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Sparks fly — but interfaith prayer service is peaceful
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Sparks fly — but interfaith prayer service is peaceful

Imam Shazlei Shaban, introduced by Rabbi Mark Mallach, right, took part in the Nov. 22 interfaith service at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. Photo by Elaine Durbach
Imam Shazlei Shaban, introduced by Rabbi Mark Mallach, right, took part in the Nov. 22 interfaith service at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. Photo by Elaine Durbach

Sparks flew at the annual interfaith Thanksgiving prayer service of the Springfield Inter-Faith Clergy Association.

As one of the organizers, Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, jokingly suggested, some might have attributed that to the combustible mix of religions. There were two rabbis, three Christian ministers, and one Muslim imam involved. But the local fire department attributed it merely to an electrical fire in wires outside the venue, the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield.

The explosion of white sparks forced evacuation of the attendees, but only after the one-hour service ended. There were no injuries and no signs of serious damage.

The service marked a breakthrough of a kind for the service, first started in the 1950s by Rabbi Reuben Levine, leader of what was then Temple Beth Ahm. At the suggestion of Mallach, Imam Shazlei Shaban was invited to take part as a guest, and he accepted.

He is the leader of the Islamic Center of Union County, which bought and has recently begun operating out of what was Temple Israel, on Morris Avenue in Union. The Conservative congregation vacated the building and merged with Beth Ahm in 2008.

Each year the interfaith service is hosted by a different congregation. This year, the service was led by the Rev. Victoria Ney, pastor of the host congregation, First Presbyterian. She was followed by Springfield Mayor Ziad Shehady and Monsignor William Hatcher of St. James the Apostle Church. Rabbi Joshua Goldstein of the Reform congregation Temple Sha’arey Shalom and Deacon Jerome Bongiovanni, also of St. James, also took part.

Mallach introduced the imam. “First they opened their doors to worship” at the Morris Avenue venue, he said, “and now we open our arms to them.”

Shaban, who is from Saudi Arabia and is not fluent in English, spoke in Arabic, with his remarks given in English by a translator. “We are not just Muslims, Christians, or Jews,” he said. “We are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve,” and he finished with the line from the Pledge of Allegiance, that we are “one nation under God.”

“It was a groundbreaking event,” Mallach said the next day. “It was a chance to introduce the imam to the general community and put a face to real people. After all, when it comes down to it, we all worship the same God.”

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