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American youths bridge religious divides

Teens in a Boston suburb lead the way in building relationships among religious faiths in their community through Interfaith Action, a program that has captured attention abroad.

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At Temple Israel, in this small Massachusetts town, young Tehreem Zaidi begins his talk on Ramadan by reciting from the Koran in Arabic. The teenager then explains to the several hundred guests that the main purpose of this Muslim month of fasting is to "attain God consciousness, and to clean up our lives and our souls." He does not consider the fast a burden, "but an honor, to thank God for all my blessings."

Henal Motiwala follows with a vivid description of the Hindu holiday, Navratri, the "nine divine nights" celebrating the victory of good over evil.

And Jennifer Levy tells the story of Sukkot, the joyous Jewish holiday that expresses "appreciation for nature, food on the table, and friends in our lives."

The three poised high school students are hosting "Sacred Seasons," an evening of interfaith hospitality, including a dinner they and other teens have prepared for families in Sharon.

As members of Interfaith Action (IFA), they are part of an eight-year-old experiment to create understanding and respect across religious and ethnic divides among youths and to spread that healthy pluralism to the entire community. Their endeavors have captured the attention as a model for people as far away as Canada, Poland, and the Middle East.

"What they are doing is quite unusual," says Steve Worchel, a University of Hawaii researcher who is beginning a long-term evaluation of the program. "Many times you can change an individual but not the

system. The potential to reach the broader community is unique."

During their high-school years, the students say, they not only develop genuine cross-cultural friendships but also strong leadership skills.

Mike Garber, now a freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., recalls how meaningful it was to learn how to facilitate an interfaith discussion and then see it bear fruit. He tells of an adult discussion session IFA held one evening between orthodox Jews and religious Muslims.

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