Westport gives thanks: Different faiths, shared beliefs
The differences that divide various faiths gave way to a celebration of the faiths' similarities Sunday at Westport's annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration, hosted this year by the Conservative Synagogue.
More than 100 people, Christians and Jews from congregations in Westport and Weston, shared music, prayers and thoughts about the Thanksgiving holiday, the one that they have in common.
"It's cliche but it's that perfect opportunity for all of us to come together as one community to celebrate and give thanks," said Stacy Kamisar of Weston, a member of the Conservative Synagogue.
"It's all religions coming together," said Ryan Bigelow, 15, of Weston, the lead guitarist and singer in a three-member band called Borrowed Glory, which performed the Beatles' Come Together at the interfaith service.
The Rev. Jeffrey Rider, of Green's Farms Congregational Church, recited a Thanksgiving Litany. The Rev. John Twiname, of Green's Farms Church, and the Rev. Thomas Thorne of the Church of the Assumption, read from Scripture.
The Rev. John Branson, of Christ and Trinity Church, in his invocation reminded people it's not the turkey, stuffing, cranberry and pumpkin pie alone that they should be grateful for but also "the abundance of our lives and our many blessings." He said they should also give thanks for the principles of generosity, tolerance and inclusion.
"It's important to model acceptance and tolerance," said Weston First Selectman Gail Weinstein, a member of the Conservative Synagogue.
The synagogue's Cantor Laura Berman sang, "The House That I Live in," singing the words "all races and religions, that's America to me."
"We celebrate different holidays and have lots of rules about food, Sabbaths, and even dress that might set us apart from the decidedly Christian majority of this country (but) Thanksgiving reflects basic Jewish values as well as the universal values," said Rabbi Yossi Pollak, of Beit Chaverim Synagogue, during his sermon.
Pollak opened his sermon with humor telling the audience "Though you might not know it from all the kosher turkeys at Stop & Shop and Whole Foods, Thanksgiving is not an inherently Jewish holiday."
Pollak said American Orthodox rabbis have not been of one mind on the permissibility of Jews celebrating Thanksgiving at all, with one rabbi going so far as to say Thanksgiving "was simply a Gentile practice that should not be imitated by traditional Jews." Pollak pointed out that three times a day, one of the 19 blessings of the Jewish daily prayer service, including on Sabbaths and holidays, is one of thanksgiving and he added that Jews have much to be thankful for. Siting the comments of a second rabbi he said Jews have experienced persecution in many countries but "America was uniquely a Medinah Shel Chesed, a country of kindness," Pollak said.
"We should express our appreciation for that treatment by fulfilling our civic duties in every way possible, by being model citizens," he said.
Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of the Conservative Synagogue, talked about Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis, who a decade ago received a Star of David fashioned from fragments found at the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Last week, Potasnik presented the Star to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it will be placed on display with other religious symbols, said Wiederhorn, who was struck, as Potasnik was, by a quotation the New York rabbi saw at the museum. "We walked in as individuals, we walked out together," said the quote, attributed to a recovery responder, said Wiederhorn, president of the Interfaith Clergy Council, which sponsored the ecumenical celebration along with the Interfaith Council of Westport and Weston, comprising religious leaders from local churches and synagogues.
"This service is a wonderful opportunity to join together with members of all faiths within our community and realize that we share much in common while giving thanks for what we have," said Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of the Conservative Synagogue. He is the current president of the Interfaith Clergy Council.
At the reception that followed, Andy Nielly of Weston, a congregant at Saugatuck Congregational Church, called the event "a lovely service." "It's a tradition in Westport, a very nice tradition," he said.
"We've done this community Thanksgiving for many years. Westport and Weston are lucky to have a great community of clergy," said his wife Janet Nielly.
Rebecca Greenberg, 10, of Westport, said the celebration showed her the difference between how her Jewish faith and other religions pray and how they give thanks, which was especially meaningful to her because she said most of her friends are not Jewish.
Her mom, Carolyn Greenberg, who converted from Catholicism to Judaism, said she was very comfortable to be around so many people who maybe pray differently but ultimately to the same God and for the same reasons, "being grateful and happy for what you have."
Martha Aasen, of Westport, also a member of Saugatuck Congregational Church, said the interfaith service is one of the things she likes most about the town of Westport. "The clergy meet quite regularly to talk about their congregations and matters of importance," she said. "They come together today in the spirit of Thanksgiving and we always walk out feeling quite full."