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Pride in interfaith support and understanding

In mid-June, my wonderful stepson, Jesse, proposed marriage to his wonderful girlfriend, Cody. The wedding is planned for next June, and I think I’m as excited for the occasion as Jesse and Cody, mostly because I feel very deeply that these two are meant to be together and complement each other so well.

As we’ve discussed wedding plans these last few weeks, Jesse mentioned that he and Cody would like to get married under a chuppah and wondered if I would help them design one. They also are entertaining the idea of stepping on a glass at the end of the ceremony, as is common in Jewish tradition. I was delighted at the prospect of them incorporating both of these rituals, though I admit, I was also surprised. That’s because neither Jesse nor Cody is Jewish.

Just for a little history: I met Jesse and his older sister Megan a week before Jesse turned 5 years old and a week after Megan turned 7. From that time on, they were fixtures in my life and I in theirs. When their younger brother Jackson came into the world 14 years ago, they embraced their relationship with him as strongly, and with as much love and kindness, as they had embraced the one with me. We are one big blended family, and that includes Jesse and Megan’s mother, who regards Jackson as another son.

Growing up, Jesse, now 24, and Megan, 26, celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, though the only “practiced” religion they knew was Judaism because of me. When she was 8, Megan shopped with me for our first family menorah, choosing the Noah’s Ark model. At age 6, Jesse stood by my side “helping” me make my Granny Rose’s knaydelach recipe for the matzah ball soup on Passover.

For several years, he refused to eat the matzah balls — “They look like Styrofoam,” he would say. Then, when he was 13 or 14, he finally tried them, and has been hooked ever since. In fact, last Passover he declared it his favorite holiday, even topping Thanksgiving, because it’s only on Passover that he gets to eat matzah ball soup and potato kugel and charoses and homemade macaroons. Try as he has, he just hasn’t warmed up to gefilte fish. “It looks like Styrofoam,” he says.

That my stepchildren think of themselves as “honorary Jews” makes me happy because they have come to internalize many of the ideals Judaism expounds. That said, they try to practice tikkun olam, repairing the world, not so much because it is a Jewish value, but because they believe it is the right thing to do. Religion to them is the bringing together of faiths and beliefs and values for the greater good of humanity, the sum greater than its parts. That’s exactly the way they view our big blended family.

Standing by local Sikhs

I was reminded of just that this week when I heard about a few interfaith gatherings. The first was in response to the killing of six Sikhs in Milwaukee when a gunman attacked their gurdwara (temple) earlier this month. In a show of support for Sikhs in the St. Louis community, about 200 Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians joined together for a worship service and candlelight vigil at the Sikh gurdwara in St. Peters last Wednesday.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation was among those in attendance. She said although the entire service was done in the Sikh native language of Punjabi, she felt “a real welcoming” of the interfaith community.

As she sat and looked around the gurdwara, she said she was reminded that while religious beliefs and worship styles differ, we are all more alike than we may think. “In many ways, we don’t know a whole lot about the Sikh community. But what was so interesting is they are just as American as the rest of us,” she said. “There were teenage boys with ‘intermediate turbans’ but they were wearing them with their low-slung pants and Abercrombie Ts. There was this mom in traditional Indian Sikh garb with a 4-year-old in her lap. To keep the child amused she pulled out her iPhone so he could play games. It was just as if someone walked into UH and saw teens running around in their teenage clothing and kids on their iPhones.”

Rosenberg continued: “One of the beauties is that the Sikh community opened their doors to us and allowed people the opportunity to see. Until we figure how to break down the walls, the stereotypes will continue.”

Rally for Joplin Muslims

In Joplin, Mo., the interfaith community is planning to hold a rally on Saturday to support Muslims after a fire destroyed the Islamic Society of Joplin mosque Aug. 6. The fire has been deemed suspicious, and comes on the heels of another fire to the same mosque July 4 that caused minor damage to the roof and was determined to be arson.

The Joplin Globe reports that an online fundraiser to help the Islamic Society rebuild its mosque had surpassed $350,000 by Monday, with nearly 3,000 contributions from around the world. The original goal was $250,000.

Cantor Ron Eichaker of United Hebrew, who has gotten to know the interfaith community in Joplin well following last year’s devastating tornado, notes how congregations there of all faiths — including Joplin’s own United Hebrew Congregation — worked together to organize an iftar last Wednesday evening at Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church. An iftar is a meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during the month of Ramadan, wherein during the day they fast. This year, Ramadan began the evening of July 19 and will conclude Saturday night.

Although Eichaker couldn’t make it to Joplin for the iftar, he spoke to Iman Lahmmudin of the Islamic Society who told Eichaker, “It’s not just the Muslim community, but the whole population of Joplin that feels violated by the destruction of the mosque.”

Eichaker said that if there was any good to come from the tornado or from the burning of the mosque, it’s how the interfaith community in Joplin has mobilized and “now stands together to support one another.”

Interfaith 9-11 commemoration

Faith and art will bring people of all backgrounds together 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9 at the Sheldon Concert Hall for the “Second Annual September 11 Interfaith Memorial in Music: An Appreciation of Religious Diversity.” This free event is being sponsored and supported by too many groups to name and features Grammy-winning soprano Christine Brewer and jazz pianist Peter Martin, among others. Its purpose is to allow reflection, express sorrow and unify the community in hope for peace.

In fact, last year’s 10-year commemoration of 9/11 was so moving the capacity crowd knew there needed to be an annual gathering.

“Last year, Sen. (John) Danforth spoke of all the events around that country that were talking about religious diversity while in the concert hall, we were living religious diversity,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the event organizers. “There was such a sweeping sense of togetherness, it was magical. Everyone found their moment. The parts added up to a powerful and emotional whole.”

I’ve already marked my calendar for this event, and hope to bring my big blended family along. With all that music and diversity, surely Jesse and Cody can find someone deft enough to play the “Hora” and the “Chicken Dance” at their upcoming wedding reception.