With the increasingly uncomfortable, and sometimes even hostile, incidents towards Muslims that have surfaced during the months since President Donald Trump’s election, the need to counter those attitudes has grown even more compelling for many interfaith groups here in Westchester.
These alliances are not limited to adults. Since its launch five years ago, the Westchester Youth Alliance has been bringing together teenagers in grades 9-12 from churches, synagogues and Muslim organizations in Northern Westchester.
“We want Jewish and Christian kids to learn about Islam, and for Muslim kids to learn about Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism,” said Alli West, director of programming for the organization. “They learn about culture and faith through that bonding. We hope that being exposed to different cultures, based on truth and knowledge in one-on-one conversations, they will experience one another personally.”
Those authentic connections help these teens counter difficult situations. Both the Muslim and Jewish teens have experienced more cyber-bullying in recent month.
“We hope that being exposed to different cultures, based on truth and knowledge in one-on-one conversations, they will experience one another personally.”
For example, when there were “six or seven incidents of swastikas painted in schools,” earlier this year, “our kids are aware of it,” said Rev. Paul Alcorn, pastor of Bedford Presbyterian and a board member at the Westchester Youth Alliance. “What we bring to this is ‘let’s provide support, safe space and elevate the conversation.’ We’re hoping two things happen: As high school kids articulate about their own faith traditions, they have more understanding, and will find the courage to say ‘that’s not true’ about negative stereotypes. We hope they’ll be strong youth who’ll have the courage of their convictions.”
While the Westchester Youth Alliance is relatively young, it helps that there are deep roots between Bedford Presbyterian and Temple Shaaray Tefilah of Westchester-Bedford Corners, added Alcorn. Since the early 2000s, the two had developed a program for teens, focused on fostering friendships and breaking down stereotypes, usually through social action projects. “Knowing one another as friends, and learning about each other’s faith traditions,” came more naturally, said Alcorn.
For Westchester Young Alliance alumnus Justin Thaler, a member of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, interfaith work was a natural outgrowth of his participation in a Jewish youth group.
“I thought it would be a great experience,” said Thaler, a student at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. “In addition to the social aspect, I wanted to meet people of different faiths and learn about different belief systems. I know many other Jews, but I had never been friends with someone who was Muslim. … Meeting teens from different faiths was a good way to put a face to a religion. Despite many stereotypes, I learned about the peace-loving religion that Islam is and that has always stuck with me.”
No matter what the outside distractions may be, “we stay non-political,” said West. “Our message and mission is to bring together teens of different faiths and bring about harmony.”
Some of the group’s activities have encompassed team-building exercises, like a challenging ropes course, or social action and service programs, like building a new parking area for a local shelter. During the spring, the teens participated in an overnight trip to Brooklyn and the Rockaways to help repair damage that lingers from Hurricane Sandy.
“Physically bringing together all of these teens from different faiths, about 40 to 50, that’s really powerful,” said West. “Some of them have gone to school [with each other] all their lives and never met.”
The teens have also taken trips to the United Nations for World Interfaith Harmony Week, participated in leadership retreats to discuss the “basic principles of the main faith traditions,” visited local mosques and synagogues and participated in Katonah’s recent Unity Walk, “as a response to the current administration’s policies,” said West.
At the very least, their consciousness has been raised, suggested West. “Several teens had mentioned noticing more anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.”
She certainly hopes the effects last. “If these teens can have a real understanding [of each other] when they go to college and hear religious stereotyping, they can say, ‘that’s not true,’” said West.