‘First Responders In The Interfaith Community’


Beneath a rusting copper dome that dominates the intersection of 96th Street and Third Avenue, Jumu’ah prayers drew to a close last Friday at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Congregants straightened their prostrate bodies and walked across the turquoise carpeting toward their piles of shoes.

But the men and women stopped in their tracks when their soft-spoken imam, Mohammed Shamsi Ali, introduced Rabbi Marc Schneier and Rev. Dr. Arthur Caliandro to the crowd of over 900 men downstairs. The three religious leaders had come together on the Upper East Side to deliver an interfaith memorial address for the victims of terror in Mumbai, and they stood side by side on the mosque’s mihrab, the central altar that faces the holy city of Mecca.

“They are here in solidarity with us,” Imam Ali announced.

“Our religion has been hijacked,” he had said earlier in his sermon. “Terrorism once again is godless — doesn’t have any God, doesn’t have any religion.”

Both Rabbi Schneier and Rev. Caliandro stressed the importance of religious moderation, which must quell the voice of the religious fanatic, rather than standing by in silence.

“I am among friends — I am among the good people who are doing something,” Rabbi Schneier said to the Muslim congregants, who responded with applause. The men reconvened the next day for a similar endeavor at The New York Synagogue, where Rabbi Schneier serves as spiritual leader.

In the wake of the Mumbai tragedy two weeks ago, this collaboration was but one among many interfaith memorial events that have sprung up all across the New York area. On Thanksgiving morning — the day after the attacks began — Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at a Hindu service organized by Dr. Uma Myosorekar, president of The Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing. Four days later, religious leaders representing most of India’s major faiths gathered with government officials in front of City Hall for a press conference held in solidarity, organized by Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis; community activist Mohammad Razvi; the Interfaith Center of New York and Councilman John Liu.

“This is almost like a wake-up call,” said Romiel Daniel, the president of the Indian Jewish Congregation of USA, who has been part of several of the interfaith events thus far. “When things like this happen so close to home, this is a time when the community gets together and it makes a big difference.”

Organizing such impromptu events with leaders from disparate communities was surprisingly simple because of the unique bond that already exists among New York City’s different faiths, according to Matt Weiner, program director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

“The daily interfaith interaction that takes place throughout the city creates social networks that allow for instant responses to crises, instant responses from people who are very different from each other but who work together on a regular basis,” Weiner said, stressing how few other cities would be able to get chasidic rabbis, Hindu priests and imams together so quickly.

“We wanted to show the world that New York’s religious diversity was condemning the attacks and calling for religious freedom,” Weiner added. “We also wanted to show the world that all of India’s religious traditions live right here,” which included Sikh, Jain, Hindu and Buddhist representation, in addition to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim presence.

Before 9/11, Weiner explained, interfaith meetings existed, but religious leaders were more interested in focusing on their own traditions rather than engaging in fluid dialogue.

“We now have first responders in the interfaith community,” added Rabbi Potasnik. “In a very short time we can come together.”

“The imams and the mosques, they only pertained to themselves. They never really spoke out about issues around them — their only concern was their little niche,” agreed Razvi, a Pakistani-born American Muslim and the executive director of the Council of Peoples Organization, formed shortly after 9/11 to assist South Asian Americans. “There’s a turn around now,” he said.

When terror first struck New York City on 9/11, Razvi didn’t know what to tell his 9-year-old daughter. An American little girl cloaked in a headscarf, she couldn’t understand how these attackers could be part of the faith she so adored.

“I told her that no, these people are not Muslims. They claim to be Muslims,” Razvi said, shuddering at the memory. “Now I find myself in that position again: ‘Dad, are these Pakistanis?’”

Last Thursday, spiritual leaders held a similar type of interfaith venture with many of the same participants — this time held at Queensborough Community College in Bayside. More than 250 people on neutral turf as religious leaders, community leaders and elected officials shared their feelings and personal experiences, according to Rabbi Craig Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the primary sponsor of the event. At the evening’s close, leaders lit 18 candles, each representing nearly 10 victims who died in the Mumbai attacks.

One speaker that night was Naresh Jain, whose close friends lost loved ones in the terror attacks at the Taj Hotel. A couple, Sunil and Vishma Reshma Parikh, had decided to attend a business dinner at the hotel and were found dead at the conclusion of the attacks.

“Every one of [my friends was] watching a different channel looking to see if they could find their image anywhere,” said Jain, who represents the International Jain Sangh and several other Jain associations. He has been involved in interfaith relations ever since the age of 13, when he learned about the importance of peace from his guru, a Jain monk in New Delhi. Young children must have such role models to look up to, Jain explained, so that they are less susceptible to terrorist propaganda and understand faiths different from their own.

“From the feedback we received after Thursday night’s event, we were left with the impression that, indeed, New York’s response was a unified voice of solidarity with the victims of these horrific acts,” said Janice Shorenstein, president of the JCRC.

“People were very emotional, and I think they had the opportunity to express their sentiments and their anger,” Mysorekar agreed. “At the same time, we must understand the reality of the situation — we need to deal with it instead of just getting angry.”

The following Sunday, worshippers sat cross-legged in the basement auditorium of Mysorekar’s temple, as their tan-robed priest chanted the Shanti Mantra of peace and kindled incense sticks, memorializing the victims of the recent tragedy in Mumbai yet again. A man in elaborate orange robes ladled spoonfuls of water into the hands of congregants, who splashed the liquid over their hands and faces as they whispered their own Hindu prayers. On the red satin alter trimmed in gold stitching, the priests tossed colorful flowers and waved ripened bananas, honoring the images of divine incarnations Ganesha and Lakshmi, whose portraits were cloaked in hand-strung leis.

“All faiths must work together,” Mysorekar said. “Religions are different, but that doesn’t matter because we’re all seeking salvation from that same God through different means.”

In the wake of terror, formerly unconnected groups are leaning on each other, and spiritual leaders are confident that such cooperation will continue in the future.

“Out of a very tragic and awful thing, we have to realize that the world of people filled with good will have spoken out and condemned this and have come together to express their determination to do whatever they can to prevent these kinds of actions,” said Imam Syed Sayeed, an Indian-raised Muslim who spoke at Monday’s press conference and serves as the religious life adviser at the Muslim Campus Ministry of Columbia University.

To Imam Ali, you can only achieve such unity through a basic foundation of trust. “When we have a built-in conception of others it’s not really an easy thing to change it,” he said. “I think as we engage in this dialogue we need to begin building this trust.”

“I’m betting on the moderates,” Rabbi Schneier said, pointing to Muslim leaders like Imam Ali, who supports Israel’s right to exist. “We need to assist them in taking back their religion.”