MANCHESTER - A group of Burr and Burton students came away a first hand look at four different major religious faiths this week.

On Wednesday, Dec. 11, an interfaith symposium was held at the school, as a way to give students a first hand account of religion, instead of the second hand account they get in class, Sunny Wright, social studies teacher said.

Wright organized the symposium to give the students a more personal discussion to religion, as well as have the opportunity for dialogue. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism were represented by Pastor Margaret Dawedeit, Pastor of Peru Congregational Church, Shital Kinkhabwala, a practicing Hindu, Rabbi Michael Cohen and Chris Morrow of the Shambhala Meditation group in Manchester.

The speakers introduced themselves and their religion before the floor was opened up for questions by the students.

Dawedeit said she grew up in a very strict Catholic household, and felt herself questioning the faith of her parents from a very young age. Before she became a Protestant, she said she first became an atheist, because she had never thought of going to another religion.

"When I was about 23, I started to feel like there was something huge missing in my life - I knew it wasn't that I wanted to get married or have a baby," she said. "It was spiritually based, and so I started to drift back...I was looking in Protestant churches."

Eventually, Dawedeit decided to join the ministry and went to Berkeley to go to the seminary, where she got kicked out. She told the students she wouldn't tell them why. After that experience, she came back to Vermont and helped the Peru church and has been there for the past eight years as pastor. She said the church is very alternative.

"They let me and encourage me to live out what I think is the very best of Christianity, is how Jesus lived," she said.

Leaving her home of India 20 years ago, Kinkhabawala has continued to practice the faith she was raised in; Hinduism. She said she really had trouble coming up with how she would define Hinduism, because it is such a complex concept to put into words.

"Hinduism is the relentless pursuit of truth," she said.

Kinkhabawala said her practice involves a shrine in her home, where she can pray and meditate. One of her favorite aspects of Hinduism is seeing that god created everyone and that people are then part god and the thoughtful awareness with which Hindus should live, she said.

"Ahisma is the idea of nonviolence [in Hinduism] and in a broader sense is nonviolence in thought, speech and action," she said. "The words you say, are they harmful to anyone? To yourself?"

Cohen was the first full time Rabbi at Israel Congregation of Manchester and said he had a generic Jewish upbringing, but became more devout in his faith as he got older.

"Judaism is oxygen for my soul," he said.

He said on a solo trip all over the world, he spent time in Eastern Europe tracing his family's history and claiming Judaism as his own. He became a Rabbi after talking with a mentor about choosing either the rabbinate or going into politics, which allowed him to both answer the spiritual questions he had and become politically active.

"Religion," he said, "provides rhythm to one's life."

Morrow also said he would stress the importance of travel, not just to seek out religion, but to experience difference in the world. He discovered Buddhism while studying abroad in Nepal while a college student.

"Buddhism made sense to me almost immediately," he said. "I had a teacher who would present an idea, and say 'go think about it and examine your experience."

He said his practice of Buddhism includes daily meditation and that it helps him stay present in his daily life.

One of the first questions was asked about the secularization of Christmas. Dawedeit said Christmas only became really commercialized after the publication of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. She does not like Christmas in it's commercialized form.

"It used to just be a holy day, where you would go to church and then come home and eat a pancake," she said.

Another student asked how the group responds to stereotypes about their religion.

Cohen said he usually sees stereotypes come from a place of not understanding and insecurity. 

"They [the stereotype] usually says more about the person [speaking] than they say about you," he said.

A question that got a different response from each panelist came when a student asked if they had ever had a moment where they really felt connected to their faith or God.

"I think all practices have some sense of letting go of ego," Morrow said.

Dawedeit said she felt a sense of strong love and warmth when she was going through a very dark phase of life.

"I just felt like everything was going to be OK and to keep moving forward," she said.

Feeling a sense of peace in herself, Kinkhabwala said, and feeling a calmness reminds her she is with God.

Like Dawedeit, Cohen had one experience in particular. He was a student in college and waiting in line for an ice cream sundae when he felt God.

"I was waiting in line to create my sundae and it all hit me, I was connected," he said.

Wright said what she really wanted for her students was too see how similar religion really is and how the panelists agreed with each other.

Imam Bilal Ansari, of the Muslim faith, was invited to attend the event as well, but was unable to come.