Religions and Spirituality

Interfaith Community Rallies in Yorktown to Support Diversity

Residents came from all over Northern Westchester and Putnam Counties to take part in the celebration. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Norma Pereira, a grassroots community organizer for the Hudson Valley Community Coalition, didn't mind getting her hands dirty to help plant the "Tree of Respect and Friendship." Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Everyone covers the tree's roots together. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Rabbi Stephen Axinn delivers a speech to the crowd. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Sheikh Saad Gewida, imam at the Hudson valley Islamic center, speaks to the crowd. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Leaders and members of 22 communities of faith came together to demonstrate commitment to local unity and diversity. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Rev. Claire Woodley shares a story of a fig tree that bore no fruit. "When we stay apart we’re that fig tree that doesn’t bear any fruit," she says. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Religious leaders and community officials bow their heads during a moment of silence for the victims of the May 22 suicide bombing that occurred just two days prior at Manchester Arena. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Community and religious leaders stand together to deliver messages of unity. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
In the spirit of drawing positive inspiration, from something seemingly negative, Rev. Claire Woodley provided horse manure to fertilize the new apple tree. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Chief Robert Noble of the Yorktown Police Department says he and his team are proud to keep the diverse religious community safe. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Children were welcome at the ceremony. Here some kids play a game of red light, green light off to the side during the speeches. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik

MOHEGAN LAKE, N.Y. – Hundreds of residents and leaders from area religious organizations gathered at the Hudson Valley Community Center in Mohegan Lake on May 24, in an expression of solidarity with one another.

Twenty-two mosques, synagogues and churches from Northern Westchester and Putnam counties signed a “Declaration of Concern” expressing support for immigrants that might be experiencing fear or uncertainty in the current political climate.

Concerned with the negative rhetoric they said they have heard about different nationalities and ethnicities within their own communities, Zead Ramadan, public relations director and trustee of the Hudson Valley Islamic Community Center, said that when a group of leaders came up with the idea, the rest of the community did not hesitate to join in. Many of the constituents and leaders who attended are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants themselves, including Rabbi Stephen Axinn, who was instrumental in organizing the event.

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The rally commemorated the declaration with speeches and a ceremonious planting of a “Tree of Respect and Friendship,” followed by refreshments and more stories and discussions.

The audience was diverse: some wore headscarves, yarmulkes, or other traditional garments, while others wore nothing on their heads, revealing the differences in texture, color and length of their hair.

Though they looked different, gatherers were unified in their empathy and grief as they bowed their heads during a moment of silence to remember the victims of the suicide bombing in Manchester, England, which killed 23 people just two nights prior. Those in attendance said it was a solemn but powerful reminder of the damage that can occur when diversity is abhorred and not celebrated.

“I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say that good people of conscience all stand against heinous acts of terrorism and destruction against the general public no matter who they are,” Ramadan said.

The event was not meant to be a glum one. After paying their respects, the tone quickly shifted to one of joy and hope.

“What we’re doing tonight is rejoicing in the fact that Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists are coming together to say, ‘There will be no hate in our community; there will be love in our community,’” Axinn said.

For Norma Pereira, a grassroots community organizer for the Hudson Valley Community Coalition and immigrant herself, the message of unity particularly resonated, and she felt it was important for her to participate in the planting of the tree.

“This tree is going to be extremely special because it brought together community leaders and many members of the surrounding area for one purpose—to unify our strength,” she said.

Pereira said she hopes the tree serves as reminder to the community of the values it represents, which she said include standing up for those in need and looking beyond ethnicity, or religion.

Some who spoke at the event agreed, and said that to achieve those long term goals, the tree is a good place to start.

Rabbi Steven Altareseu of the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley said the goal of the concerned clergy is to help people look past the racial and ethnic differences and see the humanity of others, and to maintain the belief that everyone is deserving of respect and dignity.

“That’s our starting point,” Altareseu said. “It’s up to us to use our hearts and minds to develop that; to develop that thoughtfully in conversation with each other, empathizing with each other, and understanding each other. That is the hard work that this event hopefully will inspire us to continue.”

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