Money & Careers

Sarah Sayeed, a Woman Who’s Making a Difference

Caption: Sarah Sayeed. (Photo: Interfaith Center of New York.)

Sarah Sayeed. (Photo: Interfaith Center of New York.)

“Islam is not a strange religion,” declares Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Director of Community Partnerships at the Interfaith Center of New York. “Its values and teachings are fully consonant with the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity and Judaism—and with Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, too. All of these religions share a lot of common ground.

“So many people see religion as a source of division and violence! Islam in particular is in the limelight right now as the most divisive or the most violent religion . . . but there’s so much beauty in it, so much inspiration for so many people around the world. For Muslims, our faith is a source of peace and of connection—not only to God, but also as a way to see the sacred and divine in each other. I think we need to focus as people of faith on the positive and beautiful potential of all of our faith teachings.”

We are sitting in Dr. Sayeed’s office at the Interfaith Center, a nonprofit organization that “seeks to make New York City and the world safe for religious differences.” America may be proud of its cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity—and yet, Dr. Sayeed points out, “it’s rare for people of different faiths to come together with people of other traditions. Especially religious leaders: They often live in silos—so busy serving their own communities that they have little time to learn to interact with people of other faiths.” It is the center’s mission—Dr. Sayeed’s in particular—to bring both secular and religious New Yorkers together to foster respect and mutual understanding.

Sarah’s family immigrated to America from India when she was 8. She grew up in the Bronx. “I had an amazing education, and I’m grateful for that,” she says. The nonprofit organization Prep for Prep, which helps talented students of color gain entrance to city private schools, helped her qualify for admission to a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side. Then she went to Princeton, majoring in sociology and Near Eastern studies. “I was trying to understand my own culture and religion and gain an academic perspective on it,” she says. “My family is fairly observant, but I thought it was important to be able to learn Arabic so I could understand the Quran when I read it.”

She went on to the Annenberg School and earned a doctorate in communication. “I think my experience growing up in the Bronx, as well as the education that I had, instilled in me an awareness of my faith background and gave me a desire to help people in communities,” she says. “And post- 9/11, interfaith dialogue has become important for folks generally.” Her heart has always been in interfaith work: When she was offered a job at the Interfaith Center, “it was a chance to get paid for what I was already doing.”

The first benefit of the center’s outreach, she says, is simply getting people of different faiths into the same room. “And then you have the second layer— transformation—when people start talking with each other. At every event we have food . . . people eat together, and when they hear about each other’s faith traditions, there’s transformation. They find they have a great deal of theological common ground as well as a shared concern for people in need—a concern we can build on in the wider society.”

She works with secular and religious leaders as well as people in the community. “The goal of the Interfaith Center’s meetings with secular professionals —like teachers and social workers—is to help them do their work better with faith communities,” she says. “For instance, social workers counseling someone with a faith background will be better able to take the client’s faith perspective into their work.  Similarly with teachers. As Americans, our task is to train young people to deal with diversity.”

An important focus of her work is bringing together grassroots religious leaders to talk about social issues that impact New York religious communities. Those leaders meet biennially in a retreat called the Rabbi T. Mayer Retreat for Social Justice. “At our last conference, about 100 religious leaders and people from the nonprofit sector dealt with the intersection of spirituality and end-of-life care,” she says. “We are interested in providing appropriate health care for people of all faiths in pluralistic America.”

Next page: When Muslims and Catholics get together.

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  • Beverly May 30, 2015 at 8:41 am

    Dr.Sarah is doing a great work in bringing diverse communities together to enable them to get a better understanding of their various cultures & to enable them to see that their needs are very similar. Her method of working together will bring about the desired results

  • toni myers May 27, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Actually, I didn’t know the list of things Dr.Sayeed gives as basic precepts for everyday living. She makes valuable connections between people with different beliefs. An amazing woman doing worthy work. Yes to more folks hearing of her work. Thanks Debbie!

  • Margery Stein May 26, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Someone should send this article to an editor at the NYTimes. Like Malala, she is worthy of a “Times Talks” lecture. Debbie always seems to unearth these marvelous & meaningful women.

  • Susanna Gaertner May 26, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    As always, Deb, a worthwhile article on a worthy woman. Happy to learn about her.