More than 1,000 students, as well as religious leaders, police officials and community activists, gathered Friday as the nonprofit Council for Unity inducted into the council new members, who displayed exemplary tolerance and inclusion in their schools.  Credit: Johnny Milano

More than 1,000 students, as well as religious leaders, police officials and community activists, gathered Friday for what was billed as the largest tolerance event of the year on Long Island.

The students, from the Bronx to Riverhead, celebrated their participation in a pro-tolerance training program run by the nonprofit Council for Unity, and heard calls for greater acceptance of different religions, races, cultures and ethnicities.

A rabbi, an imam and two ministers delivered invocations.

“Every day we are barraged with images of intolerance across the globe — massacres in churches in Sri Lanka, massacres in synagogues, in mosques,” said Robert DeSena, president and founder of the group. “You would think that in today’s world we would be showing more tolerance, and it seems as if we are showing less.”

But DeSena told the crowd in Woodbury that the students, ages 12 to 18, “are a symbol of hope and a symbol of possibility.”

“I’ve looked for a miracle all my life and the one place I have found it is in this room,” he said. “We have 130 different cultures living in one family, promoting peace, promoting unity, promoting understanding and promoting love.”

The students, from public elementary schools to Suffolk County Community College, go through a year of training in the program, which focuses on promoting tolerance and fighting bullying and gangs.

Students came from schools including in Islip, Bellport, Westbury and New York City. It was the group’s 44th annual induction ceremony.

Ken Teitelbaum, 60, of West Babylon, one of the group’s founding members, said the event “couldn’t come at a better time.”

He just returned from a three-week trip to Israel and was amazed by the peaceful coexistence of religions that once existed in the Holy Land.

“Seeing how you had Muslims and Arabs and Jews and Orthodox Greeks building temples hundreds of feet from each other and coexisting just shows that it is possible,” said Teitelbaum, who is Jewish. “How it changed from then to now is mind-boggling. We have people blowing them up because they believe in different” religions.

Sheldon Joseph, 15, a ninth-grader at Westbury High, said he was thrilled to be at the event.

“It is great to see all the religions coming together, uniting as one,” he said. “It shows that it doesn’t matter who you are ... as long as we can all come together, everything could be perfect.”

The event at the Crest Hollow Country Club included students jamming a dance floor, lunch, and a mass swearing-in led by DeSena.

“I will strive in word and in deed to promote unity between all people,” the students recited in unison. “I will always seek to resolve conflicts and never create them.”

Despite a worldwide rise in religious violence, hate crimes on Long Island, including those linked to religion, have declined in recent years. Overall hate crimes in Suffolk dropped from 87 in 2014 to 21 in 2018, police said. In Nassau, hate crimes dropped from 43 in 2013 to 37 in 2017, though there was a spike to 52 in 2016.

The Rev. Thomas Goodhue, a former head of the Long Island Council of Churches, said nonetheless that religious intolerance remains a problem.

“We have so many bigots in the world in almost every faith community, it seems,” Goodhue said. “Almost every faith community these days seems to be really struggling with how to deal with the minority among themselves that is totally nuts, but also to deal with broader currents of bias and misunderstanding that run through lots of folks.”

Khalid S. Lateef, an imam representing the Interfaith Institute of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, said he saw hope in the event.

“Despite all the negative stuff that is out there, goodness is on the rise,” he said. “America represents the greatest hope in the world in showing how this can become a reality.”

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