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At joyous feast, a spirit of peace

Event connects several faiths

SHARON - Richa Magan took a leap of faith this summer when she agreed to chair an event marking the unusual confluence of the Jewish holiday Sukkot and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

It happens once every 32 years, and this year, the 17-year-old's own Hindu festival of Navaratri also converged. How could she say no?

The Sharon High School senior had never as much as gone grocery shopping on her own, she now admits. Yet, on Sunday, after many, many trips to BJs and Costco, and hours poring over religious dietary regulations, Magan and others from Interfaith Action Inc. brought more than 400 people together at Temple Israel to share food and partake in a deeply spiritual program.

"I sat up late many nights trying to figure out how to make Southeast Asian food kosher," Magan said.

With song, dance, prayer, and food as the common denominators, those who attended didn't seem so very different from one another, despite their differing dress and traditions.

The program Sharing Sacred Seasons: A Community Gathering was sponsored by the nonprofit corporation's Youth Leadership Program. It is run for, and by, teens and young adults in town who seek common ground amid diversity.

Sunday's dinner was supported by the temple and the Islamic Center of New England, also in Sharon.

Over the course of three hours, students shared traditions and cultures from the solemn Muslim sunset prayer to the daily Ramadan dinner to break the fast to the traditional sit-down meal that drew all ages and honored all dietary regulations.

Magan's research revealed new facts about her own tradition. "I knew we couldn't eat meat," she said, "but there is a whole caste of Hindus who can't eat garlic or onions." It's one of many realizations that proved how important it is to learn about one another, she said. "We're here to get rid of all assumptions."

Fasting during Ramadan presents a particular challenge for Tehreem Zaidi, a member of the Sharon High football team. But it's one he willingly endures.

"Sometimes, my friends are like, 'Just drink a little water, no one will know,' or, 'Take the fries, no one will know,' " Zaidi explained. "But it's more like an honor to show God how grateful I am for everything he has done for me. Ramadan means so much to me I can't put it into words."

Much of Sharing Sacred Seasons' activities were based in the temple's sukkah, a tent-like temporary dwelling on a back patio where Sukkot, a joyous feast of the harvest, is celebrated as a community.

"It's called the sukkah of peace and I've always wondered what that meant," mused Rabbi Barry Starr. "Perhaps it is a place where all of us can be together to share traditions and become friends."

"Our world needs moments like this where people can come together in dignity and understanding," he said. "I hope the peace we establish here will spread throughout the area, and the world."

The Rev. Scott Euvrard, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows parish in Sharon, agreed: "We have the chance to build bridges that could be models for larger settings. This is a town of tremendous religious diversity."

A spirited round of the garba, a Hindu dance performed during the nine-day festival of Navaratri that worships female divinity, was irresistible to Sylvia Weiss, a longtime Temple Israel member.

"I felt it was important to be here," she said. "And I just love to dance and that was so much like our Hava Nagila."

"Because of my name, everyone thinks I'm a terrorist," confided Abdul Samma, who was born in what is now Tanzania to Indian parents.

He came to America in 1959 intending to bring what he learned back home, but eventually decided to stay.

"There are good Muslims and bad Muslims," said Samma, of North Attleborough. "Good Jews and bad Jews. And so on. Just like everyone else."

With words that call to mind those of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., he added: "We must recognize each other not because of the color of our skin, but by the character."

Fear is what separates people, believes Janet Penn, who is Interfaith Action's executive director.

"And it's easy to fear when you don't know someone," she said. "My goal is to say, 'Hey, can we have a conversation?' It's about learning how to disagree and still sit at the table."

Tabitha May-Tolub is the program director of the Youth Leadership team that put the evening together.

"These kids are leading the way and showing adults how to live," she said. "They are asking the questions that we are afraid of. They don't think about the impossible. They don't dream about it; they do it."

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