BURLINGTON -- Religious differences fuel conflicts in many parts of the world, but last Sunday in Burlington they brought a wide variety of congregants together for an evening meal. Nearly 200 people representing several religions packed into Burlington's Ohavi Zedek Synagogue Sunday night for an interfaith potluck.
The meal marked what O.Z. organizer Judith Plant called "God's October surprise;" this year, in a rare occurrence, the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot all fell during October, as does the month-long Muslim celebration of Ramadan. Vassa, the Buddhist rainy season of reflection, ended on October 18, and October 4 through 12 was a Hindu holy time called Navarathri. Plant says the timing was perfect to organize an event. She got the idea for the potluck from The Tent of Abraham, Sarah & Hagar Project, a Philadelphia-based Jewish group that promotes interfaith activities.
The dinner began at 6:30 p.m. Diners lined up to chose from dishes such as noodle kugel, Moroccan carrot salad, eggplant pate and chop suey casserole. The convivial crowd was larger than expected. Men in yarmulkes scrambled to set up folding chairs for women in hejabs and their husbands, who'd arrived late.
Plant addressed the group halfway through the meal. "I'm just in awe of all the people that are here," she gushed. Roddy Cleary from Burlington's First Unitarian Universalist Society spoke next, followed by Adrianne Carr, associate minister at Burlington's First Congregational Church. Carr noted that some people were still searching, unsuccessfully, for a place to sit. "Isn't it a blessing that we have more people standing than there are chairs?" she asked.
Ti'an Callery from the Vermont Zen Center then addressed the gathering, and led the group in a simple prayer. She asked everyone to repeat the words, "May peace prevail on Earth." More than half the people in the room joined in; the others were still chewing.
Muhaideen Batah, of the Islamic Society of Vermont, went next. "We are glad to be a part of this," he said.
Rabbi Joshua Chasan from O.Z. summed up the theme of the evening best. "We're here because we watch the news and we want things different," he told the crowd.
Chasan explained that during this time of year, Jews construct a fragile shelter called a sukkah, to commemorate Jacob's reunion with Esau. He opened a door and gestured to O.Z.'s sukkah, outside the gym. The sukkah, he said, is much like the fragile home all people of faith share in America. "Our democracy depends on our capacity to relate to each other as fellow Americans," he said. He urged his listeners to use their faith as a basis for reconciliation, not political division.
Afterwards, Plant handed the microphone around the room, so people could introduce themselves. About half the crowd were members of O.Z. Others came from the U.U. Society, the First Congregational Church and St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral. There was a group of Burlington Baha'is. Sitting at one table were a woman from the Williston Federated Church, two Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Mercy, a devotee of a spiritual teacher in India, and a man who identified himself only as "a native Vermonter."
The Muslim contingent was the first to leave -- they had to return to the mosque in time for 8 p.m. prayers. On his way out, Muhaideen Batah said he'd enjoyed the dinner and wished he could stay longer. He estimated around 20 members of his mosque attended.
Batah stressed the importance of meeting people of different faiths. "People are enemies of what they don't know," he said. "You have to get to know others."