Great idea in diversity: Crossing religious lines with teens by asking the simple question, What’s in your name?

Just some of the teens at the “Face to Faith” program.“Friendship and Faith” helps people make friends across religious and cultural boundaries. Sometimes women write personal stories about the challenges and rewards of such friendships. Sometimes we simply share great ideas that worked for us—and may work well for you, too. Here’s a great idea …

By Gail Katz

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare put that question in the mouth of a wistful teenager. And, 400 years later, the question still works with teens. This spring, I helped to coordinate an event for 70 Jewish, Christian and Muslim high school students who gathered at West Bloomfield Jewish Community Center for an evening devoted to learning about people of other faiths. We called it “Face to Faith,” and we hoped that the evening would help to break down myths and stereotypes

The mastermind behind this wildly successful evening was a student: Andover High School Junior Josh Morof, a member of the Jewish Youth Organization called BBYO, which meets at the Teen Center at the West Bloomfield JCC. Josh had been a participant in a previous panel of Jewish and Chaldean (Iraqi-Eastern-Rite-Catholic) teens. That panel inspired Josh to expand a dialogue across all three Abrahamic faiths. He contacted Jared Rothberger, program director for BBYO, and explained his idea, and Jared also contacted me, as president and co-founder of WISDOM and a board member of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

For years, before I retired as a public school teacher, I had worked with diversity programs and I know how difficult it is to get something like this started. So, I was extremely excited to find a group of teens, including Josh and Ilana Woronoff, leading other teens in planning this program. Initially, they hoped to gather about 20 to 30 teens at the JCC, then introduce a panel of an imam, a rabbi and a pastor. After the clergy talked about the three faiths, then a teen panel would follow and young people could discuss their own questions about the Abrahamic faiths.

Their early estimate was far surpassed as teens flocked to the center that night! They began at tables discussing the question: “What’s in a name?” Each girl and boy explained the origin and meaning of her or his name.

Then, the Rev. John Judson, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, spoke about four basic principles of Christianity, including the Golden Rule. Rabbi Aaron Bergman from Congregation Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills followed by talking about the Jewish calendar. Imam Achmat Salie, head of the Islamic Studies Department at Oakland University, outlined some of the basic tenets of Islam. Following the clergy, the teen panel fielded questions. I was the moderator and posed those questions.

Josh Morof, the Jewish teen who brainstormed this event and a congregant at Adat Shalom, Sean Mueller, a junior at Groves High School and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church, and Tahas Khalil, a junior at Andover High school who took two years of his life to memorize the entire Quran, answered questions such as “How has your religion impacted your high school years?” and “What misunderstandings and stereotypes have you personally experienced or witnessed?”

The crowd listened! That alone made it a memorable evening. Personal stories were shared—stereotypes were pierced—and people listened.

Of course, there was food as well! We served Jewish pastries—hamentashen—triangular, tart-like cookies that are made for the Jewish holiday of Purim. The teens took the cookies back to their tables and kept talking with their newfound friends.

As I listened in on conversations, I found they were discussing ways to create more opportunities like this one. They were making plans to get together again. We gave the young people time to simply relax together. Some even used the center’s games, like ping pong, to unwind and get to know each other better. Meanwhile, the handful of adults who attended had a chance to talk about their occupations, ethnic backgrounds and faiths.

I won’t forget the hugs as the teens finally said their farewells. It was an incredibly inspiring evening—one filled with hope. We had simply provided these young people some organizational help, some pastries and a friendly venue—and their energy lit up the evening and spilled over into plans for “next time.”

The Czech playwright Vaclav Havel says, “Truth and love will conquer lies and hate.” We saw that happen in our evening together. And it all unfolded through simple questions, honestly answered.

So: What’s in your name?

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email