One of the majestic phrases in the opening verses of Bereisheet, the first book of our Hebrew Bible, reads, “...v’ruach Elohim m’rachefet al p’nai hamayim,” which can be translated as “...and the breath of God was sweeping over the face of the waters.” Ruach Elohim: breath of God, spirit of God, wind from God. Many of those who attended the multicultural, interfaith celebration at Barrington’s Temple Habonim this past Oct. 25 felt the breath of God; they felt the breath of sacred song and dance and prayer and pleas for peace. Peace: salaam in Arabic, shalom in Hebrew – all three words rich with the overtones of wholeness and integrity.
The sold-out program was a benefit for Rhode Island for Community and Justice, a statewide organization with a long history of “fighting bias, bigotry and racism.” From the very outset, those present said NO to bias, bigotry and racism with their energetic affirmation of tolerance, mutual respect and cultural diversity.
Just after 4 p.m. on that Sunday afternoon, nine of Temple Habonim’s Ruach Singers began a chant-and-response call to worship, first with a Hindu Sanskrit-English text: “Hari Om, Dear One / Satnam, Holy Name, / When I call on the Light of my Soul, I come home.” As the chant and response continued through Christian/Greek, Muslim/Arabic, Buddhist/Tibetan and Jewish/Hebrew versions, the stage filled with about 50 singers and dancers. All in all, about 300 men, women and children lifted their voices in prayerful song. The tone was set for the next two hours. Both individually and collectively, we were summoned to call on the Light of our Souls and to come home to the very best within us.
Rabbi Andrew Klein of Temple Habonim and the Rev. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the R.I. State Council of Churches, followed this opening procession of faith groups with brief statements of welcome. Each of these men is a model of interfaith outreach and cooperation.
After the rabbi and minister took their seats, five young barefoot women in colorful traditional costumes performed two classic Hindu dances from southern India. They won the hearts of the audience with their graceful and delicate response to the complex polyrhythms of the Indian music – poetry in motion.
The program continued to flow like a river of good will: Wheeler School students August Kahn and Danish Azam leading us in their original prayer for peace; Waleed Mohamad singing his songs for peace; Susan Dearing, of the Atisha Kadampa Buddhist Center, and Anjali Ram, of the Hari Vidya Bhavan School, reciting Buddhist and Hindu prayers for peace.
Then more Indian dancing.Greetings and appreciation from Toby Ayers and high school sophomore Marlene Rodrigues from Rhode Island for Community and Justice. Five songs by The Ruach Singers. Muslim prayers offered by Halimah Muhammad and Pricilla Abdul-Wakil of the Muslim American Dawah Center.
The 35-member Prism of Praise Community Gospel Choir, led by their animated founder/director Michael Evora, brought the afternoon to a rousing but not raucous conclusion. Among the words that filled the room: “Don’t give up on God, and He won’t give up on you!” By the last song, “It’s your season to be blessed,” almost all hands were clapping and feet stomping in joyful praise.
Each song, each dance, each prayer, each plea for peace had its pride of place during this wondrous Sunday afternoon at Temple Habonim. Nevertheless, the whole of the program was greater than the sum of its parts. The ruach – the spirit of togetherness, the spirit of cooperation, the spirit of united purpose – was one that I have rarely had the privilege of experiencing during my long life.
The organizers of this multicultural, interfaith event gave it the name “Sing Out for Peace!” As the program was drawing to a close, Diane Minasian, leader of The Ruach Singers and a prime mover behind the afternoon’s joyful celebration, told the crowd, “Maybe this is what peace looks like. Maybe this is what peace sounds like.” Holding a bouquet of dark red roses, Diane alluded to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s transformative vision, “This is our Beloved Community!”
As the combined choirs filed off the stage after leading the audience in two final songs, the hall was ringing with the music of those three magical words, words of almost infinite meaning: Peace ... Salaam ... Shalom.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.