Temple Sholom of West Essex’s involvement in an interfaith group began with a group of Muslims attending a Protestant church service.
Just under two years ago, in January 2017, members of Peace Islands Institute, a Muslim organization with Turkish roots and centers around the United States, showed up to a Sunday service at the Community Church of Cedar Grove. The Muslims were interested in learning about other people’s culture and beliefs, according to Dr. Nuray Yurt, board president of the institute’s Northern New Jersey center. (There are centers in central and southern New Jersey, as well.)
That visit inspired the church’s leader, Rev. Sarah Pomerantz, to reach out in turn to Rabbi Laurence Groffman at nearby Temple Sholom, with the suggestion that they form an interfaith connection.
“We’d met before and talked and I knew that he would be interested in the idea,” she told NJJN.
Over the next year or so, these faith leaders and their members got together four times, joined by members of other religious groups in the area, to celebrate festive occasions and — after the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — to share comfort in a time of grief.
“About 400 people came to our service the Monday after the shooting,” Groffman recalled. That included leaders and lay people from the surrounding community.
This past Thursday, Nov. 29, the interfaith group gathered at Temple Sholom for a post-Thanksgiving potluck dinner to express gratitude. About 55 people attended, including members of the synagogue, the Community Church, Peace Islands, and the local center of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese-based humanitarian organization.
There was pasta, pizza, stuffed grape leaves, red lentil balls, and many other Middle Eastern, Asian, and Italian dishes — all vegetarian — in addition to a table laden with desserts.
“The beautiful thing is how easy it is to come together over food,” said temple president Patti Mollo, watching the people chatting as they loaded up their plates.
“We share common feelings of peace,” said Ruth Frankel, one of the organizers of the gratitude dinner and a long-time Temple Sholom member.
That spirit was in evidence at the round tables where people from the different organizations compared notes about their lives and respective traditions. In between mouthfuls, they asked one another the basics — “Where do you live?” “Where did you grow up?” and “What brought you here?”
Buddhists Sue Sue Yang and her husband Wei Chang, who came to the United States 20 years ago from Taiwan, joined Marlene and Gerry Tuch, North Caldwell residents who have belonged to Temple Sholom since 1976.
Wei Chang knew something about the kosher practices of observant Jews and the fact that men and women sit separately at services. He was surprised to learn from the Tuchs that in Reform congregations everyone sits together, and that Reform Jews do not necessarily follow the rules of kashrut.
“How about with you? Do Buddhists have rules about food?” Marlene asked.
“We believe in caring for the body and the mind, so that one can be in right relationship to the world,” Sue Sue said. She and her husband spoke about eating healthily, and practicing meditation. Marlene nodded, and explained that while Judaism doesn’t prescribe such a habit, many congregations have yoga and meditation groups.
At the next-door table, Pomerantz and Bailey, her wife of just two months, were deep in conversation with Peace Islands members Yurt and her daughter, both wearing head scarves. Yurt answered questions about how the organization was founded by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gullen, and how the members seek out opportunities “to learn about other traditions and to form bridges of understanding.”
“Mr. Gullen,” as the institute members referred to him, is the clergyman whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pressuring the United States to extradite to Istanbul to face charges of trying to overthrow the government.
Groffman, in an email to NJJN following the dinner, summed up the mood of the evening: “In our hyper-polarized world, where all too often we demonize and stereotype those who are different, last night was the antidote to that mindset.”
He continued, “Our gathering was about learning about each other and realizing that despite our different religious backgrounds and philosophies, we are united in our common humanity and desire to live decent, moral lives.”
On Dec. 8 Temple Sholom will host an interfaith gathering for the youth of the participating organizations. For more information, call 973-239-1321.