Five days after the October 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Center of the Hamptons held a vigil to remember the 11 victims of the massacre.
Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor was among those who took part in the East Hampton service and he recalls looking out at the sea of faces that packed the house of worship that evening.
“When I saw people in every corner of the space, I recognized many of them,” said Rabbi Geffen. “But there was a significant portion there who were not Jewish.”
The shooting galvanized people across the country and in its wake, many came forward to voice their support for the Jewish community, including Muslim groups that raised thousands of dollars for the Pittsburgh temple. The strong show of solidarity united different religious communities across the country in a way that doesn’t often happen in these politically polarizing times.
“After the shooting, people called me to say this is a terrible thing and we want you to know we’re here to support you,” said Rabbi Geffen. “We do live in a world where it’s become a normal practice for someone to use a firearm to take lives.
“But there are also positive things happening alongside it.”
Among those positive things is the event that brought Rabbi Geffen and clergy from several different faith traditions to the parish hall at Christ Episcopal Church last Sunday. They gathered in a circle in the upstairs room of the hall to share the tenets of their beliefs with high school students from Temple Adas Israel’s youth program, led by Shelley Lichtenstein. It was an appropriate setting, given that the discussion was held just an hour before the start of the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service which took place this year at Christ Church.
Rabbi Geffen explained that the idea for the meeting came from the teens themselves who, in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, wanted to know how people of different religious traditions can get along.
“Back in history, 100 years ago or more, getting clergy together like this would have been inconceivable,” said Rabbi Geffen.
On hand to offer their perspectives were Rev. Karen Ann Campbell, rector of Christ Church, Dr. Yousef Syed of the Islamic Association of Long Island in Selden Mosque, Rev. Nancy Remkus, an interfaith minister currently serving at the First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor, Dorothy Dai-en Friedman a Zen Buddhist Sensei at Ocean Zendo, Rev. Kimberly Q. Johnson from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, and Pastor George Dietrich of the Hamptons Lutheran Parrish.
Rev. Campbell asked the students if they carry an awareness of the thousands of years of persecution for the Jewish people, including the Holocaust.
“To me, it all comes together when there’s a hate crime while people are worshipping,” she said, making note of other shootings like the one that occurred at a predominately African American church in Charleston in 2015.
“It’s really upsetting,” said Marley Slotkin, a junior at Westhampton Beach High School. “I was really surprised. Even though shootings happen so often, I was surprised it would be at a temple.”
Jake Klarman, a junior at East Hampton High School and one of the leaders of the group, wanted to know if, overall, religious organizations were attracting younger congregants in the same numbers they once did.
“Do you think youth are not really going into religion or staying in religion?” he asked. “Is it an older tradition that is not carrying over to youth?”
“If you talk to church people, there is lots of handwringing and worrying because nobody brings their kids to church anymore,” responded Rev. Johnson. “It is a real thing and I think religion can be more than going to church on Saturday or Sunday.
“I don’t know that churches are doing the best job of serving young people in terms of helping them to find ways to be in the community and of service,” she admitted, adding that getting teens involved in other ways may be the key to success and the breaking down of barriers.
The Temple Adas Israel youth group is an example of exactly that. Ms. Slotkin explained that the group has a game night coming up soon, while Mr. Klarman noted that the teens help out at Maureen’s Haven, which through the winter months houses and feeds the homeless of the East Endat 18 different houses of worship, including Christ Church.
“And last year, we went to the Religious Action Center, a weekend-long seminar in Washington D.C.,” noted Erin Kennedy, a junior at East Hampton High School and co-leader of the youth group. “There were 200 Jewish kids there learning about social justice issues.”
“We went the weekend the government was shut down,” added Rabbi Geffen. “Three of our young women marched in the women’s march that weekend.”
Engagement and awareness is important to these teens and the religious leaders each took time to broaden their base of knowledge by explaining their faith traditions to them.
“Islam is one of the religions we call ‘The People of the Book’ — which is Judaism Christianity and Islam. The word Islam simply means peace,” said Dr. Syed, outlining the five pillars of Islam which dictates rules for praying, fasting, charity, and making the required journey, or Hadj, to Mecca.
“It’s not about hurting people, just helping,” he said. “We have tremendous respect for all religions and call for universal respect for all mankind.”
Rev. Campbell asked him to talk about the term “jihad,” which has been co-opted by extremist groups in the past few decades and has come to have a negative connotation in the West.
“I believe man is not the enemy of man. It’s ignorance, when you’re ignorant and don’t want to know about other religions … every religion is full of bad apples, but you can’t blame the religion,” said Dr. Syed. “Jihad is a misunderstood word. Jihad begins with self and our own temptation and resisting it. It’s a struggle for almighty God.”
“Some have taken the word the wrong way and done horrendous things. But there are 1.6 billion Muslims and they are law abiding people,” he added, inviting the teens to come visit his mosque in Selden. “They have the same needs and concerns of peaceful people living here.”
After explaining the philosophy and practice behind Zen Buddhism Dai-en Friedman gave the students words of advice as they move forward in navigating their own spiritual lives.
“Listening is important,” she said. “Ask yourself these questions — in speaking is it true? Is it helpful? And does it need to be said? Taking responsibility for where you come from is an important part of your evolution.”
As the time for the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service neared and the group prepared to disperse, Rabbi Geffen took the opportunity to keep the conversation alive and moving forward.
“This is smart group that thinks very deeply,” he said. “The more we learn about each other, the better we are.
“We have to be grateful that we can have gatherings like this. It’s remarkable.”