Teen MOSAIC Program Teaches Cultural, Religious Acceptance

January 28, 2020

Each year, when a new group of teens gathers to participate in the year- long inter faith education, volunteerism and leadership program sponsored by Garden State MOSAIC, facilitators guide them in a simple, ice-breaking exercise designed to demonstrate how much they have in common.

The teens, who represent many faiths and cultures, are invited to assemble into groups based on such simple preferences as whether they like vanilla ice cream or chocolate; comedies or action films; swimming or track.

As the teens group and regroup based on their preferences, they begin to talk and laugh together, getting to know each other as the multifaceted human beings they are rather than as one-dimensional members of a faith or culture different from their peers.

The exercise is a small component of the teen leadership and education program that is co-sponsored by the Monmouth County Human Relations Commission and the Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought (MCWRET).

Established in the early 1990s through the efforts of Rev. Harold Dean, leader of the Unitarian Congregation of Monmouth County, the mission of MCWRET is to enhance understanding and acceptance of religious and cultural diversity through educational programs and events that bring people of different faiths and cultures together.

In a time when there is so much “otherizing,” dangerously dividing members of various cultures and faiths into “them and us,” notes Stevi Lischin, Ph.D., it’s critically important to learn about our neighbors and understand not only what makes us different, but what we have in common.

Lischin and her husband Robert Smith have been active in the organization since it was established some 25 years ago. “(The need for) Inter faith understanding didn’t start after 9/11,” Lischin said. “It’s as old as human beings. Different faiths share a history of outrageous contention and also common humanity and a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.”

Each year on the weekend after Thanksgiving, MCWRET sponsors a community concert at the Unitarian Congregation of Monmouth County in Lincroft featuring music representing cultures and faiths from around the world.

It is one of many events the nonprofit participates in throughout the year to build friendship and community among those of different religious and cultural traditions in Monmouth County.

Its teen affiliate program, MOSAIC (Mobilizing Our Students for Action to build Interfaith Community), was founded in 2013 when MCWRET member Sarbmeet Kanwal, an astrophysicist from the Sikh faith community, suggested organizing a program for teenagers.

Fatima Jaffari, a Lakewood native who is Muslim, offered to help design the program for Monmouth County teens.

Jaffari a member of the Monmouth County Human Relations Commission and a MCWRET member, has been working with the Freehold Clergy Association, the Human Relations Commission and MCWRET for many years to foster tolerance and understanding among the many faiths and cultures here in Monmouth County.

It was a mission that became an urgent one for Jaffari after 9/11 when, she said, she saw her religion being hijacked and demonized by the extremists responsible for the attacks. “I was asked to lead a program on mainstream Muslim’s response to extremism,” Jaffari said.

In finding her own voice, Jaffari said, she realized the importance of providing a similar opportunity for her children – an opportunity to educate others about their faith and, in return, learn about the faiths and cultures in their community.

“I had the desire,” Jaffari said. “I love working with kids.” One of Jaffari’s three sons is a ninth-grader enrolled in the MOSAIC program. His two older brothers, now in college, participated in the group when they were in 10th and eighth grades. “I wanted my children to feel safe and to be educated,” she said. “It has benefitted my children tremendously.”

During their year in the program, teens visit diverse faith communities, where they’re hosted by the congregation and are able to learn about the beliefs, food, holidays and other traditions associated with that faith and culture.

Teens also gain a firmer understanding of their own faith and culture as they share their traditions with others.

MOSAIC members also build leadership skills by participating in the planning and preparation of group activities.

Volunteerism is an important part of their year in MOSAIC. Each class decides what volunteer project they would like to participate in for that year.

In the past, MOSAIC members volunteered with the nonprofit Rise Against Hunger, gathering to prepare hundreds of sandwiches and traveling together to New York City to distribute the food to those in need. Another class packaged nearly 20,000 meals to send to Africa.

The teens also partner with local social service agencies, such as Family Promise, to help provide food and clothing to local families in need.

“Many of them come from very comfortable towns and they don’t realize what is in our own backyard,” Jaffari said.

Once the teens complete their year of service and education in MOSAIC, they are eligible to remain involved with the group as MOSAIC ambassadors, mentoring other teens and speaking about the group to interested organizations. “They’re very passionate and very eloquent about their experiences.”

Gaurav Karkhanis, a senior at Manalapan High School, is now an ambassador for MOSAIC after participating during his freshman year. Group meetings took place twice a month, with teens attending churches, temples, mosques and other faith communities where teens from that faith were responsible for doing a presentation about it for their peers.

“For me, I think the most valuable part of this was the faith sessions,” said Karkanis, who is Hindu. “It gives me a new perspective on religions and the differences they have between one another.”

He also appreciated the volunteer opportunities MOSAIC provided. “It showed the importance of being involved in your community,” he said.

In 2016 Garden State MOSAIC received the Unity award from the New Jersey State Human Relations Commission.

To date, more than 100 teens have taken part in MOSAIC, with the majority remaining engaged with the organization after their year of education, leadership and service as ambassadors.

“Seeing this in action brings tears to my eyes, it really does,” Lischin said. “I think it’s more than important. I think it’s crucial.”