Diversity was on display last Thursday morning at Westchester Community College in Valhalla — not for its own sake but as a balm and a shield against rising divisiveness.
Without explicitly invoking politics, there was no missing the concerns of the 400 people in attendance at the AJC Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast, now in its 18th year.
“The diversity in this room is as diverse as you can get in Westchester,” said Rev. Timothy Dalton, of First Baptist Church in White Plains and a co-chair of the breakfast. “This sends a message of mutual compassion and understanding that’s louder than any words of hate.”
With a theme of “Inner Strength, Bold Action,” the breakfast had a subtle message that the current challenging era — with incidents of anti-Semitic and racial violence occurring with greater frequency — requires pushback.
“In these increasingly polarized times, this breakfast offers people a model and a space for dialogue and bridge building,” said Scott Richman, regional director of AJC Westchester/Fairfield. “Since 9/11, we’ve been celebrating diversity at this event as a way to counter the sectarian hate espoused by those who blew up the Trade Center. Many of us look at the increasing hate in our society and ask, ‘What can we do?’ Building the bonds of society is what AJC does and what this breakfast does.”
The breakfast honors members of the community who exemplify these values. This year’s honorees are Imam Mohammed Shaffieq Chace, of the Islamic Center of New Rochelle; Richard Leroy, a member of Bedford’s Temple Shaaray Tefila and chairman of its social action committee; and Mecca Santana, senior vice president of diversity, inclusion and community engagement, and chief diversity officer for the Westchester Medical Center Health network.
For Richard Leroy, honored for his volunteer efforts preparing and serving Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for those in need, that work is essential to his Jewish identity. He says he loves helping people and believes that being Jewish is very much about living the values of tikkun olam, “repairing the world a little bit.”
Mecca Santana said: “It’s about valuing people for their uniqueness. I can disagree with you, but value your right to believe what you do.”
And Imam Mohammed Shaffieq Chace, who is involved with community outreach, interfaith programs and social justice activities, said that, “We really need to continue this work to be a model for the county. It’s about looking at every human being with compassion, not contempt. The world is divided into those who think our differences are more important than our common humanity, and those who think our common humanity is more important than our differences.”
The breakfast, which was begun in the wake of 9/11, was co-sponsored by AJC Westchester/Fairfield, First Baptist Church of White Plains, Westchester Community College, State University of New York, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, and the Westchester Jewish Council. Representatives of the area’s churches, mosques, synagogues, as well as Mormon temples and the Baha’i Community of Yonkers, attended.
During the table discussions that followed the awards ceremony, the focus was on how attendees would translate what they experienced into tangible actions. Taking the message to heart, one Muslim attendee, a chef, asked for an introduction to Leroy to volunteer at this week’s Thanksgiving meal.
For the Rev. Dr. Stephen Pogue of the Greater Centennial AME Zion church in Mt. Vernon, the takeaway was that: “We need to do more community involvement, and be that voice of social justice and social change. In the midst of the impeachment inquiry, the nation needs to be more inclusive than divided.”
And Bishop Martin Nelson, of Bezer Holiness Church in New Rochelle, said: “What we start here is spreading out to the community, wherever we can help in creating a balance.”
They all seemed to echo the invocation of Sister Connie Koch of the Dominican Sisters of Hope: “Creator of all races, credits and ethnicities … guard us from fear of the other, from the fear that our own security is threatened if we become truly willing to make a place at the table for all.”