Yonitan Katz, Harpreet Singh Wahan and Roberta Bracco live incredibly different lives and have never met. Katz is from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in New York; Wahan is a Sikh from New Delhi, India, and lives in Flushing, Queens; Bracco is from Rome, Italy, and although she was born Catholic, she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Despite the differences between Katz, Wahan and Bracco, their similar experiences as religious minorities unite them and drive them to build connections with their surrounding communities.
Both Katz and Wahan live in New York City. A hub of religious diversity, the city is home to many Jews and Sikhs, but both communities are still minorities.
Although New York has the highest concentration of Jews outside of Israel, the Bureau of Jewish Research reports that the Jewish population of the Greater New York area constitutes only 30 percent of the city’s total population.
Within the broader New Yorker community, there are several even smaller groups, including Orthodox, Reform and Hasidic Judaism. One such Hasidic community exists in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Here, men walk the streets in beards and hats, wearing suits no matter how much the sun beats down on the streets. Women strive for modesty, which for them means covering most of their body and all of their hair. Street signs are in both English and Hebrew, and kosher delis line the streets.
While Crown Heights is the home of the Chabad Hasidic movement, the neighborhood is not exclusively Jewish. The Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative estimates that only 25 percent of the population is Hasidic, and that number changes as people move in and out of the neighborhood.
Yonitan Katz is a community leader in Crown Heights. A few years ago, when hipsters began to move into Brooklyn in droves and the hipster and Hasidic communities began to clash, he sought out ways to unite the groups and bridge differences.
So what do Hasids and hipsters have in common? “Beards,” said Katz.
He and several other leaders organized an event called ‘Unite the Beards,’ designed to promote a dialogue between the two communities. It was an unprecedented success. Using the small connection of fabulous facial hair, the two communities were able to learn about each other and encourage understanding across cultural and religious divides.
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