Calls for “active compassion” to promote tolerance and fight discrimination formed the centerpiece of the eighth annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Luncheon on Dec. 7 at Congregation Beth Chaim in West Windsor.
Sponsored by the Institute of Islamic Studies in East Windsor, the event drew some 250 guests, mostly Jews and Muslims, but also those of other faiths.
West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh opened the event by expressing pride that a new mosque planned by the institute, which had faced protests from some residents, was now under construction at 2030 Old Trenton Road. “Here in West Windsor we have so many different faces and religions, and we all come together as one family,” he said.
Tahir Zafar, chair of the new mosque, presented a Community Leadership Award to Beth Chaim’s Rabbi Eric Wisnia for promoting interfaith dialogue and supporting the construction of the mosque before the township planning board.
Wisnia told NJJN that when he had heard of the protests against the mosque, he was “very offended and stood up on their behalf. I felt that West Windsor offers all different houses of worship and faith communities, and it was important for clergy to stand up and say that.”
He said that he told the planning board, “I’m appalled that people here are badmouthing the mosque.” In 2011, the committee voted unanimously in favor of its being built.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of North Brunswick, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, said the luncheon was a perfect opportunity for people “to express their gratitude at being able to come together in a community that supports religious freedom and expression.”
His wife, Sheryl, is cofounder and executive director of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group. “Given the past several weeks, when we have seen so much death associated with hate, it is very important that the Muslim and Jewish communities come together as one, working together to speak out against discrimination and bias based on religion, race, and ethnicity,” she said.
In his keynote talk, Haroon Ullah, a specialist in South Asian and Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. State Department, defined “active compassion” as “a verb, an action word, not something to talk about, but something you actually do.”
Among the examples he offered was that of Teepu Siddique, a Pakistani boy who, inspired by the story of Lou Gehrig, grew up to become a geneticist whose team found the protein that is one of the root causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that killed the Yankee great. Siddique’s research, meanwhile, was made possible by donations from Jewish philanthropists Joseph and Bessie Feinberg.
At the luncheon, guests sat in mixed groups and were encouraged to interact with people they did not know.
Noting that the luncheon had drawn twice as many people as in the previous year, Beth Chaim board member Elena Berlinger said holding such an event is “important because we are building bridges and honoring the diversity of New Jersey.”
Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, religious leader of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in Monmouth Junction, said, “We are the family of the prophet Abraham, and we have to walk together shoulder to shoulder as his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, came from the same father with different mothers — but both are dear to their father’s heart.”
Ray Barson of Princeton emphasized the need for greater understanding among different religions and greater tolerance. “I think there needs to be a stronger presence of the grounded, reasonable members of the various religions. What we keep seeing in the news are all the extremists who I think pervert the meaning of religion.”
Linda Schwimmer, a member of the Jewish Center of Princeton, said, “It’s wonderful that people from all different faiths and backgrounds are wanting to come together to meet people from other groups and find all the things they have in common. The purpose is to meet others — for all people willing to come out of their safety zones and make friends with people in other communities.” Mona Fayyez agreed. “A lot of time we focus on differences; this focuses on similarities.”
Shehla Khan of West Windsor summarized the import of the event for her — “two beautiful communities coming hand in hand together.”