Community members find common ground at interfaith event

Monday, January 14, 2019 | 12:18 PM

More than 120 people from various faiths broke bread together in the Simpson Room at Sewickley United Methodist Church Jan. 13.

“I think we should do this six times a year,” said Tanya Bielski-Braham of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh . “I think once you start eating with people, you become friends. It changes the dialogue when we share a meal.”

Bielski-Braham was the keynote speaker at an interfaith dialogue and dinner hosted by Welcoming Everyone and Beth Samuel. According to Joan Miles, a founder of Welcoming Everyone, the groups started talking about hosting the event shortly after the Tree of Life tragedy on Oct. 27, when a gunman expressing anti-Semitic views took the lives of 11 Jewish worshipers.

Attendees of the dinner were encouraged to reflect on the tragedy, “but more importantly, to look ahead at how we can all work together to take steps to build greater understanding among people of different faiths,” Miles said.

After welcome remarks by the Rev. Russel Shuluga of Sewickley United Methodist, the St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church gospel choir performed three songs of peace. Local leaders of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism then read prayers, shared some of the traditions of their faith and offered ways to grow in understanding and tolerance.

Preeti Juneja of Monroeville’s Hindu Jain Temple likely traveled the farthest. Kotoku Crivello, head priest at the Zen Center of Pittsburgh, located in Bell Acres, spoke on behalf of the Buddhist community. He shared a message before reading the Metta, or loving kindness, prayer, written by the Buddha himself.

“The Buddhist faith is simple, we act with insight and action. This is a gathering of friendship and community, that’s how we learn from each other,” Crivello said.

Noor Khan, a member of the Muslim Association of Pittsburgh, stressed that diversity is something to be celebrated, “not something that we need to be fighting against.” The Muslim faith, she added, teaches that people have a dual responsibility to serve God and their fellow human beings. She read several verses from the Quran, as well as a prayer about forgiveness, written by the prophet Mohammed.

After the readings and prayers, Bielski-Braham spoke on “How to be an Upstander.” In contrast to a bystander, she said, upstanders witness a wrongdoing and assume responsibility for addressing it.

It’s a theme the Holocaust Center focuses on, especially with grade-school students who participate in its programs, Bielski-Braham said. The center seeks to build understanding of the Holocaust and the persistence of injustice.

Before sharing lentil soup and chicken chili, attendees participated in facilitated discussions with those at their table.

Paul Palevsky, who attends Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge, said that differences even exist within religions. His congregation is comprised of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox members of the Jewish faith, and although they may not always agree, when they come, they often find common ground, he said. Barbara Cooley Thaw of Bell Acres added that people of all faiths can participate in community service projects, in keeping with the underlying tenet of “love thy neighbor.”

During dinner, Gloria Cook, who attends St. Matthew, traded memories of growing up in New Jersey with Leonard Ganz, of Beth Samuel.

For Cook’s mother, Helene Zacharias, “Many Faiths, One Community” was a welcome addition to her normal Sunday routine.

“We are so segregated on Sunday, but this way, all of the denominations are getting together and talking as one,” Zacharias said.

For information about similar events, follow Welcoming Everyone’s Facebook page.

Sam Bojarski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.