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Mitzvah Day at ISNF

Date of Event: January 18, 2013

By Philip Rico

Over this past Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, clergy from three local faith congregations switched pulpits, and discussed the topic of “God’s Vision of Community.”  For more than a decade, the spiritual leaders of Islamic Society of the Niagara Frontier (ISNF), the Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC), and Temple Beth Zion (TBZ) have united for regular events that support understanding and tolerance among the three faiths.  Speaking at the events over the weekend were Rev. Dr. Thomas H. Yorty, Imam Nazim Mangera, and Rabbi Gary Pokras.

On Friday, January 17, Rabbi Pokras, Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Zion, a Reform Jewish Congregation on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, delivered a lecture after Jumuah Salat in the banquet hall of ISNF to a group of approximately 130 Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  Rabbi Pokras spoke for approximately half an hour on some major commonality among the faiths.  Specifically, he referred to a Torah passage that humans are created in the image of God, and recounted a story about one of his teachers in divinity school.  Rabbi Pokras said that his teacher would take the train then subway from his home on Long Island to the divinity school in New York.  The teacher would try to see the image of God in each of the passengers on train or subway car.  Of course, with the wide variety of people on a New York train, the teacher conveyed the challenge of this task in seeing God’s image in people whom he did not know, or cultures with which he had no familiarity.

Rabbi Pokras also related the story of the Tower of Babel. He explained that language is the framework for cultural understanding, but speaking only one word is equivalent to a dictatorship, with no room for any thought.  God intentionally separated us with a variety of languages and cultures.  God’s vision of humanity and community reflects in many ways, with the Rabbi saying, “For one to be correct, others do not have to be wrong.”

Rabbi Porkas recounted the creation of Mitzvah Day in the late Nineties when he was first at TBZ, and united with WPC in this event.  The purpose of Mitzvah Day serves to build community, and help those in need.  Following the events of 9/11, the leaders of the two congregations agreed that it was inadequate to have just WPC and TBZ involved in the Day.  ISNF was invited to participate, partly as an effort to “prevent knee-jerk Islamaphobic Reaction.”  The Rabbi says that he finds Mitzvah Day “most meaningful and beautiful, and leaves me speechless.”

On the evening of Friday the 17th, Rev. Yorty spoke at TBZ, while Imam Mangera gave a talk on Sunday at WPC.