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By Lauren Costantino
(Miami Herald) At a small round table adorned with autumn decor, the cantor at Temple Beth Am discussed the topic of forgiveness with the former senior pastor of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, a prominent Black church in Cutler Bay. online news
Cantor Rachelle Nelson shared a little about herself — she was the first female Reform cantor to lead a South Florida congregation — then discussed Teshuvah, or repentance in Judaism. She became emotional as she admitted she’s been struggling with forgiveness after witnessing the attacks on Israel by Hamas.
“I want to be able to forgive what just happened with 1,400 Jews being slaughtered, but it’s very hard,” Nelson said. “This wasn’t a retaliation. This was just torture.”
A woman at the table took notes, while others listened listen raptly.
“I’m trying to find some way to forgive, and try to believe that they’ve been brainwashed,” she said, referring to the people who make up Hamas. “I can’t. I’m not there yet. I can’t forgive.”
Telling personal stories to bridge the religious differences among people was one of the main goals of “Breaking Bread. Breaking Bias: Interfaith Potluck,” an event organized by Temple Beth Am’s unBIASed Initiative, Mosaic Miami and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami. The potluck dinner Sunday night, held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 7701 SW 76th Ave., was part of a new series seeking to build an interfaith community to talk about challenging issues.
Conversations about the event started about a year ago at Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Pinecrest, when a group wanted to address the growing antisemitism in the United States, a charge that many synagogues across the country were tasked with. Some held panels with expert speakers, some held one-off photo galleries, but the unBIASed antisemitism task force at Temple Beth Am wanted their project to engage people in how to combat bias.
“We try to bring people of different faiths and different ethnicities to get to know each other and to understand the other group,” said Edith Osman, chair of the unBIASed Initiative. “Everyone’s got their issues, but the only way that we can change what’s going on with the divisiveness in the community is to build bridges.”
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“What we’re really hoping to do is build allies for antisemitism issues, but also be allies for those in our community who are feeling the brunt of hate or bias or discrimination as well,” said Joanne Koren, co-chair of the unBIASed antisemitism task force.
The Beth Am team partnered with Matt Anderson, executive director at Mosaic Miami, an interfaith group, to create an event that would reach people on a more personal level. It was the Rev. Tom Capo, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami, who suggested the potluck.
“Breaking bread together offers us an opportunity to understand both the similarities and differences,” said Capo. “It is here that we can openly choose to resist the lies that fear mongers would have us believe. The lie that certain people with certain differences of mind, body or spirit are less than equal.”
After the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, the planners reconsidered whether to host the potluck. Some felt that emotions were too raw and it was too soon to bring up the war.
“Are we making a mistake trying to do something like this when everyone’s minds and hearts are breaking because of what’s going on in Israel?” said Koren. “We agreed now more than ever we need to do this.”
Senior Rabbi Jeremy Barras of Temple Beth Am also pushed not to shy away from the situation in Israel.
“For Jewish people, what happened in Israel a couple weeks ago is like 9/11, maybe even worse.” Barras told the crowd Sunday night. “I don’t understand why it should inflame hatred between us. What we need to do here is to hear each other’s stories.”
“No matter what happens anywhere else in the world, we’re Americans. We’re Miamians. We’re Floridians,” said Barras. “We’re supposed to be brothers and sisters.”
After an appearance from Michelle Johnson, the faith and community leadership officer at Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s office, Capo read out guidelines to help make sure the conversations were respectful.
He emphasized the importance of finding ways to live peacefully with one another, a notion that’s familiar to Unitarian Universalists, a liberal faith community that values diversity and human rights in their spiritual practice.
“Christian next to Muslim, Jew next to Hindu, next to Buddhist, next to Atheist, next to anyone. We need not think alike to love alike,” Capo said.
To kick off the night of storytelling, Dr. Walter Thomas Richardson, the former senior pastor of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Cutler Bay, told why he prefers people to call him “Doc,” instead of by his first name.
“All of my life for five generations, my family has dealt with racism, separatism, assumptions,” said Richardson, who served as the senior chaplain for the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) for over 30 years.
He explained that people never called his grandmother by her last name.
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“The only thing she could be called, because she was considered a girl at age 97, was by her first name. They dare not call her by her last name,” he said. “That was too much respect, to call a Black person in North Carolina by their last name. “
One of the attendees, Dr. Justin Koren, the principal of Howard D. McMillan Middle School in Kendall, said his role as an educator is to teach students to appreciate one another, despite their differences.
“Our kids are looking to all of us for a guiding light. Miami-Dade County public schools are so diverse; we have students from all different backgrounds,” said Koren, who is the son of Joanne Koren. “Each one of us brings our own set of prejudices, whether we’re aware of it or not, our own set of biases that we live with.”
Nelson Adams, M.D., chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Jackson North Medical Center, felt the event was a good start, but more needs to be done.
“I’m a native of Miami and one of the things that is clear to me is that we have got to recognize that we have so much more in common than we have as differences. It’s not about us versus them. It’s about we the people,” he said. “Tonight was a very good event, but good isn’t good enough.”
His table mate, Judy Homer, agreed.
“I’ve seen so many things have energy and excitement and then die down. I want to make it part of my mission to not let this go,” said Homer, 80, who will be in December a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami for 51 years.
She said at her table she learned about different religions — from Jews and Baptists — and found it interesting to compare commonalities.
“My intention is to keep loving people, listening to people and inviting them in. What is it that I can do in this life that can make a difference?”
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