Nick Enquist | Staff Writer
In an effort to promote more interfaith communication, the East Valley JCC has started two new speaker series, the first of which launched on Sunday, Sept. 15.
In the initial installment of the quarterly “Conversations With the Rabbi,” EVJCC CEO Rabbi Michael Beyo sat down with Imam Faheem Arshad of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to discuss being part of a minority religion in America.
Arshad graduated from the Islamic seminary of Jamia Ahmadiyya in Canada and has been to various countries as part of his training, including Africa, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Pakistan, before being stationed in Arizona.
Karolyn Benger, former executive director of the JCRC of Greater Phoenix and owner of KB Enterprise, moderated the event.
Nearly 70 people came to hear the two spiritual leaders converse about maintaining their religious identities, raising children within a faith-based community and what’s it’s like to build a community while facing bigotry, whether anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.
Growing up in Italy, Beyo said, he experienced anti-Semitism constantly. “I remember walking to the synagogue with my father and a person approaching us said, ‘I know why you wear a kippah — because you’re hiding your horns.’ That’s one of the classical stereotypes of anti-Semitism, so I always knew I was a religious minority when growing up.”
The confrontation with hate only strengthened Beyo’s resolve and religious commitment. He vowed to always wear his kippah, no matter what, to show that he is proud of his religion.
Arshad’s childhood experiences similarly led him to embrace his religion.
“When I was a kid, I came from Pakistan — which is a majority Muslim religion — and then I moved to America, where I was a minority,” Arshad said. “I was the only Muslim in my class, or the only brown person in my class, and because of that I really got to know my own religious identity.”
Arshad said that because a lot of his classmates asked him questions, he was able to educate them — and himself — about his faith.
“The important thing is that you should hold on to your religious identity no matter what faith group you are,” Arshad said. “Because religion holds those strong moral core values that are important for us.”
Educating people and sharing love, he said, were the best course of action in the face of discrimination.
And Arshad has faced plenty of discrimination as an Ahmadiyya Muslim, a population persecuted in Pakistan. And even here in the U.S., there are those who question Ahmadiyya Muslim legitimacy, as Beyo learned when some people questioned why he was bringing someone representing this particular sect of Islam for the event. Comments like those, Beyo said, are the reason the EVJCC is doing this program.
“My hope is that it will create and increase opportunities for further dialogue and partnership among faith communities, building bridges across faith lines to strengthen the peace, security and goodwill throughout our broader community,” Beyo said. “It is only through collaboration, partnership and true friendship that we will be able to eradicate the virus of bigotry and hate.”
In addition to being the first guest of “Conversations With a Rabbi,” Arshad will also be the first guest speaker for the Interfaith Series, a monthly Open Beit Midrash series featuring diverse faith leaders speaking about their faith’s history, tenets and current challenges. Arshad and Beyo became friends after the EVJCC received a bomb threat in 2016, when Arshad and the Valley’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community offered the EVJCC support and comfort.
Both programs are part of the EVJCC’s recently launched “Community. Outreach. Relationship. Engagement.” project, or C.O.R.E. Beyo said that the goal of the Interfaith Series is to raise awareness within the Jewish community of the history and traditions of other faiths.
Arshad’s interfaith lecture will be on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 11 a.m. He added that he was excited to be a part of this event because “it allows us to better understand each other, our beliefs and our culture. Through Interfaith we can talk about the issues that matter most to us and how we can find solutions to them.”
Beyo said that he hopes everyone who attends the events will do away with preconceived notions about other religions. “I very much hope that the evolution of these programs will be communal work together, where we unite to help each other not only in words but in action.” JN