It's been less than three years since Salam Arabic Lutheran Church organized in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. The community of 30,000 with Israeli, Arab, Italian and Russian roots is also religiously diverse — Jewish, Muslim and Christian.
Turmoil tore apart the community this fall, says Khader El-Yateem, pastor of Salam, as fighting escalated in Israel. "People were afraid to go out into the street," he recalls. He cites such incidents as the burning of a Jewish school bus, which police found was set by a Jew in an effort to blame Palestinians.
The police also came to Salam asking for help in understanding what was happening in the area. Then, with police and local government support, Salam took the lead in organizing the Unity Task Force. "We want to bring respect and understanding to our community," El-Yateem says. "Instead of the frustration and fear we've all felt."
Salam hosted the first event, a breakfast meeting, Oct. 30 with 25 leaders from different ethnic and religious groups, government officials and reporters. "We're not blaming each other but learning to sympathize with each other," El-Yateem says. A rabbi pointed out how fitting it was that the group had its first meeting at Salam — which in Hebrew is Shalom, in English, peace.
The Unity Task Force scheduled continuing meetings at a synagogue and mosque. "We've already been able to turn the whole fear thing around in our community," El-Yateem says. "We have a commitment to peace and safety for all our people."
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