“When one good person stands up, good people will follow, and good things will happen.” Rabbi Zalman Kastel, national director of Together for Humanity (TFH), and his team have proven this saying is not merely a warm hope, but an achievable result. Last night, Together for Humanity’s annual dinner in Sydney brought together some 350 people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths, united by by mutual respect and goodwill, to celebrate Australia’s diversity and harmony.
For me personally, it was great to catch up with so many friends from different faiths, and share stories of the spirit and success of our multicultural and multidimensional society. Rabbi Zalman and others spoke movingly about the work Together for Humanity does, which is often complicated, takes time, and requires those involved to be in it for the long-haul, to build relationships and to champion diversity and social cohesion in an Australia now threatened more than ever by voices trying to foster f
ragmentation and division.
A year ago Zalman Kastel invited me to address second year teaching students at the University of Sydney. I saw for myself how, in an interactive environment where students were directly engaging with people from diverse backgrounds, the focus shifted from ‘Why are you so different’ to ‘Wow, we have so much in common!’ I experienced firsthand how this kind of grassroots engagement leads to greater empathy and empowerment as students are encouraged to recognise assumptions, challenge prejudices and question stereotypes.TFH was established in 2002 to foster intercultural understanding and promote social cohesion, and last night we saw tangible evidence of the success of its programs, and how important they are, especially at a time when such values are again under threat in Australia.
TFH runs its programs in schools and universities to educate students and teachers on the importance of increasing understanding through dialogue about diversity and has developed resources such as ‘Difference Differently’ which show how people from different backgrounds and beliefs can get along. The emphasis is on similarities— rather than differences— across cultures and communities.
Last night’s gathering commenced with an acknowledgment of country and the First Australians, a recitation from the Q’uran by Walid Ahmen, a Havdalah ceremony by Rabbi Zalman, and prayers spoken in both Arabic and English by Father Patrick McInerney. Donna Jacobs-Sife, TFH program coordinator, told two wonderful stories, each with a message, and a TFH team demonstrated how they present at schools. Pupils from Emanuel School and Granville Boys High spoke about their experiences in TFH programs, describing how initial apprehension and
defensiveness eventually dissipate in a safe space, and understanding and friendships grow. One boy described his surprise at discovering that most of the participants, Muslims, Christians and Jews, were from migrant backgrounds and had family overseas Sheikh Wesam Charkawi spoke of growing up in an Australia where the word ‘wog’ was common and he often felt like ‘the other’, and of his later friendship with Rabbi Zalman and life-changing experience of education and interfaith understanding and respect. The misconception that all views need to be agreed was an elephant in the room that Rabbi Zalman was only too happy to address, acknowledging the difficulties that often occur when facilitating such togetherness, and the need continually to balance personal authenticity and traditions with understanding and acceptance of others. The object is not a homogenous religious and ideological climate but rather a cohesive community in which diversity is valued and a myriad of views can be discussed openly without causing division.
Recently elected Lakemba MP Jihad Dib spoke about his experience growing up in a country where he at times felt disenfranchised, how he was named after his grandfather, and how he had rejected advice to change his name when he decided to enter politics, the whole point of that being to show that all Australians, from any and every background, can and should be able to find a place in our political system and society, values he asked each person present to stand up for through possibly dark times ahead. Jihad also introduced his proud parents, who emphatically waved in a showing of warmth and family solidarity that everyone with a family, from every religious background, could relate to.
Most importantly, the message of TFH is about respect, not just religion. As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “We may have different religions, different languages, different skin colours, but we all belong to one human race.” Last night we saw this, not just through moving stories of personal and collective experiences but also through the unifying power of humour. Comedian Suren Jayemanne performed a clever and funny routine about race (or was it rice?) before a crowd of such diversity and so many faiths that most comedians would have been more than nervous. Jayemanne’s use of humour that played on cultural differences yet did not divide, reached every person in that room, again providing evidence that it is possible to unite people through humour, compassion and understanding.
TFH measures it’s impact on students by gathering data on their assumptions before and after participating in a program. The results show substantial improvements in the students’ attitudes. Tolerance does not mean tolerating intolerance. It is about being inclusive, accepting and understanding others regardless of race or religion. It is about finding comfort where we overlap, and strength in our differences. Last night demonstrated again that this is possible. Rabbi Zalman told Plus61J: “The feeling of warmth and strong diverse presence in the room spoke loudly about the shared commitment to coexistence.”.
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