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Category: Jewish-Christian Engagement

My Neighbor's Faith: Trouble Praying

This column is an excerpt from the book 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'

"I envy you Jews," said the young German as he poured my morning coffee.

The year was 1980. I was the guest of a graduate student at Heidelberg University. My stay in his home was part of a month-long trip through Germany with Jews and Christians engaged in "post-Holocaust interfaith dialogue."

My host's statement surprised and bewildered me. I was just beginning my dissertation on the topic of anti-Judaism in Protestant "Old Testament" theology and I thought I knew a lot about the relationship between Jews and Christians. In fact, I was planning to devote my career to helping Christians see their complicity in the suffering of the Jews and to transcend the flaws in their theology. I could understand my host feeling sorry for us Jews. I could understand him apologizing to us. But I could not understand him envying us.

"Why in the world would you envy Jews?" I asked.

His reply changed my life.

"I envy you because it is easier for you to pray. You see, we young Germans carry the weight of what our parents and grandparents did -- or did not do -- during the war. It is hard for us to talk to God. We feel a little embarrassed." Although the conversation took place 30 years ago, I can conjure it up in an instant: the earnestness in my fellow student's voice, the clarity in his blue eyes.

I had thought, until then, that it was we Jews, the victims, who had trouble praying! There was something about the way he said it -- perhaps the phrase "a little embarrassed" -- that made it feel completely genuine. This conversation clarified for me my core belief, a very useful thing to discover at the age of 27. After that morning, I possessed an orienting idea, a place to check in regularly to see if my plans were aligned with what I believed.

I believe that we should live our lives so that our children won't be "a little embarrassed" if they want to pray. Until that morning, I thought that meant being a good daughter, a compassionate friend and a dutiful citizen. But now I saw something new: taking responsibility for the group from which I derive my identity, the group whose actions will lead my children to be proud or embarrassed before God. For me, that group was and is the Jewish people.

The immediate result of this revelation was that I changed my dissertation topic. Rather than looking at problematic Christian texts, I would study problematic Jewish writings. I would investigate the ways in which my own tradition misunderstands others rather than point a finger at the others for misunderstanding us.

That can be challenging. For example, today, when I choose to speak out about certain policies pursued by the State of Israel, colleagues -- including good friends -- e-mail me to say they disagree with my action. "You ought to be criticizing Hamas," they say. "There are enough non-Jews jumping on the bandwagon to condemn Israeli actions; we don't need rabbis doing it too!" "Besides," they often add, "however bad Israel's actions, many other countries have done much worse."

They are right, of course. But what can I do? I can learn as much as possible, consult Israelis I trust who know more than I do, and try to speak with humility. My commitment to Middle East work, like the interfaith work to which I devote most of my time, grows from my core belief to which I have tried to stay true. Being part of a community means being ready to argue with it, to critique it, to ask it to live up to its best self.

I say I do it for tikkun olam, to make the world more whole. But the deeper truth is that I do it for my daughters. They are now in their 20s, still figuring out their relationship to their Jewish heritage and to God. I want them to be able to pray without embarrassment. Although there is much to lament in the way some Christians and some Muslims have treated and continue to treat Jews, that is not my issue. My job as a Jew, as a mother, is to scrutinize my own faith tradition and my own community. Given that I have uncertain knowledge and limited power, all I can do is my best. But thanks to an encounter 30 years ago, I know what I am trying to accomplish.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

 


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New Interfaith E-Journal Publishes Symposium on "Meaning"

The Interfaith Observer"Can you tell us how you find meaning in 1,000 words or less? You are welcome to include a picture or two."

The invitation came to me from Reverend Paul Chaffee, the editor of The Interfaith Observer, a new electronic journal launched this past September. TIO, as it is casually known, is “a monthly e-journal telling new stories, exploring new issues, identifying exemplary resources, and connecting us to each other." Reverend Chaffee comes to this work after decades of interfaith leadership. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he was the founding executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, where he served for 17 years. His vision for this new publication makes good sense.

As he put it, “Interfaith, multireligious, multifaith – we hear these words in the news, in hundreds of new interreligious websites and blogs, and in a multitude of responses to the new religious diversity in our midst. For a novice, this can feel overwhelming. Even those who’ve labored in the interfaith vineyard for decades tend to underestimate the scope of interfaith bridge-building going on in neighborhoods around the world. For anyone wanting to learn more about the interfaith movement, its history and its role in the 21st century, its protocols and foundational documents, there is little to provide a context or identify the cream of the crop among the proliferating resources at our disposal."

I first learned about TIO when Reverend Chaffee asked my permission to include a HuffingtonPost piece I wrote in the second issue of the journal (October, 2011). I agreed, and was glad to meet Paul in November at the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco. Now I had the opportunity to write about "meaning," in 1,000 words. (If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, I guess you could say 2,000 words.)

Like all smart networkers, Paul Chaffee not only developed a symposium, he also hooked up with another electronic publication, State of Formation, whose authors are "emerging religious and ethical leaders." An "intergenerational" conversation resulted with parallel symposia on the same topic, published on both sites.

I enjoyed writing my piece and reading all of the contributions. Since I can recall the days of Protestant/Catholic/Jew, I continue to marvel at the wide range of voices included from Humanist to Mayan to Seikah.

A common thread: several of the images accompanying the articles including both the one shown above and my own pictured the author in an interfaith group protesting injustice.

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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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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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Taking Interfaith on the Road

Clergy Beyond Borders Caravan for Reconciliation

It was like living in a joke. “There was a rabbi, an imam and a minister…“ – But we did not walk into any bars. Instead, we walked into churches, synagogues and mosques, all part of a 15 day tour from Washington D.C. through the southern states, up to Michigan and back through Ohio and Pennsylvania organized by Clergy Beyond Borders. I joined the caravan in Atlanta and flew home from Nashville, participating in programs in two churches, three mosques, one synagogue and a university, all in four days. We also met with legislators in the Tennessee House of Representatives and with a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Our audiences included those who eagerly anticipated our visit to their town and others who, like the gentleman in the mosque in Nashville, had just “come for morning prayers, smelled coffee, and stayed to learn.”

The trip was the brainchild of Imam Yahya Hendi, a Palestinian American, the founder of the Washington DC based national group that sponsored the trip. We called ourselves a Caravan of Reconciliationand presented a program titled, From Fear to Faith.In every place we spoke, we found those for whom our message was welcome support, others for whom it was novel but exciting, and still others who challenged us with hard questions. We also found open hearts and much evidence to inspire hope. Indeed, the narrative that emerged was neither all rosy, nor all grim. Many Americans are suffering and confused; fear is a factor in our country, one that can easily be manipulated and turned into darker emotions. Religion, we saw vividly, can certainly be part of the problem. Our message:  our religious communities can be part of the solution.

Imam Yahya would begin each talk by warning his audience that he had learned to preach from a Southern Baptist. This always brought a big laugh, as did his comment, "You may have noticed that I have an accent." He would then go on. "When they hear my accent, people ask me where I am from. So I tell them. I am from dust." Long pause. "I am a dustonian." Laughter. "From dust you come and to dust you will return. It is in the Bible and in the Qur'an. We share that belief." Hushed silence. Later, toward the end of his talk, the imam would sometimes circle back to the idea that we are all fellow dustonians. "That is my politics, that is my theology." Simple? Perhaps. But very effective, and a good place to begin to connect. Rabbi Gerry Serottawould also stress, each and every stop, that we were clergy beyond borders, not clergy without borders. We treasure our differences and the borders that circumscribe our unique faith communities.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg who travelled with the group for the first week, spoke powerfully to an audience at Masjeed AlFarooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. She reported having spoken earlier that day at a synagogue where her message had been that she did not consider Jews the most victimized of people in America. “That dubious distinction goes to Muslims.” During the question period, a young Muslim man challenged her a bit angrily, “How could Jews possibly think they are oppressed?” Instead of responding that she agreed with him, she asked him, in the most loving way possible, not to assume he knows how the world looks to a Jew, just as she would not question the reality a Muslim experiences, nor would she credit the view of a non Muslim who presumed to do so. Heads nodded all around and the questioner himself seemed visibly moved. (The entire program is available on video here.)

Reverend Steve Martin, an evangelical preacher and a life long resident of Tennessee, the executive director of the New Evangelical Partnernship for the Common Good told audience about his ministry as a documentary film maker.  He spoke of the friends he made making a film about Muslims in Appalaachia and how he worried, after the attacks of September 11th, how the people he had grown to love would fare in this new moment in history. He also talked about another film he had made, one about theologians in Nazi Germany. The analogy was subtle and gentle, but important. “As a Christian,” he would say, “I am concerned when my religious tradition causes damage.” In Chattanooga, 800 church goers, many of whom came that morning as part of their Sunday routine, rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to Imam Yahya. That experience was theirs only because the pastor of the church was an old friend of Reverend Steve. Later, a much smaller but still significant group returned for two hours of intense questions and answers. Over coffee, I asked as many people as I could, “Do you have Muslims in this city?” Most said they were not sure. A few had heard that there was a small group and that they were planning to build a mosque.

The issue of Muslim integration into society plays itself out these days through zoning battles over construction or expansion of mosques. I asked the pastor of the church if he had heard anything about the plans for a mosque in Chattanooga. He responded, “I am looking into it. I plan to try to contact them and see what I can do to support the community. Some of my colleagues and I want to let people know that if anyone has a problem with Muslims’ plans to workship, they should take it up with us.” In Chattanooga, that will count for a lot.

In my next post, I will talk about our visits to two communities that have faced zoning battles over mosques, Alpharetta, Georgia and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (For a preview of that program, watch here:  Panel Promotes Religious Diversity)

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40 Days and Nights in Jerusalem

Reverend Dr. Wil GafneyThe Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney is an Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is an ordained Episcopal priest, a member of the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia and also a member of a Reconstructionist minyan, Dorshei Derekh Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre. Wil is a good friend and partner to the Multifaith Studies Department at RRC. Twice in the last few years, Wil co-taught with Rabbi Melissa Heller our course, Hevruta:  Jewish-Christian Encounter through Text. Recently, she left Philadelphia to spend 40 days in Jerusalem, writing and thinking, and of course, blogging.

The curious reader who checks out Wil's blog will be rewarded, not only by the thoughtful observations and stunning photography, but also by the opportunity to see the Israel/Palestine conflict through a unique perspective. As Wil herself acknowledges in her first entry, she comes to this situation, like anyone, with "baggage." Here is Wil's description of her own:

Jerusalem is important to me as a Christian, as a woman who prays in synagogue, as a person committed to inter-religious dialogue, as a woman who seeks peace on the earth in my lifetime, and as an American voter who communicates my desire for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to my elected representatives.
 

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Building Trust Makes True Engagement Possible

Tamara Cohen (RRC ’15) worked as an RRC Multifaith Intern in 2010-1l with Walking the Walk, a project of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia that brings high school students together across religious boundaries.

Walking the WalkIt's 12:47 am. I am lying on an air mattress on a classroom floor at the Academy of Notre Dame in suburban Philadelphia. Upstairs, twenty-two teenage girls half of whom are students here at Notre Dame and half students at the nearby Barrack Hebrew Academy, are giggling together as they quiet down for the night. I have been leading this group all year and tonight they taught me what interfaith work is really all about.

Earlier in the evening, we sat around a table and passed a basket with small pieces of colored paper. On them were printed questions that the girls had come up with, questions they felt that they had not yet dared to ask one another. One by one, with respect, genuine curiosity and courage, they reached into the basket, selected a question and entered into dialogue with one another. The questions were not easy ones.

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Valarie Kaur: A Young Leader to Watch

Valarie KaurValarie Kaur, a 2011 graduate of Yale Law School, is also an award winning documentary film maker. As the newly appointed Executive Director of a new multifaith initiative called Groundswell at Auburn, she exemplifies the young leadership that is making multifaith work so exciting today. Valarie is part of the most religiously diverse generation in American history. Coming into adulthood in "the ashes of September 11th," Valarie, like many other emerging leaders, is embracing the challenges of pluralism in remarkable new ways.

When I entered this field in the 1970's, a typical "interfaith" event included Protestants, Catholics and Jews. I remember a Jewish mentor telling me that talking to Christians was a good idea. "Tell them not to teach hateful things about Judaism and not to convert our children." Of course, there were those whose vision was greater than that, and in a future post I hope to write about the pioneers of interfaith work in America whose efforts should be honored.

But today, I want to call attention to Valarie and her generation whose spiritual drive, inclusiveness and passion for justice should hearten the most cynical soul.

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Multifaith Seder: Food, Immigrant Experience and Justice

Michael Ramberg (RRC, 2012) who is serving this year as a Multifatih Intern with the New Sanctuary Movement and Congregation Mishkan Shalom helped plan this event.

Multifaith SederLast Friday night around 130 Jews, Christians, and friends gathered at Mishkan Shalom synagogue for a pre-Pesah (Passover) multifaith seder which I helped to organize as part of my internship with Mishkan Shalom and the New Sanctuary Movement. In many ways the event resembled a traditional seder. We ate seder foods--matzah, maror (bitter herbs, usually horseradish), haroset (a sweet, chunky paste, often made from apples and nuts), hardboiled eggs and parsley dipped in salt water. We asked four questions and drank four cups of wine. We sang Dayenu, and it all took a very long time--par for the course for a traditional seder.

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Bringing Jews to Church

Gateway to Religious Communities

 

 

 

Leslie Hilgeman (RRC, 2013) is spending her one year Multifaith Internship at the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia.

Here are some of her reflections:

Here’s a moment I never expected to encounter when I entered rabbinical school – inviting Jews to come to church!

This year as a rabbinic intern at the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, I am coordinating a program called Gateway to Religious Communities.

Bryn Mawr Presbyterian ChurchEach Fall and Spring members of the public sign up to visit a series of congregations over a few months’ time. Most recently we visited the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, in Bryn Mawr.

At each congregation we visit, we attend a worship service. We meet with a leader before hand who explains the service, and then afterwards there’s a Q & A where we talk about what we saw and experienced. And we talk about faith.

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