Seven adolescent boys sat around a Muslim prayer carpet in Rodef Shalom Congregation’s social hall, amazed that a compass was sewn in the center.
“I wonder if they could make one with a GPS system,” said Warren Adams, 12.
Across the table, Gyan Mehta had a different question.
“When people fast for Ramadan, do they not eat anything for 30 days … like, at all?”
Seventeen-year-old Adam Shamsi, who had kept quiet for most of the discussion, lifted his head, smiled, and answered: “It’s just sunrise to sunset,” he said. “So in the summertime, that can get pretty brutal.”
Though the boys spoke like school friends in a cafeteria, most of them had just met; they were just a few of the 65 teenagers brought together for the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee’s first installment of Bridging Faiths, a series of interfaith programs aimed to get local teenagers talking, laughing and learning about each other’s faiths.
Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic teenagers met for over three hours Sunday, Feb. 21, for a roundup of information and discussion sessions led by local religious leaders including Rodef Shalom’s senior rabbi, Aaron Bisno, Father Nate Rugh of the Calvary Episcopal Church, Tim Crossen of Serra Catholic High School, Riffat Chugtai of the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Dr. Nangali Srinivasi of the Sri Venkateswara Temple. A committee of teenagers planned the programs.
“I firmly believe that if you’re doing teen programming, it needs to be implemented by teens for teens,” said PAJC Executive Director Deborah Fidel. “So each group planned its own presentation for the adults to give.”
As the Jewish presenter, Bisno took a casual, conversational approach to explaining Judaism to the teenagers.
“At the rate that TV programming is going, you could find yourself on a quiz show at any time. And it wouldn’t be an unreasonable question to be asked: What are the five books of the Bible?” asked Bisno before revealing his mnemonic bible trick: “General Electric light bulbs never dim,” or Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.”
Bisno kept the mood light in the giant Rodef Shalom sanctuary, but the questions cleared up were serious. When one teenage girl asked if Jews believe in the same creation story as Christians, Bisno explained the shared and separate history of the two religions.
Organized by PAJC, local teen leaders of the different faiths began meeting last fall to shape what would become the Bridging Faiths kickoff, which was meant to break down misconceptions and put teenagers face to face with other faiths — emblazoning a trail for eventual social action programming.
“If we’re planning to make this a social action group, we knew we should have an overview first where we get to know each other. This was just laying the groundwork. Next year, hopefully we’ll start doing projects,” said Maira Khwaja, 15, of the teen planning committee and the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Khwaja also noted her desire to eventually pair with Habitat for Humanity.
Rodef Shalom teen organizer Nico Satryan, 17, said, “it’s really important to start doing away with misconceptions early. I didn’t know a lot of what we learned today about the Hindu faith. I didn’t know about their conceptualization about spirituality — where your spirit goes after different stages of purity.”
The program opened up with introductory statements from PAJC leaders including Fidel and Youth Program Coordinator Susan Simons before the students broke into groups for icebreaker games; the expected amount of nervous teen laughter and awkwardness ensued. But once the program was rolling — groups rotated to stations for each faith — questions and discussions rose to the surface.
Rugh explained the meaning behind the Eucharist and how “there is no great, catch-all term [for the bible] — I’m not a fan of ‘Old Testament,’ because that term makes it seem
Across the room, Crossen explained the significance of a Virgin Mary icon; Chughtai addressed notions of violence in the Koran: “When you read it literally, you will not get the right message. You must question it.”
But maybe the most intimate moments of the afternoon came when the programming was over.
Sitting around the table with six others, staring down at the prayer carpet, Adams smiled to himself. “It’s funny how almost all religions promote peace,” he said, “but they end up fighting each other. If people only realized how similar they were, there’d be peace.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)