Eboo Patel, a 30-year-old who holds a doctorate from Oxford University in the sociology of religion, argued during a Feb. 7 speech in University City that the strength of religious extremist groups of all stripes is propelled by their focus on youth.
"Religious extremists really believe in the power of young people. Muslim extremists are not just running youth programs, they are changing foreign policy," said Patel, founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, who addressed a religiously and ethnically diverse crowd of about 300 - including Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians - at the Philadelphia Cathedral.
"Young people are going to make an impact on our world; the big question is how?" Patel asked rhetorically.
The event was sponsored by the two-year-old Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, and was meant to showcase its new initiative.
Modeled on Patel's group in Chicago, the Philadelphia program brings teens of different faiths together in ongoing dialogue about the meaning of their religions and traditions. Called "Walking the Walk: Values in Action," the program also entails some community service.
As part of the initiative, students from Temple Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley and Rodeph Shalom in Center City are working alongside teenagers from the city's Islamic schools and Christian churches.
The pilot program involves roughly 25 students, who will meet a total of 12 times throughout the school year for sessions on themes espoused by various faiths. A team of inter-religious educators have developed a curriculum based on values like hospitality and caring for those in need. They also prepare primary texts from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran to read and discuss.
Marjorie Scharf, a member of Beth Am Israel who spent most of her career in public health, organized Patel's appearance. She said that she read about his Youth Core program and pitched the idea of adapting it for use in and around Philadelphia.
Abby Stamelman Hocky, who coordinates the Interfaith Center and is also a member of Beth Am Israel, explained: "We have the chance to intervene in a positive way. We have an alternate vision to all the terrible things in the world that might be done in the name of religion."
Scharf, 49, plainly stated that the ground rules for dialogue go like this: Students are supposed to say "ouch" if something offends them.
"Everybody represents themselves only, not their entire religion," said Scharf.
The students also volunteer at the People's Emergency Center, a shelter in West Philadelphia. In the future, Scharf hopes that the program will be open to high-schoolers from non-Abrahamic faiths, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
Anxiety Turns to Confidence
At the recent event, four students, including Lower Merion High School senior Nicole Kligerman, shared the stage with Patel. Speaking to the audience, she admitted that she was more than a little nervous and self-conscious the first time she walked into the Quba Institute of Arabic and Islamic studies in West Philadelphia, where the group's first meeting was held.
A member of Beth Am Israel, Kligerman - who's also Scharf's daughter - recalled being unsure about issues of decorum, and kept tugging at her sleeves in a vain effort to cover her arms.
"It's downright intimidating to walk into a room full of people whose culture you don't understand," said Kligerman.
But already, she counts some participants as close friends; she even got a call on the first night of Chanukah from a student who attends the White Rock Baptist Church and simply wanted to wish her a happy holiday.
Speaking after Kligerman, 15-year-old Ibrahim Muhaimin of the Quba Institute said: "All of the religions teach us to be better people."
In trying to drive home his point about the necessity of really reaching out to youth, Patel reminded the audience that all but one of the Sept. 11 hijackers were under the age of 30.
In the same vein, Patel felt that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who he called "one of the great souls of the century," was assassinated by a 25-year-old "radical Jew."
But the speaker also saw lessons in the power of faith to make the world a more tolerant and hospitable place.
He cited familiar examples: Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he organized the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala.; at the age of 24, Mahatma Gandhi got his start challenging South Africa's institutionalized system of racial prejudice.
Both figures, he argued, drew on their religious traditions in the pursuit of social justice.
"Our hope is a new generation of faith heroes," he declared. "They are to be nurtured."
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