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RRC Helps to Bring Ali Abu Awwad to Philadelphia During Sukkot

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

Ali Abu AwwadAt the start of his talk in the main sanctuary of Germantown Jewish Centre, Palestinian nonviolent peace activist Ali Abu Awwad joked that he has a hard time keeping track of the Jewish holidays. While he had learned the greetings corresponding to Rosh Hashanah—“Shanah tovah”—and Yom Kippur— “Gmar tov”— he hadn’t yet learned a greeting for Sukkot, the holiday we were celebrating when he spoke at GJC on Friday, October 10th, addressing a crowd of more than 100, including Christians and Muslims who regularly participate in programs of RRC’s Multifaith Studies Program.

Ali’s commitment to learning about the culture of his audience (and about Judaism in particular, which many Palestinians understandably associate with their oppression), and his willingness to admit the limits of his knowledge, provided a powerful example of his approach to peace-making. It begins with deeply listening to others in order to humanize oneself and the other side, and continues through the practice of non-violence.

Ali’s personal example of nonviolence particularly moved me. As a young man, Ali refused to take violent revenge against the people responsible for killing his brother.  Ali reflected on the practice of nonviolence--its power comes from the power of our inherent humanity. Non violence creates a safe space for the sides in a conflict to see each other’s truth. Contrary to popular perceptions, nonviolence is more powerful than violence.

I was also struck by Ali’s lucid presentation of the contradictions found at every level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are a few of them:

  • Despite being commonly referred to as “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” there are other nations involved and their role is often not a constructive one
  • What the heart wants (revenge against those who have hurt you and/or your loved ones) may be at odds with what the mind wants (a successful solution to the conflict)
  • When those outside the conflict take sides (being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian”) , it doesn’t help achieve a solution, indeed it worsens the problem
  • Israelis’ need for security leads them to support the continuing the occupation until Palestinians no longer resort to violence, but Palestinians can’t see the value of peace while the occupation continues

All of these contradictions make a solution to the conflict seem unlikely, but Ali stressed that the solution to the conflict does not lie in ideological purity and clarity. In fact, there are contradictions working in favor of peace, too. Ali told us about the Roots project which he co-directs, a Palestinian center for nonviolence situated between six Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It’s hard for someone who mainly sees the conflict through the lens of American media to imagine Jewish settlers and Palestinians with conflicting claims to the exact same land sitting down together for a civil discussion, but this is precisely what Roots creates.  Through this work, there was even a group of settlers, including rabbis, that took part in an interfaith fast for peace in Gaza on the 17th of Tammuz this summer. Ali asserted that a solution to the conflict will be a place where two truths fit, even if they are contradictory. (This reminded me of the wonderful Amichai poem, “The place where we are right.”) So in order to create peace, we must be comfortable with contradictions of this kind.

In reflecting on the opportunity to learn from Ali, I realized that the sukkah itself is a structure of contradictions. It must be solid enough to serve as a home for the duration of the holiday but it must be fragile enough that a strong wind would knock it down. It must have a roof, but the roof must have enough openings that the stars are visible through it. It also struck me that Ali could count among modern day ushpizin—special guests symbolically invited to reside in the sukkah in honor of their contribution to the survival of the Jewish people. I pray that through Sukkot and beyond we may be comfortable dwelling in the contradictions that will advance the cause of peace in Israel and Palestine and learning from ushpizin like Ali Abu Awwad and others.

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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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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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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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RRC "Hands on Christianity" Course - Out of the Classroom and into the Neighborhood

RRC "Hands on Christianity" Reality TourThoreau went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately.” Fourteen years ago, Shane Claiborne and some friends moved into Kensington, an area of Philadelphia with abandoned factories and high unemployment, because they wanted to live Christianity. When asked if the intentional Christian community they created is “evangelical,” Shane responds affirmatively. “We want to spread the Kingdom of God like crazy!” Most important, the members of The Simple Way, want to do what God did. God did not save humanity from on high. Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Students from RRC came to Kensington to learn about Christianity. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the traditional time of Advent in the Christian calendar, seven rabbinical students are participating in a half credit course entitled “Hands on Christianity.” They have toured Kensington in a van with Shane Claiborne. They will study the four Gospels with Will O’Brien (a Simple Way ally who works for Project H.O.M.E) and Christians in the Alternative Seminary (also a local ally of the Simple Way) and they will spend a day joining the community for prayer and helping out with their Christmas store. In between, the students are organizing a new toy collection, hoping to engage the rest of the RRC community in a small way in their involvement with The Simple Way.

Hands on Christianity Students at The Simple WayDuring our tour, Shane showed us the landscape of a post-industrial slum:  the hospital where half the staff has been laid off, the challenges of accessing fresh food, the problem – of personal relevance to us after a few hours – of no public bathrooms. He also showed us the places where co-conspirators of The Simple Way were reclaiming the blighted landscape with sculpture gardens and murals, running a free medical clinic, working with people battling drug addiction. Throughout, he told his story without self aggrandizement. It was always about community, and it was not about big, splashy victories. Shane and his friends first came to Kensington as part of a dramatic take over by homeless people of an abandoned Catholic Church. The story made the newspapers. Since then, however, it has been a quieter kind of religious testimony:  rehabbing houses after a fire, creating a summer camp by closing down a street to traffic and playing with the kids, creating a collective health insurance pool with neighbors.

John Dominic Crossan, a world famous scholar of the New Testament, in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper, San Francisco, 1995) tells about a dream he once had in which Jesus comes to him and says, “I have read your book and it is quite good. Are you ready to join me and my vision?” Shane Claiborne tells how he had dinner with Crossan once. “As we shared with him our feeble attempts to follow after the peasant revolutionary he wrote about, his eyes gleamed with excitement.”

As we embarked on this hands-on learning experience with Christians who take a hands-on approach to their faith, our eyes, too, were gleaming.

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Jerusalem Peacemakers Come to Philadelphia

Eliyahu McLean Ghassan ManasraDespite potentially hopeful developments in some societies in the Middle East this year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not appear to be moving toward resolution any time soon. This reality does not daunt our guests, Eliyahu McLlean and Ghassan Manasra. On November 9th and 10th, RRC’s Department of Multifaith Studies and the Dialogue Institute at Temple University brought two Jerusalem Peacemakers to Philadelphia to share their wisdom. We wondered:  How do they maintain their spiritual focus in the face of a seemingly intractable situation?

“Give up attachment to results,” Eliyahu advises. (He has spent time learning with Tichh Nhat Hahn.) The child of an intermarried couple raised in Hawaii, Eliyahu first entered a synagogue at the age of 12. He now lives in an Orthodox moshav with his wife and baby. He has been an Israeli citizen for 13 years; all of them spent pursuing his vision of interreligious harmony in the most difficult of places, Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine. His friends include settlers on the west bank as well as Muslim and Christian religious leaders, a delegation of who blessed him under the huppah at his recent wedding.

Ghassan is the son of Sheikh Abdel Salaam Manasra, the head of the Qadiri Sufi order in the Holy Land. He is an ordained sheikh, a student of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari whose family came to Jerusalem 400 years ago. He founded the Jerusalem Peacemakers with Eliyahu in 2004. (Learn about the founding of the group from this video) Jerusalem Peacemakers organizes a variety of different events from grassroots encampments to conferences of religious leaders. They are not explicitly political. “I am not left wing or right wing,” says Eliyahu. “It takes two wings to fly.”

Both men are deeply religious. Their strong foundation in faith empowers them in their work. It also provides additional challenges. Eliyahu and Ghassan know well the fears and prejudices of their own neighbors and fellow observant Jews and Muslims. They believe that part of their calling is working within their own communities to change hearts and minds.

At the same time, they face the challenge of working with Jewish Israelis committed to co-existence from a secular perspective. Eliyahu and Ghassan patiently try to help everyone sort out their differences, inter and intra religious. “Food and modesty are our biggest challenges,” Eliyahu explains. “Planning meals can be tricky. You have to accommodate those who expect meat at a gathering during Ramadan, those who observe kashrut or hallal and those who are strict vegans.” Eliyahu explains that young Israelis can understand that they need to cover up to not offend the sensibilities of Muslim partners, but they resent having to do so for Orthodox Israelis.

Meanwhile, Ghassan and Eliyahu find their greatest sustenance in their own prayer lives.

This video captures Eliyahu McLean and a multifaith group engaging in the kind of action that the Jerusalem Peacemakers do best. The building in Hebron (the West Bank) that is said to be the burial place of Abraham holds both a synagogue and a mosque. In just under five minutes of footage one can watch an Israeli soldier stationed at the tomb gradually realize that this unlikely group has come to pray together. His smile near the end of the tape is worth waiting for. Our peacemakers rejoice when such transformations occur. But they are not attached.

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Faith On The Avenue: RRC Faculty And Students Tour Nearby Germantown Avenue, Learning About Religion And Our Urban Ecology

Faith on the Avenue

Did you ever meet a woman in love with an avenue? On Sunday, November 6, a busload of RRC faculty and students, guided by Professor Katie Day of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, travelled down Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, viewing the religious institutions along the way. The purpose:  to learn more about the city in which we are training rabbis to serve in a multifaith world.

Reverend Day is, by her own accounts, obsessed with “her” avenue, an eight and a half mile stretch of urban Philadelphia that traverses a variety of neighborhoods and includes over 80 religious institutions. For almost ten years, she has been studying the changing religious landscape along this road; in 2012 her book, Faith on the Avenue, will be published by Oxford Press.

From Chestnut Hill at the north end, through Mt. Airy, Germantown, North Philadelphia and Kensington South, the avenue reflects the story of class, race and religion in the city of Philadelphia. We saw churches that were founded before the Revolutionary War (three denominations began this avenue) and others that began just a few years ago. We learned about “hermit crab churches,” small congregations that move into large church buildings, left empty when the former community moved to the suburbs.

Triumph Baptist ChurchWe first stopped at Triumph Baptist Church , an African American “mega church” in North Philadelphia. At Triumph Baptist, the group toured the sanctuary, guided by a deacon at the church, William Gipson, who served for many years as Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania. We learned how the senior pastor, Reverend James Hall, has built this church community during the last 42 years, growing the community to over 5,000 members. (This month, Reverend Hall is celebrating his 60th year in the ministry.)

Al Aqsa Islamic SocietyWe also had the opportunity to leave the bus and learn more about Al-Aqsa Islamic Society at the very southern end of the avenue. Al-Aqsa was founded by a group consisting mostly of Palestinian Americans. In 1989 they purchased an old brick factory building and established a place for worship and a day school, now serving over 400 students, K-12. In 2004, a remarkable interfaith community project, organized by the Arts and Spirituality Center, created stunning facades---mosaics and paint---for two sides of the building. Joe Brenman, the Jewish artist who volunteered his talents to lead the work met us at Al-Aqsa and filled us in on the story.

Thanks to Reverend Katie Day and her deep passion for the avenue, its history and its future, we left feeling more connected to Philadelphia and to the richness of its multifaith fabric. We are planning additional opportunities for RRC to engage, as a community, with our city. This year, for the first time, staff at RRC along with faculty and students will be volunteering as part of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.

A slide show featuring some of Reverend Day’s tour can be viewed here.

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