“Let me just say ... Oy.”
“Amen to your oy.”
Thus runs an exchange between Rabbi Jacob “Jake” Schram and the Rev. Brian Kilkenny Finn, played respectively by actors Ben Stiller and Ed Norton in the 2000 film “Keeping the Faith.” It's a movie about two religious leaders and best friends who plan to open an interfaith community center and the problems that arise, spiritually and in terms of their relationship, when they both fall in love with the same woman.
It's a funny movie, often running to farce, but one that also offers some interesting points of departure for discussions among friends of different faiths.
That was exactly the idea behind getting together teen youth groups from the Second Unitarian Church and Beth El Synagogue, both in Omaha. About 25 teens ranging in age from 14 to 18 gathered at the synagogue in mid-September to make pizza, watch the film and have a discussion about religious stereotypes, spirituality and the similarities and differences between Christianity and Judaism.
The idea was the brainchild of Beth El's youth director Betsy Goodman and Naomi Solomon, who has worked with Second Unitarian's youth group in the past. They knew each other through their work with the Benson Library's Common Soil seed program and had long talked about doing an interfaith program together.
Both had seen “Keeping the Faith” when they were teens, and since they found it meaningful for themselves at that age, they viewed it as a fitting film to build an interfaith youth activity around.
“The goal for me was to show the teens the similarities between religions and people of faith, and this film does that,” Goodman said.
The teens began their evening by making pizza together, an activity that served to break the ice.
“They were all a bit shy in front of each other,” Solomon said. “And it was a great introductory activity to meet one another.”
“Food is traditional and warming, and it welcomed everyone to the space,” she said. “It made them comfortable.”
The groups went from breaking ice to breaking bread, which provided an ideal opportunity to share rituals from each faith. The teens from the Unitarian Church said a prayer and lit the flaming chalice, the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith. After dinner, Beth El's participants said the Birkat Hamazon, a Hebrew grace said following a meal.
Sixteen-year-old Zev Krausman, a sophomore at Millard North and member of Beth El's youth group, was one of the teens who attended.
“It certainly wasn't what I thought it would be,” he said. “We did our things, and they did theirs. We hadn't seen a chalice lit before, and they didn't know the Birkat Hamazon. But it wasn't awkward. It formed a bond.”
For the teens from Second Unitarian, the occasion marked their first visit to a synagogue.
“One thing that struck me is how big the synagogue is,” said 17-year-old Sean McArdle, a junior at Burke High School. “The Hebrew symbols are really interesting. The patterns are really cool to look at.”
After the teens finished their meal, they watched the movie and then began a discussion facilitated by Sierra Pirigyi, the program coordinator from Project Interfaith, which has as its mission to increase understanding, respect and relationships among people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures.
“The film got the dialogue going,” she said. “We started the conversation by discussing faith and service and the things that we do at houses of worship. We also talked a lot about interfaith families. A lot of the kids have someone in the family from a different faith.”
The Rev. Scott McNeill, Second Unitarian's pastor, was pleased at how easily the teenagers joined in the dialogue.
“It didn't seem to be awkward for them. They all jumped into the discussion,” he said. “We talked about what is similar and what is different between the faiths as well as what they see at school. Many have cross-cultural experiences. Both groups noticed what is more similar than different. We're all different, but it's OK.”
Goodman liked the emphasis on morality that arose during the discussion.
“We talked about faith-based ideals. The religions are both based in the same morals,” she said. “I was really surprised at how well-developed and thoughtful the young people were about their faiths and traditions. When I think about how I was at that age, I did not think that deeply.”
Despite their differences, an interesting commonality emerged.
“The kids described the pressure from religious leaders to be perfect,” Pirigyi said. “But we agreed that all people are imperfect in some way.”
“When you're part of a religious youth group,” Krausman said, “there is an expectation to be upstanding and moral and to be a better person. You want to be the best that you can be.”
McNeill saw how important such a small event could be.
“We should learn about other people and other faiths. We live in a big world, and we should be able to interact with people of different religious backgrounds,” he said. “They had something in common but could express different opinions. They experienced a different culture in each of the things they did.”
Rabbi Steven Abraham of Beth El said the synagogue hadn't been doing these kinds of activities with the youth group, but he sees a strong value in continuing.
“We want to do more outreach,” he said. “We have a lot of interfaith families. This strengthens the bond with them as well as within communities. My hope is that we can continue to do these things. It's too important. There's more that brings us together as a people of faith than divides us.”
McArdle agreed. “We both believe in one God, coming together and being accepting,” he said. “When we meet different types of people, it makes life more interesting. There is fear in not knowing, but people can come together, be more connected and be united. We can find different ways to see problems.”
And this is precisely what keeping the faith is all about — or, as Norton's character, the Rev. Kilkenny Finn, said in the film: “Sometimes we don't see certain things until we're ready to see them in a certain way.”