By Benjamin Kweskin
Roughly 40 people of all ages and different faith and ethnic backgrounds ignored the beautiful spring weather Sunday, May 3, to gather at Congregation Or Hadash for over three hours to discuss prejudice and hate.
The multipart program, “Interfaith Community Call to Action to Fight Prejudice and Hate,” provided a platform for leaders, teachers and other activists from several faith communities to explore how to create and build a respectful, tolerant, understanding and educated populace that embraces diversity.
Several members of the Islamic Center of North Fulton, a mosque in Alpharetta, contributed to the lively discussions and engaged with the mostly Jewish audience.
Rabbi Analia Bortz of Congregation Or Hadash spoke about the purpose of the gathering and introduced the first speaker and program, led by Alexis Dalmat-Cohen, the executive director of Culture Connect, a nonprofit in Clarkston that assists people from different faith and ethnic backgrounds in a cross-cultural exchange. She and her family are also Or Hadash members.
Dalmat-Cohen briefly spoke about her disdain for the word “tolerance,” preferring “respect” because it highlights and embraces the strength of diversity, which was the focus of the afternoon.
She moderated a panel discussion between two representatives of Peace by Piece, a student organization that is a subsidiary of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and fosters understanding and friendship among the Mohammed Schools of Atlanta (Muslim), the Weber School (Jewish) and Marist School (Catholic).
Weber senior Bonnie Simonoff and college freshman Anna Sanders, a Marist alum, spoke about the personal impact the program had on them and discussed the types of dialogue and activities the organization facilitates. Peace by Piece is also a community service organization and has tackled homelessness in metro Atlanta.
The teens also discussed other Peace by Piece activities, such as team building and fostering personal friendships and relations with people of other faiths to diminish prejudice and hate.
“It is one thing to learn about others in school and in books; it is another thing altogether to personalize these relationships,” Simonoff said.
Both teens suggested that people who are interested in forging interfaith and interethnic relations should strive to break out of their comfort zones and maintain an open mind free of preconceived notions. They said the key is not just the work, but what they learn from it.
Ultimately, they said, we all share the same values, and so we should be able to form authentic relationships with our neighbors and those in our community who come from different faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
Immediately after the youth-led discussion, the audience watched a powerful movie about prejudice and bigotry in post-9/11 America. “My Name Is Khan” is a comedy-drama about an Indian-Muslim American with Asperger’s syndrome who embarks on a quest to inform the president of the United States that he is not a terrorist.
Though the movie does not feature specifically Jewish aspects, the overall messages of racial profiling, prejudice, misunderstanding and close-mindedness are universal problems that deserve top-down and bottom-up approaches to educate and inform the public.
After the movie, Brendan Murphy, a history teacher at Marist, led an informal discussion about reactions to the movie and facilitated a call to action: What can the community do to strengthen relations and educate the public about prejudice, scapegoating and “othering”?
Many in the audience were excited about the prospect of continuing the discussion and sought to ensure that students and adults are involved and informed appropriately after the group agreed that some parents teach their children to hate. In post-9/11 America, the debate has become more heated, given the political climate, and society needs far more understanding of “others.”
For information on how to get involved in interfaith relations, contact Or Hadash at 404-250-3338.