GUESTVIEW: Interfaith encounter at a Catholic school in Brooklyn

March 24, 2009


(Photo: Brooklyn, with Manhattan in the background, 21 Sept 2008/Ray Stubblebine)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York and Raffaele Timarchi is the Interfaith Center‘s education director.

By Matthew Weiner and Raffaele Timarchi

Why should students in urban high schools learn about religion?

The Interfaith Center of New York recently received a call from Penny Kapanika, a social studies teacher at Nazareth Regional High School in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. Canarsie lies on the eastern edge of Brooklyn, next to Jamaica Bay. To get to the school, you take the number 4 subway train to the end of the line, hop on a bus down Utica Avenue and finally walk to a sparsely populated neighborhood that was once an Italian and Jewish hold out against white flight.

Nazareth, a Roman Catholic school, is now ethnically African American and Caribbean. In the old days, students came from the neighborhood, but now most of them take the bus from Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. Only 51% of the kids are Catholic, but most are Christian. The kids, though, live amongst Hasidic Jews  in Crown Heights, where a history of racial conflict still looms large, and Muslims in “Bed Stuy,” one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.

“I found my students asking me questions that I could not answer,” Kapanika explained. “They don’t understand why the Jews dress like this, or won’t talk with them. And honestly, I don’t know too much about it either. There are stereotypes and we need to address them.”

Kapanika found the Interfaith Center, which was interested in her case. The Interfaith Center, a secular non-profit that educates religious communities about one another, worked with Nazareth to locate religious leaders from these communities who could come in and talk with the students. They also worked with the New York Police Department’s community affairs bureau. Detective Michael Theogine, whose job is religious outreach, invited other Catholic educators to see how a school-based interfaith project could work. Theogine himself is African American and went to Nazareth in the 1980s, when he was one of the very few people of color. “It was sure different then,” he says with a smile.

The Interfaith Center’s goal was not to invite top-tier leadership but rather grassroots workers who could show a human face to the students. “Most of these kids, maybe none of them, have talked to a Hasidic Jewish person,” Kapanika said.


(Photo: Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, 28 Nov 2008/Brendan McDermid)

But now they have. The meeting took place in the school’s library with about forty students. Rabbi Avi Lesches spoke about growing up in Crown Heights with his five brothers and sisters. Lesches is in his mid-twenties, has a reddish beard, dresses in dark slacks and a blazer and wears a yarmulke. He became a chaplain for the 88th Brigade of the US Army.

“Why do you wear the hat on your head?” one student asked.

“First, to acknowledge that we are a different from the larger community,” the rabbi said. “But also we wear it to remind ourselves that we are not the final authority. There is someone above us, and that someone is God.”

Another student was more daring: “I understand you don’t believe in Jesus, and that ya’ll still waiting for the messiah?”

That’s right, Lesches said. “There are still a lot of problems on the Earth. The messiah hasn’t come yet.” But he went on to say that Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, praised Islam and Christianity for their monotheistic orientation.

Hesham El-Meligy is an Egyptian-born Muslim who moved to New York. “Egypt is on the Horn of Africa, so now I am an African-American,” he says to laughter from the class. Soon after he arrived in New York, he married an Italian-American. “Her family understands that I don’t drink, and they try not to drink around me,” he explained. Why is he serious about his faith? “When I was a kid, around your age, I began asking myself, ‘who am I?’ But I also noticed some people who saw the world as us vs. them, and I didn’t like it.”

Shaykh T.A. Bashir is an African American Muslim who grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for its confrontational climate.  “I’m from the ‘vill’, never ran, never will,” says Bashir with a tinge of pride. He is a tall strong man in his sixties, with a reddish beard and a wide smile. He wears a blue jean vest and a black Vietnam Veterans baseball hat. Bashir explained that his primary concern was preventing domestic violence, because violence in the family creates violence the community.

Besides guests from the Interfaith Center, Kapanika had invited several other speakers: an alumnus who grew up Catholic and is now a member of a megachurch called Christian Cultural Council, and three students: two Muslims and a Hindu. One of the Muslims, Sharear Kabir from Gyana, said it was hard being Muslim in a majority community. He said he was supposed to pray five times a day, but couldn’t when he was in school.

To this, Shaykh Bashir said that it was important to pray, and that the school should let him. “That’s one of my jobs, making sure that there is religious accommodation. So I will speak to your teachers here,” he said. The teachers all smiled.

The Hindu student, Umaysha Samlall, a shy but articulate girl, explained that her family was part of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that emphasizes the oneness of God and the promotion of social justice. Other students seemed to know that she and the Muslim student were a couple. Many students giggled when she said, “No one wants us to continue, because what are the kids gonna be?”


(Photo: Brooklyn Bridge with lower Manhattan in background, 23 May 2008/Lucas Jackson)

Difficult questions can come from unexpected quarters, but the discussion was open and answers were honest. When the program was over, students spoke with the panelists. The guests wished they had more time to talk with each other as well. The chance meeting at a Catholic school, it seems, was a good opportunity for interfaith dialogue. El-Meligy the Muslim said of Lesches the Jew: “He seemed like a good man, and I hope we have time to talk more in the future.”

Kapanika talked with them as well. She was interested in learning more, but also wanted to have local contacts in case one of her kids had a problem in their community. “We are a Catholic school, but we don’t necessarily know those around us,” she explained.

For her the program was educational, but also an act of civic participation. It can lead to networks that create trust in times of trouble. Sometimes thought of as spiritual exploration, interfaith in this case was a teaching tool.

Ever since the mid 1800’s, when New York Bishop John Hughes argued that Catholics needed their own schools  to insure a social, moral, and spiritual identity distinct from the Protestant majority, the Catholic Church has made good on its emphasis of education. But how to develop a Catholic identity in an increasingly diverse setting while maintaining a positive relationship with others remains the question? This is the question that all of the participants at this program, all New Yorkers, and indeed all citizens are struggling with. It begins with learning about each other: through their stories and a conversation.

“For me, the worst thing in the world is ignorance,” Lesches told me the following day on the phone. “This is an opportunity to undo some of that.”

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see