Building bridges and helping others in Bedford and beyond
Teens from Temple Shaaray Tefila and Bedford Presbyterian Church make friends―and an impact―during their interfaith service trip to Nicaragua.
We are living in a time of divisiveness. Between races and religions.Between political parties. Within political parties.
I thought it was bad enough when I married a Mets fan. But such charged times can drain the spirit and soul. Locally, we have many who are channeling their energy in the opposite direction. Interfaith efforts have sprouted up doing good works for our community and bridging gaps for all those involved.
It is often easiest to see our differences, especially when it comes to religion (You celebrate what? You believe in what?).
We are fortunate in our area to have clergy who prioritize finding common ground and share a firm commitment to social action. The results benefit many. The Northern Westchester Interfaith Council, headed by Rabbi Jason Nevarez of Bedford’s Temple Shaaray Tefila, meets regularly to discuss how to, as he says, “understand who is my neighbor.”
At the forefront of its work right now is the issue of diversity. With our local immigrant population growing and the economy still struggling, the number of those in need right here has skyrocketed. With 13 congregations supporting it, the Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry, based in the United Methodist Church and celebrating its 25th year, feeds over 30,000 local people each year, and provides free training on nutrition and healthy living. For our local homeless population, the unforgiving winter months can be flat-out dangerous. The Emergency Shelter Partnership (ESP) provides visitors age 18 and older with a hot meal, a shower, and a safe place to rest.
Sixteen congregations each host the shelter at their house of worship for one or two weeks, with volunteers coordinating the necessary logistics.
“The visitors are there for a reason and have each experienced some kind of misfortune. We create a respectful environment. They’re people just like us,” says ESP president Sheila Bortniker of Mount Kisco’s Bet Torah synagogue.
This kind of service work extends beyond our borders. For years, Temple Shaaray Tefila and the Bedford Presbyterian Church, in partnership with non-profit Bridges to Community, has sent a delegation of high-schoolers to spend a week outside Managua, Nicaragua, in one of the poorest areas of the world to help build houses, teach about sustainability, and become entrenched in a completely unfamiliar environment.
Rabbi Nevarez says, “For me, it represents the best of humanity. Our teens uncover their own potential and capacity to relate to others in the world.”
Teenagers are often in the sweetest spot of being open to this kind of dialogue. Just a couple of years old, the Westchester Youth Alliance (WYA) brings together kids from all different religious backgrounds in a casual, fun way. Whether it’s volunteering for A-Home, visiting the Upper Westchester Muslim Society, or enjoying a trip to the UN for World Harmony Week, teens are introduced to each other, bonds are formed, and perspectives shift for the better.
Active participant Porter Clements says, “The beauty of WYA is that the format is so simple. While working together, conversations arise naturally, and friendships grow.” Clements credits the group with preparing him to attend his choice of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland next year.
Bedford Presbyterian Church’s Pastor Paul Alcorn has been the driving force behind most of these projects as well as the overall attitude on embracing our differences, something he has seen develop over his almost three decades as a local activist and religious leader. And while he admits that religion can be a delicate topic, he insists we are all more alike than we may realize.
Pastor Alcorn says, “Faith is about values that extend beyond narrow individualism. There’s an understanding that it’s about more than just me.”
When ugly things happen, our local leaders reach out to lend support. In the wake of the brutal murder of church worshippers in Charleston, Rabbi Brusso of Bet Torah invited his Mount Kisco neighbor, Pastor Lewis of St. Francis AME Church, to talk about fear, trust, love, and hate.