Giving Thanks – Midwood Jews Find Comfort at Interfaith Gathering


by Marie Elena Giossi

Directed by Sam Levine, the East Midwood Jewish Center Chorus sang “The Circle Chant,” “Al Kol Eileh” and “Hava Nashira” during a pre-Thanksgiving interfaith prayer service at Our Lady of Refuge Church, Nov. 20.

Members of the Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Muslim faiths gathered to give thanks to God at the 11th annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service at Our Lady of Refuge Church, Flatbush, last Sunday afternoon.

An outgrowth of previous interfaith programs between the parish and neighboring synagogue, East Midwood Jewish Center, this prayer gathering was started by Sister Celia Deutsch, N.D.S., from Our Lady of Refuge, and Sally Hipscher of East Midwood Jewish Center in 2000.

Organized by these women and an interfaith committee from both congregations, this year’s service included prayers of thanksgiving from 10 faiths, clergy reflections and musical interludes. Fellowship and collation followed.

“By whatever name you call God, or the Higher Power, we all have Someone to whom we give thanks,” said Father Michael Perry, pastor, as he welcomed parishioners and guests, including uniformed police officers from the 70th Precinct.

Representatives offered traditional prayers of thanksgiving from various faiths, including Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic.

Muslim, Jewish and Christian hymns, including “Noorun: A Prayer for Light,” “Al Kol Eileh,” and “Give Me Peace,” were sung by Actorcor, an interfaith chorus; the East Midwood Jewish Center Chorus; the Kingsborough Community Chorus; and Our Lady of Refuge’s English and Spanish choirs.

Rabbi Alvin Kass of East Midwood Jewish Center offered a reflection on the meaning of Thanksgiving, particularly in light of recent community events.

“This season has not been the most ideal one when we think of what happened on Ocean Parkway,” he said.

Earlier this month, vandals torched three cars, spray-painted the letters “KKK,” a reference to the Ku Klux Klan on a van, and put swastikas and other anti-Semitic sentiments on benches and sidewalks just three blocks from the church where they were gathered.

Rabbi Alvin Kass of East Midwood Jewish Center, and Father Michael Perry, pastor, Our Lady of Refuge, share mutual respect and interest in interfaith relations.

“While that concerns me, it doesn’t worry me – because of this service and all of you,” he said, noting the numerous calls of concern and support his synagogue received from Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike. “The harmony that has pervaded this Midwood/Flatbush community will continue.”

The first Thanksgiving, he explained, was not an easy time for the pilgrims either because so many of their countrymen had perished. Yet, he said, “They thanked God for what they had, rather than what they didn’t.”

Likewise, the country was not going through an easy period when President Abraham Lincoln instituted a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863.  Yet, he sought to bring healing to a nation embroiled in civil war.

Privilege to Give Thanks
“Life isn’t perfect but we have a lot to be thankful for,” Rabbi Kass told the congregation.

He closed with a quote from the Talmud: “We thank you God for the privilege of being able to thank you.”

Father Rony Mendes, parochial vicar, Our Lady of Refuge, also offered a reflection on his homeland, Haiti, and its recovery following the 2010 earthquake. Although thousands have lost homes,

schools, jobs and basic necessities, he noted that Haitians remain a people of hope and faith in God. Contributions were collected for Haitian relief and recovery after the service.

As part of the program, non-perishable foods and monetary gifts were also collected for Our Lady of Refuge’s food pantry. Donations that were placed around the altar, along with donated turkeys and other trimmings from elected officials and local businesses, were distributed on Tuesday.

Shahid Khan, a Pakistani Christian who recently moved to the area, enjoyed the service, stating that he felt very welcome, and looked forward to attending future events.

Our Lady of Refuge parishioner Mary McCarthy is pleased that her parish focuses on interfaith relations because the neighborhood embraces various cultures, languages and creeds. “We’re reaching out to our community and showing our unity with all the different religions,” she said.

“We need to continue to look out for each other and be vigilant,” Hipscher added. Regarding the recent anti-Semitic acts, she said, “There are still people who feel hate and distrust. We have to continue to teach, to know our neighbors and to come together for events like this.”

Our Lady of Refuge and East Midwood Jewish Center jointly host other annual events, including a concert, square dancing night, blood drives and biennial day trips.

For the first time this year, they will join together for an Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration at Our Lady of Refuge on Dec. 11.