9-11 committee

Father Josef Wagenhoffer speaks Wednesday during a meeting of local clergy held at the Beth El Synagogue in Margate.

Anthony Smedile

MARGATE - People define themselves by their differences - skin color, ethnicity, religion. A local faith-based group is bringing those differences together, working to break down stereotypes and enhance community outreach.

Rabbi Aaron Krauss of the Beth El Synagogue on North Jerome Avenue formed the "Bridge of Faith" group two years ago. The group was created to give the community an infrastructure for communication if a catastrophic incident occurs, he said.

"Nothing else existed along these lines," Krauss said. "There were various clergy groups within one faith, but not an opportunity for everyone to get together and provide an open forum to share their thoughts."

Fifty-four organizations are involved in "Bridge of Faith," with backgrounds in religion, education, charity, politics and social services. Members talk to local schools about discrimination and anti-bullying and have taken up social issues such as human trafficking in Atlantic City or violence in the Middle East. They also raised money for victims of last year's Haiti earthquake.

The group's next endeavor involves a commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A ceremony scheduled for Sept. 11 is slated to include speakers, performances by choirs and other musical acts, and images of the attacks.

The attacks were carried out by al-Qaida, a militant Islamic group - and fueled negative sentiment against the country's Muslim population.

Kaleem Shabazz, president of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Atlantic City, hopes the ceremony will allow local Muslims to extol the positive virtues of their faith - virtues such as charity, respect for nation, good brotherhood and sisterhood.

"One of the concerns the Muslim community has is to reach out to the people and give the right image of Islam. People who did these things do not represent Islam," he said. "Instead of focusing on the negative images we should use it as a time to bring the community together and focus on our commonalities, respect the differences we have and rejoice in the freedom we share."

Thom Schroth, a unit commander for the South Jersey Council of the Boy Scouts of America, joined the interfaith group because of those differences. He wants the scouts to better reflect the region's growing diversity.

"The Boy Scouts needs to look more like the country we live in," Schroth said. "It's not the 1950s anymore."

Pastor Rozellia P. Matthews of Salem United Methodist Church in Pleasantville, said even though people come from different faiths they can all come together as one.

"What's important to me as a pastor is (to) teach my congregation about all the faiths and why we can work together," Matthews said. "There are a lot of differences that can divide people. I don't believe in that."

None of the clergy involved in the "Bridge of Faith" said they have heard any complaints or hesitation from their congregants.

"I believe my congregation is open to a lot of things," Matthews said. "We are all children of God. It's not just pulpit rhetoric. They can come here and see it for themselves."

Jane Stark, executive director of the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage, is excited for the opportunity to bring people together.

"I believe the more we know about each other and our differences, then we can understand each other and enjoy our common traits," she said. "People are intimidated by each other. It's because they don't know about each other. We must understand we all have the same goals and values."

As the members of the group gathered at Beth El Wednesday for final preparations of the Sept. 11 event, Stark stressed the importance of having clergy from as many different religions as possible speak during the ceremony.

"You all have to speak," she said. "There will be people there who have never seen an Imam speak, or seen a Rabbi speak."

"Sure," Krauss quipped. "There are even some Jews who have never seen a Rabbi speak."

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