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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah talks to visitors as he gives a tour as part of Interfaith Month. The attendees toured Chabad Lubavitch and the Islamic Bosnian Mosque on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the community were greeted as friends and “guests of God” as they spoke with Jewish and Islamic leaders in their places of worship on Feb. 27.

The annual interfaith bus tour was one of the events of Interfaith Month organized by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable in February. This year, the bus tour took about 55 participants to the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah and the Islamic Bosnian Mosque.

Josie Stone, chair of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable and a member of the Episcopal Church, said the goal of the event was to give people the chance to learn about other faiths while strengthening their own.

“In doing this, they see how very similar we really are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim or Jewish or Protestant, when you get to meet people, you suddenly realize ‘they’re just like me’ and we’re really all looking for the same thing. We’re just approaching it from a different direction,” Stone said.

Chabad Lubavitch of Utah

The first stop on the tour was the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah at 1760 S. 1100 East in Salt Lake City. Rabbi Benny Zippel greeted guests with an enthusiastic “welcome home” as they gathered in the lobby of the 30,000-square-foot facility that served as a strip mall until it was purchased in 2005.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Attendees of Interfaith Month bus tour board a bus after a tour of Chabad Lubavitch and head for the Islamic Bosnian Mosque on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

Rabbi Zippel, a native of Malan, Italy, who has been with the Chabad in Utah since 1992, told bus tour participants, Judaism is more than just a religion. "It is a way of life," he said.

He used an analogy of trying to draw a perfect circle on a piece of paper, which is impossible, he said, without the use of a compass.

“We have to create a center. Once we have created a center, we have to remain committed to not budge from that center,” said Rabbi Zippel, 51, and a father of six. “Judaism is all about living our lives around a center. That center is the individual’s relationship with God.”

“It doesn’t matter which religion we practice. What does matter is that we have a center,” he added, calling everyone in attendance friends.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah talks to visitors as he gives a tour as part of Interfaith Month. The attendees toured Chabad Lubavitch and the Islamic Bosnian Mosque on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

Rabbi Zippel continued to note the importance of a “center” as he gave guests a tour of the main and lower levels of the building, including the mikvah, a pool filled with rainwater used for cleansing and purification. In the youth area, he focused on his goal of helping children understand their meaning and purpose, later referring to the tragic 17 deaths in Parkland, Florida, in which Rabbi Zippel said the gunman lacked an understanding of who he was.

The rabbi led participants to the sanctuary where he explained basic Jewish beliefs, symbols and practices. He talked about the tzitzit, a mini-prayer shawl with fringe worn under clothes, and the small hat called a yarmulke, both worn to help Jews remember that God is their center. Rabbi Zippel also shared the meaning behind Jewish holidays, such as Purim, which is celebrated Feb. 28-March 1 in honor of the triumph of the Jews over Haman, and Hanukkah.

Rabbi Zippel, whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, encouraged guests to learn from historical events to maintain a vision of purpose.

“If we want to stop Auschwitz and if we want to stop Parkland and if we want to stop animosity amongst us people, let us look at one another from the very, very core of what defines us,” he said. “We are God’s ambassadors to his planet. We were sent here to this planet with a very clear message: Every single one of us is to give it his or her best to do their share in transforming this world into a godly place.”

Islamic Bosnian Mosque

The second and final stop on the bus tour was the Islamic Bosnian Mosque at 425 N. 700 West, which recently hosted an open house ceremony following its remodel. The mosque is named Maryam after the mother of Jesus and features a minaret tower with a green light on its exterior.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
As part of Interfaith Month, attendees arrive at the Islamic Bosnian Mosque in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

Guests removed their shoes and women put on head scarves as they entered the red and gold carpeted hall. A big chandelier hung from the ceiling, and at the front of the room was a small balcony area used for delivering speeches. Alen Ramovic, newly elected president of the Islamic Society of Bosniaks in Utah, welcomed guests and gave a brief history of Bosniaks in Utah.

Many Bosniaks fled to the United States in the '90s during the Yugoslav wars, Ramovic explained, and he and his family came from Germany in 1999. There are more than 54 Islamic Bosnian Mosques around the country, he said. About 300 members attend the mosque in Salt Lake City and help pay for utilities and activities and support the imam, who is formally educated to be their full-time leader.

“Tonight we are all guests of God,” said Imam Amir Salihovic. “Thank you for that.”

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Imam Amir Salihovic of the Islamic Bosnian Mosque talks to visitors as they take part in the Interfaith Month bus tour on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

Imam Amir spoke about basic beliefs of Islam and opened up the discussion to questions from the participants. He shared about the importance of peace and religious liberty.

“Our faith, Islam, is teaching us to respect everyone, no matter what religion they are. Everyone has a right to believe whatever they want,” Imam Amir said. “We are really happy those same rights are given to us because sometimes, in many of the Muslim countries, people don’t have those rights.”

Answering questions from guests, Imam Amir talked about an obligatory Friday prayer meeting for men. Islams pray at five scheduled times during the day to God, Allah, in any quiet place, he added. Children attend Sunday school and are taught to memorize the Quran, the Islamic book of scripture, in Arabic. He also explained Islamic belief in the prophet Muhammad, as well as how animals must be prepared and sacrificed before being eaten.

Imam Amir then reflected on his belief in life after death when asked about his favorite part of his faith.

“I know that whatever has happened in my life, it’s just this life because I believe in a second life, and I hope that God is going to give me a good life up there,” Imam Amir said. “That’s the part that makes me not to be worried about anything or not to be scared, just giving me motivation to do good deeds.”

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Christopher Light, 17, and Joseph Alfaro, 15, were among a group of young men from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who participated in the interfaith bus tour.

“It was a unique experience,” Light said. “I’m very active in my church and it was nice to go out and see what other people believe in and understand better.”

Alfaro said his experience with the bus tour strengthened his own faith and helped him see the value in learning about other religions.

“I like learning about their beliefs and how similar ours are with their beliefs,” Alfaro said. “I think it’s a great idea to have a lot of knowledge about other religions.”