2015 coordinators help APYA celebrate 10 years

SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
This year’s Abrahamic Program for Young Adults coordinators, from left: Taha El-Nil, male Muslim coordinator; Heidi Thorsen, Christian coordinator; Sam Kaye, Jewish coordinator; and Alyshah Aziz, female Muslim coordinator.

In a political climate where wars are fought between countries over interfaith and intrafaith disputes and there are vast domestic cultural divides between religious groups, Chautauqua Institution strives to rebuild these fallen bridges with the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults.

APYA is a program Maureen Rovegno, associate director of the department of religion, established 10 years ago. Its goal is to bring together young people — to guide them to foster relationships with members of different faith groups.

Rovegno said it was Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, who told her the answer to building these relationships has to start with tomorrow’s leaders.

“If we really want to teach about the relationship of the Abrahamic traditions, we need to educate the young people,” Rovegno said, relaying Patel’s advice. “That’s why we have the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults.”

The program operates by hosting events that vary from porch chats to scavenger hunts, coordinated by four leaders of the three Abrahamic traditions. Leading each tradition, Heidi Thorsen serves as the Christian coordinator; Sam Kaye as the Jewish coordinator; Alyshah Aziz as the female Muslim coordinator; and Taha El-Nil as the male Muslim coordinator.

Rovegno said the Muslim tradition requires two coordinators because most APYA participants have had the least amount of contact with it, and she wanted both Sunni and Shiite Muslims represented.

Rovegno said she looked for intelligent people with a dedication to their religion and a background in religious studies or international politics when she hired the four representatives.

Kaye, the Jewish APYA coordinator, is currently at rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. For the summer, he is looking forward to a free exchange of political and religious ideas — a chance that many are not afforded given the taboo nature of the discussion.

“APYA is a chance for a community that values a variety of opinions to have a chance to expose its younger participants to the pluralistic ideals of religion,” Kaye said. “I do not feel it is necessary to worship in any way that is not your own, but I do feel that it is necessary to comprehend the worship of others in a way that is not your own.”

Thorsen, the Christian coordinator, is currently studying at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She said much of APYA’s value comes from the simple practice of conversation, almost as a means for participants and coordinators alike of figuring out their beliefs as they go.

“My overarching goal for myself and for the participants in APYA is to practice articulating our own beliefs better,” Thorsen said. “I think that in the process of saying what we believe, we realize that what we think we believe isn’t what we actually believe. It’s important to say it [aloud] to really come around.”

The youngest member of the group, Aziz, works as the program’s female Muslim coordinator. She is set to finish her studies at Wake Forest University next year, graduating on a pre-med track with majors in politics and international affairs and minors in Middle Eastern studies and environmental studies.

An American-Ismaili Muslim, Aziz said that, despite APYA’s name, there are participants who identify outside of the three Abrahamic traditions, and that adds variety in perspective to the group.

“It’s a great space for the new generation … to just come together and talk and discuss each other’s faith traditions,” Aziz said. “Yes, it’s focused more on the Abrahamic traditions, but inevitably when you have people in a part of the group who are part of different faith traditions, those ideologies are going to come up.”

The last one to arrive on the grounds, El-Nil came at the end of Week One after finishing his service with the U.S. Air Force. El-Nil is a Sunni Muslim, working as the male Muslim coordinator.

El-Nil said he hopes that participants not only learn from the experience, but use their newfound knowledge to make a difference beyond Chautauqua’s borders.

“Within APYA, I’d like to reach a wider scope of young, motivated individuals who will share what they’ve learned here with their peers, and to be a voice of reason and a voice of tolerance in a sea of possible bigotry or possible intolerance,” El-Nil said. “I hope that the people that attend our programs are able to cause ripples in our society and cause people to think deeper about different things, in this case what place religion has in society.”

Looking forward, there’s much work to be done. The group has been planning each event day to day. While it sounds jumbled, they managed to put together a full week of programming for Week One, a first in the program’s history. Now, they’re just trying to keep putting together events that will appeal to young people and help them transcend some religious barriers.

More important than almost any of their day-to-day activities, according to Rovegno, is their simple act of being here. She said that appreciation grows every year for the program and the presence of the coordinators.

“APYA is as much a presence as it is a program,” Rovegno said.