Portland interfaith exchange brings together youth from Maine, Israel

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PORTLAND — Their day started in a Baha’i school in Eliot, and ended in a downtown mosque.

But this journey of faith exploration for 10 high school students on July 31 really began at home, in Israel.

The students – Israeli Jews, Muslims and Christians – came to the U.S. from Nazareth and Yagur, Israel, through the nonprofit Friends Forever Life Raft Program. This program brings students from communities in conflict together to talk about global issues and see the U.S.

Chelsea Fitton, director of community engagement for Friends Forever, said the Life Raft Program is a two-week excursion for the high school students. While most of their community service and engagement projects take place in New England, Fitton said the organization also brings students to Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Friends Forever, which is based in Durham, New Hampshire, reached out to the local organization Abbey of HOPE, an interfaith cooperation group that facilitates such exchanges, about partnering in the day’s event.

“The idea was for (the students) to be together and see communities they otherwise wouldn’t,” said the Rev. Lori Whittemore, director of Abbey of HOPE.

Abbey of HOPE’s Compassionate Cafe, an informal group that brings people of diverse faiths and backgrounds together to talk about social issues, hosted the local excursion.

Pious Ali, a member of Compassionate Cafe and the Portland School Board, said it is important to bring students together to embrace different cultures so that they become better “global citizens.”

“The future of the world is in the hands of the young people,” Ali said. “The earlier we get them to know each other the better.”

In addition to the students from Israel, a handful of Maine students joined what was called a day of multi-faith exchange. They began their day early, with a tour of Green Acre Baha’i School and Conference Center in Eliot.

Robert Atkinson, who is on the board of directors Abbey of HOPE and follows the Baha’i faith, said the visit went well.

“It’s not very often this kind of thing happens,” Atkinson said.

From Eliot, the group made its way to the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal, where they traveled to Peaks Island to visit the Brackett Memorial United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Angela Tarbox of Brackett Memorial gave the students a brief overview of what it means to be Methodist, while showing the students the sanctuary. She said the goal of the day was to be “socially active.”

“This is what it means to be in ministry,” Tarbox said.

After ferrying back to Portland, the students visited Temple Beth El, a synagogue at 400 Deering Ave., where they met with Rabbi Carolyn Braun.

The final stop of the day was at the Masjid AL-Huda Mosque at 73 Portland St. There the visiting students met with local students who participate in the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament, a regional and national tournament for high school students ” to develop leadership, promote communication, and inspire creativity while gaining a deeper understanding of Islam and Muslims,” according to MIST’s website.

Whittemore said although the visit was hectic, the goal was not to overwhelm the students, but to give them opportunities to ask questions at each stop. For example, they asked Tarbox questions about the history of the church on Peaks Island.

“They’re just kids,” she said, adding this was an opportunity to help open their perspectives not just on faith, but also on the United States. She also said the day was more of a “field trip” than anything religious.

Zahid Shir, a rising senior at Cape Elizabeth High School, was one of the Maine students who took part. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect, but was surprised by how well the students from Israel, who were off-limits to reporters, knew English. He said the experience was worthwhile.

“They were open once you got to know them,” Shir, 18, said.

Fitton said that after returning home on Wednesday the Israeli students will be tasked with taking what they have learned and putting those lessons towards a social issue.

In addition to Israel, the Friend Forever Life Raft Program is also available to students from Uganda and Northern Ireland. Fitton said the organization, which was founded in 1986, has worked with more than 1,300 youth.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

The Rev. Angela Tarbox of the Brackett Memorial United Methodist Church on Peaks Island goes over a history of Methodist churches in the United States on July 31 for a group of students from Israel.

Students from Israel and the United States meet with Rabbi Carolyn Braun at Temple Beth El in Portland as part of a day-long multi-faith exchange on July 31.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.