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Tom Goodhue: Season for interfaith outreach

A menorah and Christmas tree, side by side

A menorah and Christmas tree, side by side in Long Beach Photo Credit: 2007 Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue is executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches.

Last December, vandals attacked a number of outdoor menorahs and crèches across Long Island. Though Hanukkah is a minor holiday in Judaism - it has grown in importance only because our culture hypes Christmas shopping so much - nobody's traditions should be trashed. Whenever someone tries to intimidate and isolate our neighbors, we should stand with them.

The Long Island Council of Churches responded by urging non-Jews to join their Jewish neighbors at menorah lightings in front of synagogues. The Knights of Columbus added menorahs to some of their nativity displays last year in solidarity with those whose symbols were attacked. By standing with Jews during the Festival of Lights, Christians can demonstrate that we actually mean what we proclaim each December about peace on earth and goodwill to all.

This year, the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce took the next step, both urging the community to stand together against vandalism at their public menorah lighting and also to learn something at a "Chanukah Extravaganza" they sponsored for the whole community last Sunday at Temple Beth Chai in Hauppauge.

Interfaith understanding should be a year-round effort. Recently the Long Island Council of Churches met with local Muslim leaders to brainstorm about ways to improve relations between mosques and their neighbors. One of the ideas we came up with was not only that non-Muslims visit local mosques, but also that Muslims attend worship in other faith communities. While Islam generally finds it inappropriate for those outside the fold to join in worship, visitors are always welcome to watch, listen, pray silently and learn.

Whatever your faith (or lack thereof), think about visiting another house of worship this month. A few religions prohibit their adherents from watching others worship, but for most of us, observing someone pray in a way different from our own will do us no harm. The point of these visits, after all, is to learn about one another - which often leads us to understand our own traditions in a new way.

Both Christians and non-Christians might enjoy seeing a presepio, the wonderful Italian Catholic custom that extends the nativity display to show what's taking place throughout the rest of Bethlehem and countryside around it. At McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, for example, the Rev. Gerald Cestare has created an elaborate presepio that fills an entire room.

Even more so than the famous Neapolitan crèche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cestare's display dramatically illustrates the belief of how God becomes one of us in the midst of everyday life and work. This coming Friday and Saturday evenings, Resurrection Lutheran Church in Garden City invites the public to walk through "A Night in Bethlehem," a sort of presepio on a grand scale. Churches throughout Long Island offer opportunities for people of all faiths to attend pageants and services at this time of year.

Archpriest Eric George Tosi of the Orthodox Church in America in Syosset suggests that a good occasion for interfaith visiting might be Sunday, Dec. 19, when Orthodox Christians celebrate the Jewish ancestors of Jesus.

Undoubtedly, you will observe things in visiting another faith community that you disagree with. After all, as Rabbi Marc Gruber said at a menorah-lighting in Rockville Centre a few years ago, "the meaning of Hanukkah is that we have a right to be different." Christmas celebrates the birth of the Prince of Peace. It will help us to preserve freedom and build peace for us to make the effort to learn from one another.

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