Dozens of local religious leaders, advocates and community members came together in a spirit of commonality and mutual respect on April 20 for the first ever “Multi-Faith Dialogue” program, hosted in Brookdale’s Student Life Center in Lincroft.
The program, titled “The Golden Rule,” featured an overview of five different faith traditions and their approach to the centuries-old credo, which encourages individuals to treat others as they wish to be treated.
“The last 18 months, certainly all of us have been concerned with a lot of vitriol in our community. After the elections we saw a rise in hate crimes against many faith groups, including Muslim and Jewish faith groups,” said Janice Thomas, director of Brookdale’s International Education Center, which cosponsored the program along with the Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought (MCWRET), the Brookdale Diversity Council, The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale and the New Jersey Interfaith Coalition.
“At Brookdale, as an educational institution we feel that it is our responsibility to provide opportunities to educate and to learn from one another so that we can help dismiss stereotypes and dispel and demystify this “othering” that is happening in our community.”
Panel members included Fatima Jaffari, founder of the Kumon Learning Center in Howell and cofounder of the award winning Interfaith Youth Leadership Program of Garden State MOSAIC; Sarbmeet Kanwal, Brookdale physics instructor and cofounder of MOSAIC’s Interfaith Youth Leadership Program; Rabbi Lawrence Malinger, member of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen and the multi-faith clergy group Bayshore Ministerium; Rev. Terrence K. Porter, senior minister of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Red Bank and president of the board of trustees for the Red Bank Affordable Housing Corporation; and Uma Swaminathan, a cultural anthropologist, bestselling author, retired educator and advisor to MCWRET.
The panelists – representing Islam, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, respectively – each gave an overview of their religion and the ways in which practitioners approach “The Golden Rule.”
Kanwal, for example, explained how Sikhism was founded in 15th century India on the principles of equality and egalitarianism for all mankind, regardless of background or social standing. The turbans worn by Sikh followers to this day, he said, are reminders of that.
“In India at that time, the only people allowed to wear a turban were kings and possibly high-level clerics. That was it,” Kanwal said. “It was a symbol of being of a very high class. The teachers in our religion said, ‘We want every single person to wear a turban, because all of you are kings.’ There is no inferiority, there is no superiority… It was all intended to make people feel that they were just as good as anybody else.”
In her overview of Islam, Jaffari explained how the religion implores followers to remain humble, to bring peace to their communities, and to perform an honest, searching self-inventory every day.
“We have a saying: ‘Give a person 70 excuses before you judge them,’ Jaffari said. “Many times, people don’t even give one. We make assumptions about who someone is or what their motivations are… Before we judge anyone else, we must have a daily accounting of our own deeds. If we don’t do that every night, we are not really being a good Muslim.”
The panel discussion, moderated by MCWRET board member and New Jersey Interfaith Coalition member Joseph Ritacco, also touched on the shortcomings found in the “Golden Rule,” which can often lead to false assumptions about others’ needs and desires.
“That’s often why we get in trouble. We attribute to other people the ways of thinking that we have, and by now we should know that that’s not the case,” Ritacco said. “So there is what I refer to as ‘The Platinum Rule,’ which is to hold yourself to a higher standard than you do others. Or, to say it another way, be strict about your own behavior and cut other people a lot of slack. You basically put others above you. If we were to treat others with that kind of respect, I think we would have much less conflict in the world.”
The program also featured a brief intermission, during which audience members were encouraged to engage in conversation with a nearby stranger, and a Q&A session hosted by the panelists.
One of the more prominent questions from the audience centered on cross-cultural hatred and terrorism, and the idea that religion may play a role in both. On a day when the terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility for a fatal attack in Paris, panel members stressed the important distinction between religion and politics. ISIS, panel members said, is one of many groups throughout history to use religion for their own political gain, without truly understanding the tenets of a particular faith.
“Each one of the religious beliefs represented on the panel, and others, have a segment of the Golden Rule,” Porter said. “Unfortunately we live in this postmodern society, where many of our beliefs and religious positions have been hijacked by radicals that believe they represent our faiths and our traditions. That’s why I applaud what we are doing here today, because we can see the sincerity in the actual beliefs and principles by which faith communities operate.
“I hope we take from this gathering today a greater appreciation that we may be of different faiths and different traditions, but we all have the same purpose,” Porter added. “And that purpose is allowing humanity to live together as one.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Brookdale graduate and current Monmouth University political science major Marco Pallidino, who said he attended the program to learn more about the panelists and their beliefs.
“It’s very valuable to have this kind of dialogue,” Pallidino said. “It promotes education and it promotes religious tolerance. If you don’t take the time to know your neighbor, you can never truly understand them. That’s pretty much where it starts.”
To learn more about the cosponsors of the event, click the links above.
View more photos of the Multi-Faith Dialogue program here.