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June 26, 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, S. Florida interfaith group has plans for expansion, By James D. Davis.
A South Florida interfaith organization born after the 9-11 terrorist attacks is going national, using its signature mix of food, fun and friendship to spread religious harmony.
Jews and Muslims, Christians and Others, known as JAM & All, has national headquarters in Oregon and a chapter in Miami, with plans to add at least two others by year's end, leaders said this week.
"We want to increase the critical mass of people who trust," said former South Floridian M. David Kamrat, a telecommunications businessman and a co-founder of the 3-year-old organization. "No wall is high enough to keep out hate. The only long-term solution is to work on people. If we can do away with hate, we'll have no reason to lock the front door."
Besides the chapters in Miami and Eugene, Ore., where Kamrat moved in April, he is starting groups in New York and Washington, D.C. A local JAM board member, North Miami lawyer Yigal Kahana, is also exploring interest for branches in the Mediterranean, especially Cyprus and Israel.
Each new chapter will likely use the same methods of the founding organization, said Kamrat, 52. Among them is lay leadership as well as clergy. Another is the emphasis on picnics, barbecues, home meetings and other leisure activities not usually associated with interfaith work.
"When people are with each other, they recognize the humanity in each other," Kamrat said. "Then when they do talk, they listen differently."
Aside from a college student who manages the Eugene office, JAM is still a volunteer operation on a shoestring budget of $2,500 per month. But Kamrat is applying for tax-exempt status from the federal government, which would allow the group to begin fund-raising appeals and fuel its expansion.
Locally, the organization will hold a public forum at 2 p.m. Sunday at the east campus of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. The event, "Alternatives to Extremism," will field a panel of leaders from several religions.
Although JAM has no formal membership rolls yet, it has about 300 on a mailing list and usually draws several hundred at its largest events every few months.
Kamrat hit on the JAM approach early after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists struck American targets in the name of Islam. Although he is a son of Holocaust survivors, the attack still didn't make him see Muslims as anti-Semitic.
"I found 9-11 crazy," he said. "It didn't line up with whom I knew. I had a lot of business relationships with Muslims. I saw them as people of honesty and integrity."
JAM has come a long way from 9-11. Members have helped start classes at the south campus of Broward Community College, bringing in Jewish and Muslim speakers on culture and law. The group sends representatives to numerous interfaith and interethnic community meetings. Kahana has taught seminars at two area mosques for JAM.
And up to 50 women meet monthly, a continuing series that Kamrat considers JAM's biggest success. Gathering at various homes, the women share food, hear speakers and discuss issues.
Irma Sulaiman, another South Florida board member, said she's heard questions ranging from "Why do Muslims hate Jews?" to "Why are Jews oppressing Palestinians? and "Is violence part of religion?"
"We talk, we get angry, we cry," she said. "We keep people safe, while letting them say their deepest concerns."
They also find things in common. Christians learn the connection between the Christian Holy Communion and the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover. They also hear that Jesus is revered as a prophet by Muslims.
JAM members visit one another's houses of worship, an experience that JAM board member Karen Bertocci found an eye-opener.
"When you go someplace you've never been, sometimes you have to face your fear," said Bertocci, who attends First United Methodist Church of Pompano Beach. "Now I find it easy to pray with Muslims. It hasn't changed my beliefs. But it's made my world bigger."
James D. Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4730.
Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel