A coalition of a mosque, three synagogues and two churches is using Ramadan, which starts Tuesday at sunset, to launch a program aimed at combating intolerance by targeting a group they feel can have a long-term impact: teenagers.
Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims, involves intense prayer, charity and fasting from sunrise to sunset, meaning as many as 17 hours a day with no food or drink.
The religious institutions plan to take part in the observance by sending teenage members to a nighttime iftar, or breaking of the daily fast, on May 22 at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, one of the largest and oldest mosques on Long Island.
That will be followed in the fall by the teens’ participation in the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which commemorates God’s sheltering of the Israelites more than 3,000 years ago as they wandered the desert after their exodus from slavery in Egypt. The celebration includes construction of temporary shelters where observant Jews eat their meals, pray and spend family time together.
Finally, in December, the teens will take part in Christian celebrations and decorate churches and Christmas trees.
The program is geared at dispelling stereotypes, fighting bigotry and hate speech, and fostering collaboration and understanding among different religious groups on an increasingly diverse Long Island, said Dr. Isma Chaudhry, chair of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.
“Our generation has messed it up big time,” said Chaudhry, referring to acceptance of different faiths. “Youth can bring forth the movement which we have not.
“Their understanding is very pure,” she said. “They are still at the stage where life is not complicated by politics, life is not complicated by global, convoluted issues.”
Ramadan, which this year ends June 14, is one of the five pillars of Islam. It commemorates the time when the prophet Muhammad received the Quran, the holiest book in Islam, from the angel Gabriel in the early 7th century.
It is a period of self-reflection, charity, service, spirituality, humility and also joy, Chaudhry said. Evening prayers in mosques will last until around midnight, and the faithful will get just a few hours of sleep before rising, eating a small meal, and beginning prayers again before sunrise.
The idea of the interfaith teen program was born after swastikas were spray-painted and anti-Semitic words were written on the Syosset High School building in September, Chaudhry said. The Interfaith Clergy Council of Syosset-Woodbury, to which she belongs, decided to do something to address religious intolerance.
“I think it is fantastic that Jewish, Christian and Muslim teens can get together to learn about each other and to learn that we are all created in God’s image, and that by learning about each other’s faiths, we will also find out that there are so many similarities,” said Rabbi Jay Weinstein, chairman of the council.
“For the Islamic Center to open up during their holy season of Ramadan to share their holiday and to allow us to experience what it means to break fast for them is a holy experience,” he added.
The leader of one of the Christian churches, the Rev. Gideon L.K. Pollach of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring Harbor, said, “I am very excited to be able to do this because it is consistent with our mission at St. John’s of participating in building a healthier and stronger and more connected Long Island through shared relationships of people of every faith.”
Weinstein’s daughter, Rabbi Jenn Weinstein, said she hopes the program becomes a model for other communities, and that the teenagers will have an impact on older family members who may have preconceived ideas about other religions.
“It needs to start with the teens,” said Jenn Weinstein, who along with her father leads Congregation Simchat HaLev in Syosset. “The only way for the diversity to be seen as something positive is to allow the teens to understand that we can all coexist and celebrate what is common and learn from each other about what is different.”
One teenager said he was excited to take part. “I think it is very important because as a Jew it’s important to break down the barriers and preconceived notions of other religions hating each other,” said Jacob Katz, 17, a student at Syosset High School. When they visit the mosque, “We’re really going to see how similar we all are and that there’s not much difference between everyone.”