Visiting a traditional Hindu temple in Morganville last year made a powerful impression on Jake Silverberg, 16, of Oceanport, while Lily Krietzberg, 15, of Colts Neck formed a continuing friendship with two girls, one a Quaker and the other from a Unitarian-Universalist church.
Jake and Lily were two of six teen members from Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan who participated in the inaugural session of Garden State MOSAIC, a multi-faith teen program aimed at promoting tolerance among people of all religions at the same time that it develops the youngsters’ leadership skills.
Thirty-seven middle school and high school students signed up for the 2013-14 pilot session of MOSAIC, which stands for Mobilizing Our Students for Action to build Interfaith Community. An average of about 28 teens attended each of the semi-monthly meetings, said Indian-born Sarbmeet Kanwal, a 60-year-old Sikh living in Holmdel who oversees the program along with Fatima Jaffari, a Muslim housewife, mother, and religious educator from Freehold. “This is a high percentage, considering busy schedules and the pressures of schoolwork,” said Kanwal.
The program, a joint venture of the Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought and the Monmouth County Human Relations Commission, is now gearing up for its second season, which launches on Sunday, Oct. 19, with an organizational meeting at the Monmouth County Library in Manalapan. The registration deadline is Oct. 8.
The program’s inaugural year, from last October to the end of the school year, included visits to houses of worship of seven faiths — Jewish, Catholic, Islamic, Sikh, Unitarian-Universalist, Hindu, and Quaker. Kanwal said this year plans are “to include nine faiths and bring in more kids.”
The MOSAIC program is open to Monmouth County students in grades seven to 12. Visits to the houses of worship are generally scheduled when religious services are not being held, and typically include an informational discussion, a tour of the facility, and an ethnic meal served by the hosting teens. Playing traditional liturgical music is being considered as an addition going forward, said Kanwal.
Leadership skills are nurtured by putting the teens in charge, he said. While there are clergy or adult lay leaders present, the teens are responsible for the agenda at their respective houses of worship.
“We don’t tell the participants what to do or how to do it,” Kanwal said. “Instead, we encourage them and empower them to do their own planning and select their own teams to tackle specific tasks.”
Community service also is an important element of MOSAIC. In 2013-14, teens did a midnight run to Manhattan to distribute warm clothing to homeless people. Jake, now a junior at Shore Regional High School in West Long Branch, said the teens had to collect the garments, sort them by size, and directly hand them to the recipients. “We also had to solicit contributions to pay for a bus to take us into New York City,” he said.
The other project — which will be ongoing this year — is Teens Against Intolerance. Lily, a sophomore enrolled in the Law and Public Service program at Colts Neck High School, said she and some fellow MOSAIC teens conceived the idea. “We planned a special student-run assembly for middle schools stressing leadership qualities that would help people of all faiths stand up to bullying and other bias-related behavior,” she said.
All the teens receive credit for community service hours, which may help them when they apply for college, Kanwal said.
Lily and Jake said they learned about MOSAIC from Rabbi Melinda Panken, religious leader of Shaari Emeth. In a phone interview, Panken said she heard of it from Jaffari when the two were colleagues at the Freehold Clergy Association.
Most participants during the program’s first year were recruited by their own clergy, who were approached by Kanwal and Jaffari. “I tried to select youngsters who were curious about the world and who would be able to carry on throughout the year,” said Panken.
“This program is not only valuable to the participants,” she said. “It also serves the community when the kids become emissaries for understanding, ambassadors for tolerance.”
Lily and Jake, along with some of the other teens from the inaugural season, will volunteer as mentors to MOSAIC teens in this year’s program.