Jewish, Muslim teens discuss faiths of their fathers
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger leads the discussion between Muslim and Jewish teens. (All photos Mark E. Rondeau)
From The Bennington Banner, Nov. 22, 2008
MARK E. RONDEAU
BENNINGTON —Jewish and Muslim teens from three continents and six different countries found common ground in an interfaith discussion held recently at Congregation Beth El.
The Muslim teens are in the Bennington area as exchange students. The Jewish teens are members of the congregation, and the discussion was part of their religious education program.
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, rabbi at Beth El, said this was an hour to learn about Islam and Judaism. He told the exchange students that he was the counterpart in Judaism to an imam, or prayer leader, in Islam.
Boettiger noted that the words in Arabic and Hebrew for peace are similar: "What I greeted you with at the beginning, 'salaam' and 'shalom,' Arabic and Hebrew, are very, very close — very, very. It's almost like Spanish and Italian."
Present were seven exchange students, all Muslims, including two boys from Afghanistan, two girls from Indonesia, a girl from Kenya, a girl from the Philippines and a boy from Thailand. There were 10 students present from Beth El, two girls and the rest boys.
The discussion began with some basics, such as the Jewish observance of Shabbat. "It's the Sabbath, the day of rest. It starts Friday night and (continues on) Saturday, when we rest and read Torah," said Hannah Poulette.
"Is there an equivalent, is there a day of rest in Islam, a day set aside for prayer?" Boettiger asked.
"On Friday, we have prayers. We stop at 1 or 1:30 p.m. and then we pray ... in a mosque," said Mustafa Ahmadzai, of Afghanistan.
"So Islam has this kind of special day of the week on Friday, Judaism has it on Saturday, Christianity has it on Sunday, right?" Boettiger quipped. "We've got the whole weekend covered."
The teens compared rituals and holy days or periods, such as Passover and Hanukkah for Jews, and Ramadan and Eid for Muslims.
Arabic is the ritual language of Islam, and all Muslims must use it for worship, regardless of their native language. The students from Afghanistan study Arabic in high school, but Renata Rinda, of Indonesia, said that in her country children study their native language in school, but after school they can go to mosque and study with special teachers who teach religion.
In sharing prayers and blessings before and after meals, a couple students of each faith briefly recited prayers in Arabic and Hebrew.
Moving seamlessly into more challenging questions, one of the exchange students asked what the difference is between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Mustafa Ahmadzai, one of the students from Afghanistan, noted that each faith has a holy book — the Torah, the Koran and the Bible. Muslims believe that Moses and Jesus were prophets and that Muhammad was the last prophet and the greatest.
Going even deeper, Boettiger asked "at their heart, what does Islam teach us, what does Judaism teach us?"
"I believe that people follow religions because everyone needs something to believe in," said Zev Benjamin, one of the Jewish teens. "A lot of people are willing to accept science and all that, but other people don't like that explanation and they need something to look to."
Ben Faller said he thinks that "religion is a way to teach people how to be good in the world, but to make sure that people actually do it not just because it's a good idea but because they actually believe in doing it."
"I think the center of all religions is God," said Anggit Pangastuti, of Indonesia.
Naim Laeni, of Thailand, said he thought that religion was born from humans being afraid and wanting to know there is somebody behind the world.
Renata Rinda, of Indonesia, said that religion is "the relationship of the human heart and God."
God didn't create people all the same; they have skins of different colors, for instance. "It's not like boring," she said. "So, like this, we understand and try to love each other."
If the core teaching of religion is to love others, why does religion so often seem to lead to strife and division, Boettiger asked.
"Because everyone has a different way of interpreting religion," said Zev Benjamin. "You can have a large group of people. All of them follow the same religion, read the same holy book, and you may have five or six people who have a very different idea on how it should be translated and they disagree with everyone else."
The students noted how Judaism, Islam and particularly Christianity have several separate branches or denominations.
As a common point in the scriptures of both Judaism and Islam, Boettiger brought up the story of Abraham — a foundational figure in both faiths — who was obedient to God's command to take his son to a mountaintop and sacrifice him. Words from an angel stay Abraham's knife-wielding hand just before he kills his son. The difference between the faiths is the son that Abraham takes to the mountaintop. In Judaism it is Isaac; in Islam it is Ishmael.
Isaac and Ishmael, like Jews and Muslims, are brothers. "I think it's important to return to Abraham and those beginnings — it's the same family," Boettiger said.