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Breaking Barriers In Flatbush - Neighbor to Neighbor

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In a cozy room in Flatbush, eight females got together and talked. This was no ordinary coffee clatsch. Rather, the women had come together as members of the group, Neighbor to Neighbor, to break down some of the barriers that separate people who live in the same community, but are insulated from each other by differences of ethnicity, religion and culture. The goal is a challenging one. The barriers are often as pervasive as they are invisible, and sometimes – perhaps as a nod to political correctness — go unacknowledged. But, in a community like Flatbush – itself a miniature melting pot with people from all over the world coexisting — open dialogue is often the first step toward creating an inclusive community. Helen Engelhardt, one of the founders of the group, along with Debbie Almontaser (who was the first Arab Muslim member of the Dialogue Project), said that it had grown out of the Dialogue Project, an organization founded on the east coast by Marcia Kannry that hosts monthly conversations between people of various faiths with the goal of developing a better understanding between disparate communities. “I have been a member of the Dialogue Project since spring, 2001,” recalled Engelhardt. “About two years ago, Marcia suggested to Debbie and me that we start something in our neighborhood, so we did.” “I do a great deal of outreach, cross-cultural gatherings across the city,” noted Almontaser, “but I never had the opportunity to work with people right in the heart of the community I live in.” It has been a challenge. “It’s really difficult,” said Almontaser, “to find people within the community who really want to start building bridges.” “Our goal was to build a diverse group,” Engelhardt continued. But, she said, for a long time, “We had a token Muslim, Debbie. It has been hard to find people from the community to join. We live in this particular neighborhood which is friendly, but we don’t penetrate each other’s communities much. We pass people on the street, but that doesn’t mean we get to know them. We are very concerned about doing outreach toward Pakistani people, particularly after September 11th, with all the upheaval.” But, she said, “For two years, it has been very hard to have an intersection here.” That may be changing. Earlier this year, Neighbor to Neighbor was instrumental in arranging a screening of the Voice of America film showcasing Brooklyn’s diversity, The People of Coney Island Avenue, at Flatbush’s Public School 217, at Coney Island Avenue and Newkirk Avenue. Several people expressed interested in joining Neighbor to Neighbor at that screening, and, as a result, two Pakistani women, and the daughter of one, attended the small group’s most recent meeting. “It was very lovely, getting to know these women for the first time,” noted Engelhardt. “We actually got into a serious discussion about discrimination, about what they had experienced in terms of anti-Muslim reactions after 9/11.” Monthly meetings in each other’s homes are just one facet of the group’s planned activities. In addition, said Engelhardt, the group intends, “To attend events or identify causes in which we are interested, and also to sponsor cultural events where we can learn more about each other, so we cease to be mysterious to each other.” The group is just the beginning. The individuals in the group, said Almontaser, can provide entrée into their communities, to allow the sort of cross-cultural sharing that helps everyone, as she said, “Realize how much each of us has to offer.” The question, said Almontaser, that the recent meeting ended with was, “We’ve all come together. How do we bring what we’ve done here in this room to everyone else who are part of our lives.? We made a commitment to speak to our congregations and organize events where we invite people of different faiths to come and learn about each other’s traditions.” Already, said Almontaser, the cross-cultural ties being forged are providing opportunities for people of different backgrounds to share resources, such as English as a Second Language classes. In particular, the Council of People’s Organizations (COPO) and Our Lady of Refuge parish, where many immigrants worship, are taking advantage of that exchange of resources. “It’s great to be able to bridge a gap by providing people with a service they desperately need,” Almontaser stressed. Upcoming, said Almontaser, are a discussion about Abraham at the Muslim Youth Center in Bensonhurst, where people of Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths will have an opportunity to contribute, and a Thanksgiving interface event at the East Midwood Jewish Center. On June 9th, at 5 p.m., she said, the Children of Abraham Peace Walk will be held. “Last year,” recalled Almontaser, “we did it here where we live. We walked from a synagogue in Park Slope to a mosque on Avenue C and McDonald Avenue. We had over 300 people who attended, and we had people saying, ‘Why not do it somewhere more central where more people could be involved,’ so we decided to make it from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We will be walking from a mosque in Brooklyn Heights, past a church and a synagogue where people will also join us and then we will walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to St. Paul’s Church, where there will be a program.” In the autumn, an unusual confluence has two major religious holidays – one Jewish, one Muslim – occurring concurrently, said Almontaser. To mark that, she went, the Shalom Center is going to launch a project, the Children of Abraham Tent, which Almontaser described as “A national call to people to organize within their communities. In response, she continued, “In October, we will be looking at the holidays and looking for how they are similar and how we can celebrate those similarities,” she explained. “The people from the South Asian community will be organizing an Istar dinner (an event at which those observing Ramadan break their fast) and the East Midwood Jewish Center is going to work on organizing some type of event to help people understand Yom Kippur.” People interested in joining Neighbor to Neighbor can contact the organization at njdsa719@aol.com.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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