, when for example, parents are divorcing or someone in the family is diagnosed with an illness, a place that’s sacred and secluded and respects the intense emotions they are feeling."

Padovano also recalls thinking of the powerful impact the Parliament of World Religions had made on his thinking, wondering, "Wouldn’t it be great if there could be a spiritual center dedicated to that theme at a state college that is open to all?"

With the endorsement of Dr. Peter Mercer, president of the college, in ‘005, Ramapo’s board of trustees voted its approval. Fund-raising momentum continued with lead gifts from several couples: Padovano and his wife, Theresa, of Morris Plains; Pamela and Peter McBride of Franklin Lakes; and Gail and Anthony Marino of Cedar Grove. The center’s two meditation rooms are named in honor of the McBrides and the Marinos. Fourteen additional major gifts made up the balance.

"We are pleased to have been instrumental in assisting Ramapo and President Mercer in bringing to fruition their vision for the college," said Theresa Salameno at last month’s groundbreaking. "It is our hope that students and other members of the diverse Ramapo community will use this center to meet and to better understand and appreciate each other in the context of a multicultural society."

Mercer spoke at the groundbreaking of the versatile role the center may play in campus life. "We need a place for several different types of activity, from solitary contemplation and reflection to formal lectures or discussions on topics with broad spiritual/ethical dimensions [such as debates on the stewardship of the world’s natural resources] to some forms of religious gathering or observance. This [center] will have no denominational affiliation; it will be open to all faiths."

Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, offered a non-denominational blessing on the construction site, remarking later in a telephone call to The Jewish Standard, that he and the other three active campus clergy — who represent the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant faiths — are "overjoyed" about the center’s creation. He lauded Ramapo’s administration for being "very hands-on and sensitive" to the religious needs of the student body as a whole and to those of Jewish students, who, he estimated, number about 500 among approximately 5,700 undergraduates. "There is a great support system here," said Allen. He said that once the center is completed, it will provide an excellent, fixed location, which has been lacking, for meetings, Shabbat dinners, and retreats on campus.

Regarding interfaith dialogue, Allen said, "I’m really happy to say that we’ve been doing that for years, so [the center] will just enhance our existing dialogue. We [the campus clergy] already meet on a regular basis, and the college [has] had panels on everything from environmentalism to war; the center will complement an existing atmosphere of dialogue and social action and connection between people of different faiths."

Anticipating scheduling conflicts that may arise among the various groups competing to use it, Padovano noted the importance of avoiding discrimination and acrimony in a center seeking to promote peace and harmony. "You want to be sure that there is absolute fairness, that no one religious group has an advantage over another and that there are no attempts to proselytize. If people want to hold their weddings or funerals there, these can be done, however, priority should go to groups around their holy days. Lots of details are still to be worked out" regarding the center’s administration, said Padovano.

Ramapo’s plan is unique, as far as Padovano can determine — and, at the behest of the college, he traveled across the country and overseas to examine other spiritual centers, including one with a meditation room in Strasbourg, France, used by the European Union’s parliament. "Others are either chapels with a strong denominational basis that were later opened for other purposes and to other groups, or they are places that are open for religious services. But no one has a center dedicated to all people of good will or linking peace with religious dialogue," Padovano said.

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