Emily Perper | Staff Writer
“Unless you educate the young people, you will not succeed,” said featured speaker Eboo Patel to representatives of Chautauqua Institution at The Ismaili Centre in London in fall 2005.
Patel lauded Chautauqua Institution for its dedication to promoting interfaith education and teaching about the relationships found within the Abrahamic tradition and particularly about Islam.
The Department of Religion understood the significance of Patel’s warning, and in the summer of 2006, the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults was born. Now in its sixth year, the four coordinators are Jeremy Simons (Jewish), Nur Kara (Muslim), Julia Sprague (Christian) and Ali Karjoo-Ravary (Muslim).
“(I look for) capability, authenticity, experience and faithfulness to their own traditions but openness to others,” said Maureen Rovegno, assistant director of religion and director of APYA. “They are invited because of who they are and the spirit that they bring.”
The coordinators have been immersed in interfaith experience since their youth.
“I come from an interfaith family. My father is Jewish, and my mother is Catholic,” Simons said. “I grew up as a Jew but spent a lot of time with my Catholic family, even in the rectory of my great uncle’s church.”
When she was 7 years old, Sprague once spent an evening trying to understand the differences among the Abrahamic faiths with two of her close friends, one Jewish and one Muslim. Her hometown youth group was open to anyone who wanted to attend, which resulted in a group consisting of diverse religions, races and backgrounds.
“We’d end up having these conversations like, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” Sprague said.
Karjoo-Ravary credits his mother for an early lesson in interfaith understanding.
“When I grew up, my mom never taught me that people were different than me. If anybody was suffering, she said, ‘They’re servants of God, too,’” he said. “And that’s not her being influenced by globalism. … It’s traditional Islamic culture … to see people for their humanity.”
Kara promoted dialogue in her high school.
“The crossroad between race and religion is actually what piqued my interest in religion,” Kara said. “I started a club in high school called Culture Club and also started a club called Crosstalk, so Culture Club mainly dealt with the aspects of race and culture, but Crosstalk was a club including interfaith dialogue … Students of all religious backgrounds, whether religious or not, actually came and engaged in talk about current events related to religion.”
Their passion for interfaith discourse manifests itself in their lives today. Simons, for instance, recently completed his second year of rabbinical school at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion.
“Without direct contact, we develop stereotypes and impressions of other faith groups,” Simons said. “Unless we spend time together, we run the risk of carrying these stereotypes without even realizing they exist.”
Karjoo-Ravary graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in philosophy and religious studies.
“There’s a lot of superficial interfaith dialogue that goes on in the world today,” he said. “One of the most important things to realize is that religion is a transformative process and not just a social group. When you deal with religion as a transformative process geared towards the absolute, then people don’t have that many problems with each other because they have experience of something that’s greater than these divisions. And so I feel like if there’s going to be interfaith dialogue, it has to be of that sort and not these superficial … pleasantries.”
The core of APYA remains the same every year, but each team of coordinators approaches the season a little differently. This year, the coordinators want to diversify their activities and attract a wide variety of attendees. They want to engage the youth of Chautauqua but do not want age to be an exclusionary factor, recognizing that those outside of the 16-22 age range may be just as interested in participating.
Proposed activities include dock talks, community dinners with foods from a variety of traditions, coffeehouse events with live music and nature walks.
“I think we want to make things more interactive for the youth — not simply sitting on a porch and talking, but maybe including more movement, more physical activity into it,” Kara said.
The coordinators will live on the grounds for the entire summer.
“(APYA is) more of a presence than a program,” Rovegno said. “(The coordinators) interact with and are present to all the denominational houses, lead in the worship services in their own faith traditions.”
The APYA coordinators also direct Communities in Conversation throughout the season, hold family-oriented activities on Bestor Plaza once a week and lead jum’a, the Friday afternoon Muslim prayer.
Jum’a is open to all, regardless of religious tradition. Participants meet in the Hall of Christ at 12:45 p.m. every Friday to listen to an explanation of the ceremony and its accompanying motions.
“(Jum’a) consists of a sermon (known as khutbah) and a ritualized prayer,” Karjoo-Ravary said. It lasts for 45 minutes, and there is a Q-and-A session afterward.
The APYA coordinators’ relationship with Chautauqua is important and so are their individual relationships with one another. They live in community in the dorms and run errands, eat meals, attend lectures and go to the lake together, in addition to going to Sunday morning ecumenical services and jum’a prayer.
“They support one another in the faith traditions that are not their own,” Rovegno said. “They model what we’re trying to teach.”
UPDATE: The story has been changed to correct the spelling of Eboo Patel’s first name.