Immigrants engage in cross-cultural conversation at synagogue

Immigrants engage in cross-cultural conversation at synagogue

Community Café aims to ‘blend and bring people together’

Susan Uram Levinson, a cochair of the Community Café program, chats with panelist Suleman Amoon, a Christian refugee from Pakistan. Photos by Debra Rubin
Susan Uram Levinson, a cochair of the Community Café program, chats with panelist Suleman Amoon, a Christian refugee from Pakistan. Photos by Debra Rubin

Suleman Amoon, a Christian refugee, said his family ran a humanitarian organization in his homeland of Pakistan, aiding Afghan refugees and others. But when religious persecution forced them to flee for their lives, they came to the United States, where they were welcomed by strangers and found freedom to practice their faith.

Biral Patel, a Hindu immigrant from India, said he came to the United States to get an education. Now an American citizen and having earned a graduate degree, he serves as a volunteer to help other immigrants, as a way to give thanks to those who helped him.

The two were part of a four-person panel who spoke at a “Community Café” at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. The aim: to create a cross-cultural conversation with neighbors in the ethnically and religiously diverse area.

“I love these kinds of interfaith conversations and learning about the faith and culture of my Jewish brothers and sisters and my Christian brothers and sisters,” said attendee Kouser Izhar, a Muslim from Perth Amboy. “We live in such diverse communities I think it’s great to hear their stories.”

The Sept. 22 program drew about 75 people who later broke into smaller groups to discuss their own families’ immigrant stories and talk about their own cultural and religious traditions that were brought from their or their forebears’ countries of origin. Many stayed beyond the program’s allotted time to continue the conversations.

The other panelists were Sheila Tabanli and Deborah Bendayan. Tabanli, a Muslim immigrant from Turkey who came to the U.S. for a post-graduate education and to find the freedom to practice her religion the way she wanted, is now an American citizen and a math professor at Rutgers University. Bendayan is a recent Jewish immigrant who came to this country, she said, to marry “the love of my life,” whom she had met when he came to her Mexico City synagogue to teach and perform klezmer music.

Amoon — now a Metuchen resident who works as a logistics and freight analyst at ProCargo in Woodbridge — said when his family arrived in the U.S. in 2006, they were suddenly immersed in a different culture. But, he said, they immediately felt safe and secure, and found nothing but support and love from the Americans they encountered.

“They accepted me as one of their own, and I could see American exceptionalism at work,” Amoon said, citing this as evidence that “love triumphs over hardships and unites people.”

His father, the Rev. Amoon Sharon, who also attended the program, is president of Alpha Ministries International, Inc., which he founded in 1995 in Pakistan with his wife, Ghazala. Now based in Metuchen, the organization assists South Asian immigrants.

Patel of Edison acknowledged he was more religious when he first arrived in 1997 but has adapted some of his practices, sometimes out of necessity. His nightly lighting of candles and incense kept setting off his college dorm’s fire alarm, so he complied when the fire department asked him to stop.

There were times, he said, when the obstacles he faced made him want to give up and go back to India, but support from his family and New Jersey mentors kept him going.

“Then I started volunteering and found great happiness in community service,” forming connections with classmates and others, said Patel, who works in the technology field for IBM and does community outreach for BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu religious and social organization in Edison.

“I want to thank the great people of this nation who helped me every step of my life,” said Patel, adding, “Like sugar blending with milk, I believe in blending people and bringing people together.”

Tabanli of Somerset said she felt “very welcome” in the local community and has attended many interfaith events, including Shabbat celebrations. She is also a member of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an organization that works to build relationships between Muslim and Jewish women and to fight hate and prejudice.

Kouser Izhar, wearing the hijab, is a Muslim; she attended the Community Café, she said, because she enjoys learning about the faiths and cultures of Jews and Christians.

Tabanli, who holds a master’s degree and doctorate from Missouri University of Science and Technology, volunteers at food banks and women’s shelters and mentors students and women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

Tabanli said many people she meets have a “sincere curiosity” to learn about the traditions of others.

Bendayan, who had received her green card two weeks before the program, is a native of Caracas, Venezuela, where her family immigrated around the turn of the last century from Morocco.

With a background in journalism and public relations and little opportunity for a successful future, she left for Mexico in 2003 at age 34. In her struggle to adapt and get ahead, she was assisted by others; when Bendayan protested she couldn’t repay the people who had helped her, one of them said, “Don’t worry. Someday you will do the same for somebody else.”

She lived in Mexico City for 15 years, finding “kindness and friendship” at a Conservative synagogue whose members “became like family to me.”

Two years ago, Bendayan met David Goldfarb of Highland Park at that synagogue. The two hit it off and continued their relationship via e-mail, falling in love and realizing, she said, it was “the real thing.”

The couple married in October 2018 and belong to Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.

Bendayan said that since arriving in June 2018 she has been “inspired by the love and kindness” shown to her by others and is paying it forward by volunteering with D.I.R.E. (Deportation Immigration Response), a community organization that ensures the human rights and well-being of non-citizens who have children who are American citizens.

The Rev. Lori Childs of Covenant Life Embassy Church in South Plainfield, who is African American, said she came “to get to know my neighbors.” She said she learned things about Judaism, including how Jews view Jesus and how they uphold the principles taught in childhood throughout life.

According to Judy Richman, who cochaired the program with Julie Hersch and Susan Uram Levinson, its goal was “to build bridges with our neighbors of different faiths and cultures … and to engage in meaningful conversations with people whom we encounter in the grocery stores, schools, and other parts of our community….”

The program was cosponsored by Alpha Ministries International, Christ Church of Martinsville, First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen, Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County, Masjid-E-Ali, New Dover United Methodist Church, Oak Tree Presbyterian Church, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, South Asian Fellowship, and Temple Emanu-El, Edison.

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