American Civic Life

Despite 2022’s Cluster of Religious Holidays, Multifaith Understanding Slow to Evolve

May 26, 2022

Hands on lap with jewelry and henna on them
Tasneem Salam’s hands are decorated with henna as she attends an Eid al-Fitr celebration in Overpeck County Park in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, May 13, 2021. This year, in a rare convergence, Judaism’s Passover, Christianity’s Easter and Islam’s holy month of Ramadan overlapped in April with holy days for Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, Jains and Hindus, offering different faith groups a chance to share meals and rituals in a range of interfaith events. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

(RNS) — In the dark of winter last December, a small group of Jews and Hindus came together at Peninsula Temple Beth El, a Reform movement synagogue in San Mateo, California, to celebrate their respective festivals of light: Diwali for the Hindus and Hanukkah for the Jews. The event, organized by members of the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition of the San Francisco Bay Area, brought the two groups together to learn and listen to the stories behind each other’s holidays that bring excitement as daylight dwindles.

“The event was beautiful,” said Pushpita Prasad, a Bay Area communications consultant and a Hindu who was one of about 40 people from both congregations to attend the one-day celebration. “It’s just such a great feeling being inside the synagogue. It’s so serene.”

But for Richard Heiman, a member of the synagogue, the event was as much about community building as sharing the two faiths’ special days. “The last two years have been difficult because of COVID,” Heiman said. “As we come out of it, though, we have tried to find ways to experiment.”

A year in which Easter, Passover and Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the close of Ramadan, fell within two weeks of each other, followed quickly by the Sikh holiday Vaisakhi, just as COVID-19 seemed to lift, gave many Americans the opportunity to put their own faiths in perspective.

In a time when Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff have made history as the first interfaith couple to occupy their roles, and Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, has led Passover and Hanukkah celebrations at the White House, religious holidays remain siloed for average Americans. Unlike race, which has become an urgent topic for Americans to discuss and educated themselves (and others) about, faith remains a private practice.

Apart from the occasional prayer breakfast, faith is still considered too divisive to talk about, much less perform in public. Christians in particular tend to be ignorant of what are known as “minority faiths” but are major religions around the world and growing in the United States.

Millions of American can sing Christmas favorites such as “Silent Night” and “Deck the Halls” — and so can a number of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Decorating a Christmas tree is so widely portrayed on TV or movies that nearly any American has a basic idea of how to do it.

RNA Conference 2022. The Bethesdan Hotel. Bethesda, Maryland. March 24 - 26, 2022.