Unity campaign reaffirmed at task force meeting

Members of Bay Ridge’s Unity Task Force have met to recommit themselves to their partnership, whose goal, as the Reverend Khader El-Yateem, the group’s chair, stressed is to “build bridges, and work together to collectively respond to this community and continue to make this community great.”

At the March 16 get-together, held at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Fourth Avenue and Bay Ridge Parkway, the task force debuted its new campaign, #MustLove, and El-Yateem and other group members reiterated their intentions of creating an atmosphere which encourages residents to recognize the similarities that unite them rather than the differences that might set them apart, in a community populated by many different sects of Christianity, as well as Jews and Muslims.

The meeting and recent efforts of the group were responses to a sense of growing unrest and a perceived backlash toward Muslims in the neighborhood and beyond, in the wake of attacks such as those in Paris and San Bernardino (and, subsequent to the meeting, in Brussels), as well as divisive statements by presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

“This community is amazing,” said El-Yateem, who is the spiritual leader of the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church. “It stands for welcome. It stands for working with each other. The relationship between the houses of worship is fantastic. We work together on any issues in the community, should they arise, and we’re not just building bridges, but crossing them, to work with each other.”

Nonetheless, the challenges it faces are significant. Rabbi Dina Rosenberg, who heads up the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, told the story of Purim, drawing a parallel to the concerns some people have felt recently about revealing their religious identity. “We really have a diverse community and we want to make sure there isn’t anyone who has to hide his or her faith to feel welcome,” she said.

“There really is a lot of tension in Bay Ridge and it’s not being spoken about,” Rosenberg went on. “Jews happen to be in the minority here, very much, and we’re feeling it, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones. We are planning all this great stuff, but that doesn’t mean the community is buying it. We are trying to figure out how to get the Bay Ridge community to be a part of it. We must see people as people, not as icons of a religion or organization, and say we are the Bay Ridge community, and that includes everyone.”

The task force has long experience doing just that. Founded in October, 2000, it was ready to go into action in the weeks and months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “We found it important to meet with people to alleviate their fears,” recalled Dr. Husam Rimawi, president of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, “and assure them that despite wars, people could still sit together. After 9/11, Jewish, Christian and Muslim people all sat together, rolled up our sleeves and went to work.”

Monsignor Jamie Gigantiello, another of the group’s founders, concurred. “It was so important that we had unity before 9/11 happened because when it happened, we were prepared.”

The meeting came just a few weeks after the death of one of the task force’s founding members, Larry Morrish, and those present eulogized him for his unwavering commitment to the cause.

Rimawi called him “an example of how a person could forget about himself and just work for others. Every place you would go, you would find him, community board meetings, political meetings. He saw with everything and tried to help as much as he could. Take him as an example, for his generosity and his big heart.”

His words were echoed by many of his colleagues. “Larry was the moving force in so many of the organizations and charities and events in Bay Ridge,” noted Gigantiello. “He didn’t ask. He was there to help. He was a driving force for good and he truly lives on. He was larger than life and his heart was even larger.”

“Larry didn’t care who you are, what you are,” added Douglas Jablon, senior vice president of patient relations at Maimonides Medical Center. “He was doing God’s work.”

“We all have a mission in life,” added Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann. “Larry Morrish’s mission was bringing people together. We can motivate and continue that mission from the ground up.”

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