‘This is what America looks like’
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‘This is what America looks like’

In Pittsburgh’s aftermath, faith communities unite to celebrate Thanksgiving

The service at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson drew from across the faith spectrum.
The service at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson drew from across the faith spectrum.

On their surface, interfaith services — particularly those designed to celebrate yearly events, such as Thanksgiving — seem pretty much the same. Members of different religious groups come together to worship, paying tribute to each other’s traditions and sharing something from their own culture.

But not so fast.

They are not all the same, according to Rabbi David Fine, who leads Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center and is a former chair of the Interfaith Religious Council of Ridgewood.

“There are two opposing approaches,” he said. One is marked by “the lowest common denominator of certain statements and values. The other approach is to embrace and celebrate differences.” The second way, “every different group is free to express its uniqueness. It’s the mix of all those traditions and cultures that makes the community so rich.”

This year’s Ridgewood interfaith service was held on November 20 at Temple Israel. For at least the past five years the observance was based at the “old Dutch Reformed Church in Paramus, the oldest house of worship in the community, which goes back to the colonial period,” Rabbi Fine said. “But after the shooting in Pittsburgh, it immediately became apparent that the right thing to do would be to change the venue. The event drew 250 people, at least 100 more than usually attend.

“The service was wonderful,” he continued. It drew representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist houses of worship. Speakers included the Rev. Nolan Palsma, minister of the Upper Ridgewood Community Church, and Ridgewood’s Mayor Ramon Hache, who read a proclamation from the village council delivering a message of solidarity.

The service highlighted the diversity of Thanksgiving traditions, Rabbi Fine said. Muslims chanted from the Koran, the Jewish cohort led a song, teaching the group to recite “ki l’olam chasdo,” and the Buddhist leader offered a reading from his religious tradition. The service also featured a Christian-style hymn — minus overt Christological references, Rabbi Fine said — as well as a presentation by a Hindu children’s choir. Temple Israel’s choir director, Tamar Freeman, led a Jewish hymn.

“She introduced it and told the congregation that her first synagogue was the Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh,” the site of the mass murder on October 27. “It’s where her parents were married and she was named. She said it’s not so different from Ridgewood — the same type of community.”

Rabbi Fine said that rather than hold a vigil at his synagogue in response to the Pittsburgh shooting, he suggested that his members support the larger community gathering that was organized by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. But “because the Thanksgiving service was only three weeks away, I said let’s use it as an opportunity to show solidarity. That’s the best response.”

The Ridgewood interfaith group meets on a regular basis, gathering at the shul for a communal Yom HaShoah service. “This is the first time that we’re meeting at the synagogue not for a Holocaust service,” Rabbi Fine said. Similarly, the AME Zionist Church hosted a gathering after an attack on a church down South.

“We’re so proud of our interfaith community,” Rabbi Fine said. “We meet once a month for breakfast and learn from each other.” The group has about 20 members, “we have a Martin Luther King Day service, a special needs service, and last year about a dozen of us went on an overnight retreat to the shore to learn with Rabbi Noam Marans, one of the founders of the group.” (Rabbi Marans, who now lives in Teaneck and is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, also is Rabbi Fine’s predecessor at Temple Israel.)

Rabbi Fine was the final speaker at the Thanksgiving service. “We took ourselves from a place of sadness and were able to turn it into an expression of thanksgiving for a society not of hatred but of acceptance and love,” he said. “As the Muslim speaker pointed out, looking out over the congregation, ‘This is what America looks like.’ We were responding to one of the worst events in American Jewish history, and we felt we weren’t alone.”

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who leads Congregation B’nai Israel of Emerson, said that the service held at her synagogue on November 18 “was a very special night.” The evening — the 50th annual Pascack Valley Interfaith Association’s Thanksgiving service — drew some 300 people.

Pastor Marc Stutzel of Christ Lutheran Church of Woodcliff Lake delivered the main address. “His sermon dwelt on concrete ways to bring gratitude into the world,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “Not just to feel good for the moment, but to raise up what we want to increase in the world, reaching out to people who are different.”

Talking about the concept of gifts, the Rev. Stutzel said that “One of the skills we need to learn is how to name all our gifts out loud. Because it’s a gift that we are here tonight, celebrating 50 years of interfaith partnership and support in the Pascack Valley. It’s a gift that we, together, can choose to love, care, and be with each other — even though there are forces in this world that want to tear us apart. It’s a gift that I, a Christian, was invited to say these words tonight even though the history of anti-Semitism in a twisted version of my faith has led to incredible horrors against the Jewish people — an evil that we will continue to denounce, fight against, and do whatever we can to remove.”

The Thanksgiving service rotates among houses of worship, and this year’s hosting responsibilities fell to B’nai Israel. “We recently had many clergy for Solidarity Shabbat, so it felt especially potent this year, with everything happening in the world in terms of anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “We usually get between 100 and 200 people. I think we had a bigger turnout this year because people had a need to be together and express what unites us. The service was only positive and uplifting, but the context around it was troubling. It felt so important to be together.”

Rabbi Orenstein offered a prayer for peace — “largely taken from the Sim Shalom prayer book” but including some content from a Christian prayer — speaking to the responsibility and opportunity that exists in our schools and houses of worship to further positive values. The music was performed by a joint interfaith choir drawn from churches and synagogues. Led by conductor George Swope, selections included “Hinei Ma Tov” and Debbie Friedman’s “Tefilat ha-Derekh.”

At the beginning of the service, everyone received a blank thank-you card and a short meditation to get them to consider what and whom they’re thankful for. “The intention was for them to go home, fill it out, and then read it to someone they care about,” Rabbi Orenstein said. They also discussed “passing the peace,” a practice used in many Christian congregations. Worshipers stand up and shake hands with as many people as they can reach, saying “Peace be with you” to each one.

“We talked about the spiritual power of passing the peace, the release of spiritual intention and energy, and the beginning of a relationship, creating bonds you hope will continue,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “It builds a sense of community.”

Rabbi Orenstein said this was the first time the clergy council had Muslims participate in prayers from the pulpit. Seeing many women in headscarves “sent an important message about diversity and inclusion,” she said.

She also noted that every year, a plate is passed around to collect funds for a particular charity. “This year it was HIAS, expressing people’s pain about wanting to be welcoming to the stranger, to protect refugees. It was also a vote of support for the Jewish community,” since HIAS’s activities were used as an excuse for the Pittsburgh attack.

“Being together was celebratory,” she said. “There was a sense of looking forward to the next 50 years. This is our ongoing commitment.”

In yet another interfaith service, about 100 members of Sha’ar Communities, the Peace Islands Institute, and the Central Unitarian Church in Paramus came together on November 18. Hosted by CUC and led by Reverend David M. Horst, the evening also included remarks from Shaar’s Rabbi Adina Lewittes and Nuray Yurt of the Peace Islands Institute. (The institute, according to its website, “envisions a future in which people work together to bring solutions to common global problems of humanity.”)

“Our three communities have collaborated on several initiatives in the past,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “We reinforced the bonds we share and the values that unite us as Americans and as people of faith, and our sense of gratitude for and responsibility to one another. For us, in the wake of Pittsburgh, it was another show of solidarity with communities of Americans of different backgrounds who are committed to building a world of love.”

She said that the service had two highlights. “Firstly, in addition to speaking about Jewish teachings on gratitude — Reverend Horst spoke about Christian teachings, from a mystical perspective, and Nuray Yurt shared Muslim teachings — I also taught and led everyone in singing ‘Olam Hesed Yibaneh’ — I will build this world from love, and you must build this world from love, and if we build this world from love, then God will build this world from love…’ Secondly, the CUC choir sang a hauntingly beautiful ‘Oseh Shalom’ in Hebrew. Again, especially after the massacre in Pittsburgh, it was deeply moving to hear another faith community offer a prayer for peace that they had made the effort to learn and express in our language.

“It was another uplifting and hopeful experience of what happens when different corners of the world come together in fellowship and humility, creating shared space in which to feel at home in this country in the fullest expression of who we are,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

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