Community dinner brings together different religions, cultures

Brittany Nader

People of different ages, religions, cultures and backgrounds gathered to break bread and share a meal Saturday at the Islamic Community Center in Cuyahoga Falls.

The event was part of the traditional Kent Community Dinners that have been held since the 1970s, and the theme of the evening was “Celebrating Unity in Diversity.”

As members of the Akron and Kent communities entered the large reception hall and were escorted to their seats, they were encouraged to talk with the strangers at their tables and get to know their different cultures and religions.

A placard on the table listed conversation starters, such as “describe a favorite family tradition from your childhood,” and noted that the only rule for the evening was not to try to convert anyone to a particular religion.

As the room filled up with more than 300 attendees, Laura Mazur, director of All Together Now, Inc., took to the podium to welcome guests.

“The goal for tonight is to honor and respect each other,” Mazur said. “It’s a special night, especially contrasted with the way things are going in the world.”

Mazur introduced Zarreen Farooqi, vice president of the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent, who encouraged guests to get to know their Muslim neighbors.

“It is really timely,” Farooqi said. “Lack of knowledge and communication leads to prejudice and stereotyping … Our differences not only make us interesting, they are there to make us learn from each other.”

Mazur then introduced Hakeem Najeeullah, ISAK board of directors, who presented a list of community leaders who celebrate and lead with diversity. Alfreda Brown, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, then took to the podium to explain how Kent State aims to build a diverse community. She said the dinner is a representation of the respect and understanding a community should have toward its members.

Najeelluah gave a talk called “Islam 101,” explaining the religion to guests. Kara Ellis Skora, professor in the department of religious studies at the College of Wooster, then explained the term “communitas” through a series of stories.

Rudy Bachna, professor emeritus and founder of the Kent-Dudince Slovak Republic Sister City Association, led a bread-breaking ceremony before dinner was served.

“In the Slovak Republic, we have an official bread-and-salt ceremony,” Bachna said. “Bread is the stuff of life, and salt represents friendship, loyalty and courage.”

Nader Taha, lecturer in mathematical science and Imam of ISAK, led a blessing that emphasized celebrating each other’s differences, focusing on tolerance and remembering those in Boston and Texas.

Mazur then instructed women to line up on the right side of the room and men to the left to receive their meals, which she explained is part of the Muslim tradition.

Volunteers from Kent State and Boy Scout Troop No. 257 served food provided by ISAK, which included tandoori chicken, aloo mutter, beef korma and naan.

Haleema Saeed, pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital, said she’d been to other community dinners with Muslims, but that was the first dinner she attended where people from different religions gathered together.

“It’s nice to be with people other than yourself,” Saeed said.

Anthony Tate, sophomore communication studies major, said he learned about the community dinner from Mazur, his adviser, and it was his first time attending.

“I was afraid at first as an American … I was shy and slightly overwhelmed,” Tate said. “I was afraid I’d be in the minority here and they’d all stare at me. But it definitely wasn’t like that.”

Tate when he sat at his table, the other guests were speaking Arabic. Once one man sat down and they all began speaking English, Tate said he felt his fears wash away.

“I feel kind of silly now,” Tate said. “I’m going to come here again and bring a couple people with me next time. You need to experience something like this, especially young people. Do it early to make a difference later.”

Mazur gave her closing remarks, and the Muslim attendees left to attend a prayer, which Najeeullah explained is done five times a day.

“When I’m at the Islamic Community Center, I feel like I’m going to the other side of the world but welcomed by my own family,” Mazur said.

Contact Brittany Nader at [email protected].