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Category: Jewish-Christian Engagement

Standing With American Muslims, Upholding American Values

This post was originally published in the Jewish Exponent.

With news from Paris, Copenhagen, North Carolina and Iraq filling the morning papers these days, many of us are wondering: What is going on in the Muslim world? How are Muslims in America responding and, most importantly, how can Jews and Christians ally with Muslims to help uphold the values of religious pluralism on which America is based?
 
The Islamic Society of North America, known as ISNA, the largest membership organization of Muslims in America, has partnered with Christian groups and, more recently, with Jewish ones — including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — as together they address the challenges of integrating Muslim Americans into the religious landscape of our country.
 
Now, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has joined that effort, establishing a new partnership with the organization. For five years, RRC has been sponsoring retreats for emerging Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum.
 
Going forward, these relationship-building retreats will be co-sponsored by ISNA. Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the founder and former executive of ISNA, now in charge of its office of interfaith relations, was in Philadelphia recently to “shake hands” on the collaboration and to meet with our interfaith leaders and guide our thinking about these issues.
 
The meeting brought together rabbis, ministers, imams, professors of religion and interested citizens as we all pondered how to meet the challenge of yet another religious minority finding its place in the American story.
 
There are now some 6 to 7 million Muslims in this country, around the same number as Jews. Like Jews, they represent only 1 to 2 percent of the American population. A recent Pew study showed that only 38 percent of Americans actually know a Muslim.
 
Many Americans are left to rely on the media coverage of events outside this country, such as the rise of ISIS, a group that has terrorized Muslims themselves because they consider all Muslims who do not agree with them to be apostates.
 
But the media has been less effective at reporting the fact that these groups have repeatedly denounced ISIS and other Muslims who commit terrorist acts.
 
It is a sad irony that a recent tragedy — the killing of three Muslim graduate students in North Carolina last month — has had an unexpected side effect. Many Americans saw the story of these morally earnest, accomplished young people — committed to their faith and their lives as American citizens — and found a different face of Islam than that of the Middle Eastern fanatic with a gun. These three students were typical second-generation American Muslims and their stories are the ones more Americans need to hear.
 
A report from the Center for American Progress, “Fear, Inc.,” documents how a small but well-funded “Islamophobia Network” churns out much of what we hear about Islam on Fox News and other media outlets.
 
No wonder that in that same Pew study last summer, when Americans were asked to rate religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 1 to 100, the public viewed Muslims coldly. In fact, they received the lowest rating of all groups. The good news here is that these ratings can change over time. Jews may be surprised to learn that they were rated highest of all the groups. That would not have been true 60 years ago.
 
And there is more good news. Just as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, founded in 1927 to respond to anti- Catholic sentiment in this country, later did important work in combating anti-Semitism, so, too, allies from diverse religious traditions are striving to promote a more robust pluralism in this country today.
 
I am proud to join Jews from across the denominational spectrum as an active member of Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a project of ISNA that was established in 2010 with the help of a coalition of Jewish and Christian organizations in response to anti-Muslim sentiment expressed around the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero.”
 
As our meeting at RRC was concluding, participants were exchanging email addresses and making plans to educate themselves and their communities. A board member from Masjidullah, a mosque in West Oak Lane, just minutes from RRC, invited everyone to join them at their weekly Friday afternoon services.
 
Our high school students can meet one another through Walking the Walk, a project of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia. Scores of examples of successful Muslim-Jewish programs of engagement can be found in the online resource book Sharing the Well.
 
Meetings like this one are just a beginning. As Jews, our experience as a religious minority in this country makes us a valued partner. Even more importantly, our ethics and our religious teachings compel us to join the struggle.

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, April 17, 2015

Emergent Mind - Philip Clayton

If you are unable to attend our breakfast but would like to hear Philip present this program, consider attending the event at Chestnut Hill College on Thursday, April 16th from 7:00 until 9:00 PM.

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 135 by Tuesday, April 7, 2015.

 

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon/Potluck Shabbat Dinner on Friday, March 6, 2015

The Multifaith Studies and Initiative department hosting events with Moriel Rothman-Zecher on Friday, March 6, 2015.  See the flyer below for details:

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

For more information about Mori's blog, please visit The Leftern Wall.

Here is the link to Mori's recently published Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled, Why I Won’t Serve Israel.

These programs are 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 135 by Tuesday, February 24, 2015.

 

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Seek Peace and Pursue It—a Multifaith Workshop

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

Seek Peace and Pursue It

Towards the end of the workshop he led on multifaith peace-building with Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Rabbi Daniel Roth, Ph.D., shared a joke he heard in his home synagogue years ago. Someone in the synagogue pointed to the line in the prayerbook, “The students of the rabbis [lit. sages] increase peace in the world,” and quipped, “This is evidence that the prayerbook has a sense of humor!” The subtext, of course, is the idea that religion is good for destroying peace, not creating it. Rabbi Roth told us that he has devoted himself to proving that, on the contrary, religion—in this case, Judaism—can help us to “seek peace and pursue it,” in the language of the psalmist (psalm 34).

It is too bad the person who told Rabbi Roth this joke couldn’t be at RRC this past Sunday, when Rabbi Roth, along with his colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg, brought together 30 adherents of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism for a workshop on peace building in our communities. I am pleased to report that no people of faith were harmed in the course of the workshop, and furthermore I’m confident that we all came out of it with new resources, interfaith understanding and a renewed commitment to pursuing peace.

This was due above all to our teachers, of course, and I’ll share some of what they taught below, but just as creating the most lasting peace requires involvement from all parties to a conflict, so the diverse participants in the workshop shared from their own perspectives and traditions. I was especially struck by the words of a Muslim participant, who declined to state her affiliation with a specific mosque because of her respect for the ideal that Muslims should attend all mosques. I hope for the day when there will be the value, or better yet the realization, of a similar respect for our diversity among Jews. This would certainly increase the peace in our community.

Roth’s fervent commitment to utilizing Jewish sources to equip people to be pursuers of peace has led him to amass an incredible wealth of peacebuilding wisdom and to create a series of exciting and growing initiatives putting this wisdom into practice. One example is the observance of the 9th of Adar as “a Jewish day of constructive conflict” and also programs in North American Jewish day schools.

On Sunday he led the group in the study of traditional Jewish texts spanning millennia which can shed light on the effort to pursue peace. We studied the text in chevruta (pairs), a traditional way to learn and, Roth taught us, an indigenous Jewish form of training in conflict resolution, when done well. One aspect of the texts that struck me was their focus on Moses’ brother Aaron, who the rabbinic tradition defined as the quintessential pursuer of peace. Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, who helps to train peace builders in his role as director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, writes that “this raises some important issues … about whether the field of conflict resolution has focused too much on skills and not enough on the formation of character, namely, the ideal personality of the peacemaker.”

Rabbi Eilberg, who has decades of experience as a chaplain and spiritual director has spent the last decade pursuing peace in a range of contexts , including interfaith and Israel-Palestine. She recently published the book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, devoted much of her time to just this topic,

She led us through rich and challenging exercises to help us develop empathy for an adversary and to define the middot (spiritual virtues or qualities of soul) required for the pursuit of peace and reflect on which virtues we may have in the right amount and which we may have not enough of, or, equally problematic, too much of.  With the guidance of Eilberg’s teaching and my chevruta, I was able to start exploring the complexities of the spiritual virtue of peacebuilding that I find most challenging, courage.

Roth and Eilberg did not try to paint an idyllic picture of religion’s role in conflict, however. Instead, they encouraged all of us to admit the reality that all of our traditions have texts and traditions that can be used to justify conflict and inflict pain. This is the inherent ambiguity of our sacred texts. But just as, according to one midrash Roth shared, for every halacha (Jewish law) there are 49 ways to prove it and 49 ways to refute it, so Eilberg and Roth convinced me that there must be at least as many ways that our religions can create peace as the number of ways they can create conflict.

Seek Peace and Pursue ItOur time with Roth and Eilberg was too short, but I’m glad to know that they also taught a week-long class attended by 13 students and graduates of RRC. If we had more time I would have liked to hear what these teachers and model pursuers of peace would recommend for creating peace in situations with dramatic power imbalances between the parties to the conflict.

 

 

 

Photos: Sharon Gershoni

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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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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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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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