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Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

Exciting news from PERL (Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders)! The leadership council proudly invites all local emerging religious leaders to their first public event Sunday, April 6. Check out the flyer below!

Funded through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Heritage Fund, PERL is an interfaith organization by and for seminarians, rabbinical students and graduate students who gather to build relationships, learn and practice the tools of interfaith dialogue, and pursue social justice together.

Now in its second year, the student leadership core has grown to include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh emerging leaders from local seminaries and universities.

The group has been actively involved with POWER, working on social justice issues in our city together. Next month, PERL is proudly offering its first major outreach program, an Interfaith Dialogue Training to build relationships and to learn and practice tools of interfaith dialogue.

See below for the event information and forward this news to anyone whom you think would be interested. Note that an "emerging religious leader" can be defined broadly to include seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students and professionals studying for or entering positions of leadership as clergy, teachers, academics, chaplains, counselors, faith-based professionals and lay leaders in their religious communities.

To RSVP for the event, contact: Raha Rafii, rafii@sas.upenn.edu
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:  joshweisman@gmail.com

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

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First Year RRC Student Emerges as a Multifaith Leader

Our Multifaith Intern, first-year RRC student Josh Weisman, is already making a name for himself in the Philadelphia emerging religious leaders community. Recently, Josh became a contributing scholar at the State of Formation, a national interfaith blog for seminarians and young religious leaders. Below is his first post, in which Josh responds to the following question: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?

Josh and Father GabrielInterfaith engagement can be more than just a goal for emerging religious leaders, it can be the path itself. I have been shaped at key moments on my journey towards becoming a rabbi by encounters with people from other religious traditions, and at each turn I have only been enriched by them.

During college I studied in Guatemala for a semester, where I did field research in a community of poor Catholics who had organized themselves out of a slum and into their own thriving neighborhood. Their story continues to be the most remarkable example of grassroots social change I have ever encountered. Through petitions, media advocacy, and civil disobedience they departed their disease- and crime-ridden shantytown, planted themselves on a plot earmarked for military officers’ homes, and won, against the government’s wishes, all the services of a functioning neighborhood: water, electricity, a school, a market, and eventually recognition of their legal status as owners of their lots. What set this community apart from so many others who had met with less success were the framework and communal bonds provided by their faith. In my dozens of conversations with grassroots leaders, they all spoke in the same terms: the slum they left was “Egipto;” their new community, “la tierra prometida;” their midnight journey between the two and crossing of a police cordon, their “éxodo.” They knew that God loved them, wanted a better life for them, and was on their side. They had organized themselves from the beginning through their church, were guided by priests along the way, and continued to base their organizing in their new parish.

Josh and JorgeFor me, as a young American Jew, this encounter with Guatemalan Catholics was a seminal experience. In many ways, my career since then has been an exploration of how religion can be such a powerful force for social change in communities closer to home. Yet while a parish on the outskirts of Guatemala City may seem like a faraway place for a Jew from California, what I found there was remarkably familiar. Their story – the Exodus – is also my Jewish story. They were living out the potential that I and so many contemporary Jews see in our tradition’s central narrative. I had traveled “beyond the sea,” as the Torah says, only to find what was already “very near” to me, already “in [my] heart,” which enabled me to begin to truly “observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:13-14).

Since then, organizing with Protestants and Catholics has taught me not only about their faiths, but more about my own. Praying in a mixed group of Sufis and Jews, I have glimpsed oneness through multiplicity, a core lesson of both our traditions. I have many rabbis for role models, but I also count a priest, a pastor, and an imam among my inspirations for becoming a rabbi. It is thanks to my relationships with all these people – including Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims – that I have become the Jew I am.

Photos courtesy of Josh Weisman.

Photo Upper Left:  Later, I worked as a Congregation Based Community Organizer for the interfaith San Francisco Organizing Project. Here, Father Gabriel Flores and I participate in a vigil against deportations.

Photo Lower Right:  Me and Jorge Ibarra, a parish leader since the beginning in the organizing effort in Villalobos II, Guatemala City, and my main contact in the neighborhood, standing in the courtyard of his home. Like all homes in the neighborhood, Jorge's house was constantly under construction as money and supplies became available.

Josh WeismanJosh Weisman is studying to become a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Josh has been bringing people together for community building and social change for over 14 years. As a Congregation Based Community Organizer in San Francisco, he helped congregations put their religious values into action by joining together to campaign for policies that addressed pressing community problems. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Macalester College where he produced ethnographies on communities in Guatemala and Minnesota. Josh practices Jewish mindfulness meditation, and traditional ecstatic prayer and dance. He actively explores the intersection between spiritual practice and social justice. Josh is currently the Organizer for Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders, a new interfaith organization of leaders in formation who come together for social action, dialogue, and relationship building. Josh lives with his wife, Pella Schafer Weisman, a Marriage & Family Therapist, in Philadelphia.

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Manna to Worms: Spiritual and Political Lessons from Heavenly Bread (Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16)

This post was originally published on Patheos

Braided BreadEach Friday afternoon, I spread a tablecloth on my dining room table, place two braided loaves of bread on the cloth, and then cover the bread with another cloth, one of several specially designed, beautiful challah covers we have accumulated over the years. I have known since my first days of rabbinical school that the custom of blessing two loaves on Shabbat evokes the double portion of manna –the mysterious  lechem min ha shaymayim– “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4)–  that the Israelites collected on the eve of the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5) Recently,  I deepened my understanding of this symbolic act.

In the version recounted in the Book of Exodus, the manna appears under a layer of dew (Exodus 16:13). But when the Book of Numbers recounts the story, this same manna appears on top of the dew (Numbers 11:9). As Rashi explained, this discrepancy proved simple to resolve. The manna fell between two layers of dew! Our double Shabbat loaves, nestled between two pieces of cloth, can serve as a weekly reminder that our bounty –the bread we eat and much more — comes to us like “manna from heaven.”

The Torah tells us that for forty years every morning manna appeared for each individual according to his or her eating (ish l’fi ochlo) —no more, no less (Exodus 16:18). If people gathered more than they needed, the excess food bred worms and rotted. Yet everyone could start each day with enough. Why not just provide all that was needed for a week or a year? According to the text, it is so “you shall see the glory of the Lord” (Ex 15:7). The people were to anticipate and then enjoy God’s presence each and every day. This method of distribution has taught generations of Jews a spiritual lesson; it serves as a reminder to daily sense God’s kindness and to acknowledge our connection to the Source of sustenance.

But there is more to it than that.

Manna plays a role in a classic dispute between two political philosophers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Rawls famously argued in favor of distributive justice, suggesting why we might think of the goods of the society as a pie to be distributed as fairly as possible. Nozick disagreed, maintaining th  at society has no right to distribute what individuals produce with their own talents and efforts.   Producers of goods have a certain entitlement to what they produce. After all, Nozick wrote, it’s not as if the goods appeared like “manna from heaven.”

Perhaps not. Yet our talents are not earned, they are God-given, and they would be worth little without the nurturance of parents, teachers and society. Even within a capitalist system of incentives, much of what we have is attributable to “manna.” In the United States today, we are living with an extraordinary level of wealth inequality.  Since 2007, the wealth gap in the United States—already growing since the 1970’s —has been expanding ever more dramatically. It has now reached the highest level since before the Great Depression. As Obama put it in a speech on December 4,  “The top ten percent no longer takes in one third of our income—it now takes half.”

Share of Total Household Wealth Growth

Even more troubling, despite many Americans’ belief that we live in a land of opportunity, social mobility is not what it used to be.  Obama continued: “A child born in the top twenty per cent has about a two-in-three chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom twenty per cent has a less than one-in-twenty shot of making it to the top.”

Research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and his colleagues explores some of the reasons for this stagnation.  Long before they have had a chance to produce or not produce goods to which they would be entitled, children in our country receive vastly different, and unequal, supports from their environment.

What would it be like to lift the challah cover each Friday night and to experience  renewed gratitude for the plentitude with which I am blessed?  And, further, what would it mean, at the same time, to remember that I live in a society growing ever further from the manna ideal, a world where there is enough for all?

Like the Jews, Muslims have preserved the memory of the manna. A solidly established hadith  (al-Bukhârî (194-256/810-870) states that “Kam’ah (truffles) is a type of manna, and its liquid is a remedy for the eyes.”  I pray that the two challot I uncover each Friday night, like “bread from heaven,” can serve as a remedy for my own eyes—to remind me not to be blind to the gap between my plenty and others’ want, between our current reality and the vision of a more just world.

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, February 14th, 2014

Our breakfast is by invitation only.  Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 252 by Tuesday, February 4th, 2014.

For more information about the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, please visit:  http://pcjcr.pardes.org/

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Interfaith Food Justice

We are thrilled to announce another exciting new learning opportunity this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Interfaith Food Justice course will examine the connection between food and our lives as well as food justice and sustainability.

The course will be co-taught by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling (RRC) and Reverend Katie Day of Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTSP).

The flyer below provides the details:

Interfaith Food Justice

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Dreams of Peace: Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

We are thrilled to announce an exciting new course this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Introduction to Arabic course will provide the tools needed to reach out to Muslim American dialogue partners and to Arabs in the Middle East.

We believe that learning a foreign language can be a powerful peace building practice.

The flyer below provides the details:

Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

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In the Depths: Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America

The Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives proudly announces our newest initiative:  a workshop entitled In The Depths:  Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America. For several years, students at RRC have been expressing interest in issues related to incarceration in our country. We are blessed to have in our city a unique resource, Phyllis B. Taylor, R.N, a Jewish woman who has served for over 15 years as a Correctional Chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System. Phyllis has worked with inmates, families, and staff of all faiths. She brings to that work decades of experience as a nurse and a nationally known expert in the field of hospice, grief and bereavement.  In addition, Phyllis and has been an activist for social justice since 1961.

Phyllis will share her wealth of experience with prison work from two perspectives:  pastoral care/chaplaincy (Jewish and interfaith) and social justice advocacy. She will address issues of incarceration in light of race, gender, class, and family systems. Guest speakers will include a corrections officer, a former inmate, a crime victim, and an advocate for systemic change.

The workshop will take place at RRC on Wednesday and Thursday, January 29th and 30th from 9-4.  We welcome auditors from the community, especially rabbis and other members of the clergy.

Prison Chaplaincy Workshop

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“Orange is the New Black”: Incarceration in America

This post was originally published on Odyssey Networks - On Scripture.

“Orange is the New Black”: Incarceration in America (Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)

Orange is the New Black“Heartbreaking and hilarious” is how Netflix describes its new series “Orange Is the New Black,” which premiered on July 11 (all 13 episodes are now available live to subscribers). Based on the 2010 memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, the show woos viewers with an exotic real-life premise: a beautiful blond WASP, a Smith graduate with a loving Jewish fiancé, finds herself with a federal prison sentence of a little more than a year, the result of a misguided love affair/drug-ring adventure almost a decade before. As one reviewerof the book put it, Piper Kerman “could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.” 

But Piper Kerman is hardly a typical prisoner. The book and the series present a variety of other prisoners’ lives in ways that are compelling and, in some cases, devastating. These are people whose stories are mostly hidden from view, behind prison walls. In 1980, there were half a million Americans behind bars. Since then, the number has increased five-fold. America leads the world in the percentage of its citizens it incarcerates, with catastrophic numbers for racial minorities, particularly men. 

Our system of federal, state, county and city jails and prisons involves not only prisoners but former prisoners and their families, as well as those employed to maintain the system.  Those who read or watch “Orange”should ask themselves if housing Piper Kerman in the federal penitentiary was a good use of taxpayer money. They should go on to ask if our sprawling penal system is, in general, the most effective and humane means of achieving public safety.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, suggests that it matters how a society deals with those who break its laws. The portion devotes itself entirely to questions of criminal justice — the establishment of courts, the investigation of crime, witnessing, protecting the lives of inadvertent murderers from revenge, and rules of warfare.

The closing verses of the portion (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) raise a question: What happens if a slain body is discovered in an open field? The Torah explains that, in the absence of anyone to punish, the judges and elders from the nearest town must take upon themselves to arrange an elaborate sacrifice, after which they declare themselves innocent.

Perplexed by this rule, medieval Jewish commentator Rashiasks, “But would it enter one’s mind that the elders of the court are murderers?”  He goes on to explain: “Rather, they declare: ‘We did not see him and let him depart without food or escort.’” In other words, we failed to take proper steps to prevent this crime in the first place.

The idea of communal responsibility is an intriguing one. We must answer as a society not only for what we do, but also for what we fail to do. “Orange Is the New Black” should make us ask questions: How did we get to a situation where we have more crime than other Western countries and, far in excess of the amount of violent crime, more people locked up in prisons? There are beautiful scenes in “Orange,” moments of insight or camaraderie, moments that speak of redemption and transcendence. But the strength of both the book and the series is the clarity with which it makes its central point. Those moments occur despite, not because of, the way in which the prison is run.

Kerman’s book concludes with a list of organizations such as The Sentencing Projectand the Women’s Prison Associationthat offer the opportunity for further education and activism. The website for the Netflix series includes no such listing. This is unfortunate. What the series should provide is an opportunity for a conversation, not only about crime and incarceration, but also about the problems of reentry into society faced by those who have completed their sentence and now seek to establish productive, dignified lives.

For the real-life Piper Kerman, there was a Hollywood ending to her ordeal. She resumed her privileged lifestyle, she and her boyfriend eventually wed, and there was, of course, a book contract. Although Season One of the Netflix series ends on a much darker note, presumably all will work out for the TV version of Kerman, as well. Few of her fellow prisoners, however, will be so fortunate. 

One of the more powerful scenes in the series occurs in the penultimate episode when the violence and irrationality of the prison are reaching explosive levels. Taystee, a young African American woman, has returned to the prison after her release just months before. She explains to a friend why she got herself arrested again. “It’s better than going to three interviews a day for jobs I ain’t going to get and sleeping on the floor of my cousin’s two-room apartment.” And, she adds with a defeated shrug, “Here I get dinner.”

Hilarious? Not really.

Heartbreaking? Absolutely.

And we are all responsible.

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And Now a Word from the “White Lady”

Alpha Phi AlphaI recently had the occasion to speak at a prayer breakfast organized by the Philadelphia chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American, inter-collegiate, Greek-letter fraternity, founded in 1906. APA has become an important national organization, and this event was to honor the memory of Reverend Canon Thomas Wilson Logan Sr. the oldest serving African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, USA who died last year at the age of 100. The brothers of the Rho chapter were establishing a scholarship fund in honor of Father Logan, as APA has become a philanthropic, as well as service and activism organization.

It was my great honor to be part of the “warm up acts” that preceded the keynote speaker, the Reverend James Forbes, Jr.

Newsweek named Reverend Forbes one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language, providing just one of many titles, prizes and honorary degrees the minister has collected over a long career. Although my expectations were high, Forbes’ sermon exceeded them. In addition to brilliance, wit and warmth, the man radiated genuine kindness and humility.

Among the pleasures of the morning was getting to hear my colleague Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney of the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia give a stirring meditation on the Biblical heroine Deborah. Wil had the good grace to post her words on her blog here and I recommend them to you. That said, you really had to hear Wil’s delivery to fully experience the power of her teaching. I am planning to avail myself of the next opportunity to hear Wil preach.

My own words for the occasion were far from notable. What was memorable for me was the experience of being in a large, very full room, and realizing I was the only white person there. (The only other interfaith invitee was an imam and he was black.) I am used to being a religious minority---the token Jew among a group of Christians---but being a racial minority was an unfamiliar experience. When the speaker before me mentioned the phrase “white lady,” I startled. In just another minute, I would be rising to deliver my words. I don’t think of myself as a “white lady,” but there it was, and there I was.

I realized then the burden of being a token in a society that is, despite claims to the contrary, very far from post-racial. I opened by saying “And now a word from the White Lady.” I added, in a phrase that I don’t believe I have ever used before, having heard it that morning from another speaker, “Lord, have mercy.” Fortunately, the audience laughed with me.

There is always so much to learn. As President Obama said in Jerusalem just last week, it is imperative to try, whenever we possibly can, to see how the world looks from someone else’s eyes.

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