Leadership for a World of Religious Diversity

RRC Logo
Multifaith World Banner

Category: Religion In America

Preparing for September 10-11, 2011

The following "sample sermon" by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer appears on the website of Rabbis for Human Rights along with other resources for that weekend. The link is

“If you are Jewish and have ever been present when a Jew said something negative about Islam or Muslims, please take one step forward. Same for you Muslims. If you ever heard Judaism or Jews disparaged by fellow Muslims, take a step.”

The ten Jews and ten Muslims participating in this exercise were not surprised by what they saw. Almost everyone in the line stepped forward. As emerging religious leaders, these men and women were spending four days together sharing their stories—sacred, communal and personal –at a retreat organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “Now,” the facilitator of the session continued, “If you spoke up every single time that happened, please take another step.”

Almost everyone stayed exactly where they were. They had chosen to attend this gathering because they knew their communities had trouble speaking about each other. They wanted to learn more so that they could become better leaders. And they all agreed that there was much work to be done, beginning with themselves.

That scene came back to me as I sat down to prepare for the fall high holidays, arriving this year on the heels of the anniversary of Sept 11, 2001. As in years past, I reviewed the catalogue of sins that the traditional prayerbook provides to help us recall specific instances of transgression. Once again, I was struck by how many of the sins involve speech. By one count, 17 of the 44 acts enumerated are explicitly performed by speaking. “For the wrong we have done before You…. with the speaking of our mouths… we have defamed… we have lied…we have shamed…we have gossiped and slandered…we have spoken ill. “ This last phrase in Hebrew is lashon hara.

The Jewish tradition has made much of those last two words. The teachings on lashon hara are astonishingly thorough in their concern for every nuance and detail of how a Jew might harm his neighbor through words. It is not hard to stretch those teachings to apply to individuals who are not Jewish. It is more of a stretch, but an important one, to think about lashon hara in terms of group defamation.

Contemplating the anniversary this weekend, I recalled some of the hateful speech that I heard in the last decade. Particularly this past year, Americans have witnessed a disturbing growth in uncharitable, negative speech about Islam and about Muslims as a group. I have heard Jews speak on these topics in ways that are ignorant stereotypes, at best. At worst, they are toxic rhetoric. When these Jews are not people who defame “liberals,” “illegals,” and the other groups often attacked along with “the Muslims,” it is particularly disturbing. From neo-con scholars to activist bloggers, certain Jews have been vocal participants in the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Their harsh words have found receptive ears in some places in the Jewish community. I am not alone in worrying that the anniversary of 9/11 will serve as an occasion to stir up more fear and hate.

The Jewish traditions around lashon hara developed in a time when monitoring speech about those of other faiths was not the norm. Different religious groups formed very different communities of moral concern, and ignorant or hostile opinions about the religious “other” were unremarkable. Of course, Jews know this well, having been the victims of malicious speech about our own group. Although we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the victims of hate, our relative power and security in America challenges us to push our tradition into somewhat new territory. If we take seriously what Judaism teaches about the power of words (“they create worlds”) we want to look carefully at how others, in this case Muslims, can be hurt by the words spoken about them, including words spoken by Jews.

That brings us to the second part of the exercise at our Muslim-Jewish retreat. Our Jewish participants confessed to having sat quietly by while family members, friends or congregants repeated opinions about Muslims that had the power to hurt. I have done so myself. Last month, I reconnected with a Jewish friend from my youth. When I told him that I was working on issues of Jewish-Muslim relations he said, “I am Islamophobic and will not apologize for it! Their religion tells them they will be rewarded in heaven if they kill me. Why wouldn’t I be afraid of them?”

I did not know where to begin, so I did not start at all. I remembered the important teaching about tochecha (rebuke), the famous line in Leviticus 19:17. “You will surely rebuke your fellow; you will not bear a sin on his account.” While the plain sense seems to be that you will be responsible for your fellow’s sin if you do not speak up, Rashi reminds us it may also be saying that in rebuking you may incur your own sin, that of shaming your fellow in public. Luzatto, with a different spin, points out that if you rebuke in the wrong way, you will only intensify the sinner’s attachment to his actions, and you will then be responsible for the sin increasing. With all the potential down sides, it seemed best to remain silent. I remember, however, how we Jews felt about those who were silent when we wish they had spoken on our behalf.

Perhaps focusing on the moral obligation of tochecha, rebuke, may be misdirecting our energies. Paired with a concern for lashon hara is another important Jewish value, hakarat hatov, acknowledging the good. The Jewish tradition offers us the concept of speech that is healing (“a healing tongue, marpeh lashon, is a tree of life.” Proverbs 15:4). What if we spent more time thinking about the potential of speech to reconcile, to elicit from people what is best inside them, to promote the good? I incline toward a vision of lashon marpeh, speech that heals.

In her commentary in Rabbi David Teutsch’s newly published A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living, Rabbi Vivie Mayer recalls the midrash in which Aaron, the first high priest, reconciled people to each other by telling each of two disputing parties that the other one was ready to make up. On first reading, this story sounds like Aaron told untruths. That would bring us right back to the litany of sins on Yom Kippur, “our lips speaking lies.” But Mayer sees it differently. She suggests that Aaron was telling the truth, the deeper truth that can be seen by the eyes of someone who is looking for the good. By speaking that truth, Aaron brought it to fruition.

In closing, I return to my friend who wears his Islamophobia with pride. What would lashon marpeh mean in that situation? First, it would mean acknowledging vulnerability, the assumption that we always have and will be victims, an assumption that is all too real for many Jews. Then, it would involve seizing opportunities to fill the information vacuums that leave us open to manipulation by those who would divide us. Finally, it would require speaking early and often about the positive interactions and promising practices in the world of emerging Jewish and Muslim leaders. My own resolution for this new year is to step forward every chance I get to repeat words of kindness, to offer people positive stories to replace negative ones, to use my words to create worlds of respect and hope.


Muslims and Jews in America: A Valuable New Resource

Muslims and Jews in AmericaThis month, Palgrave Macmillan published a wonderful new resource, Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions and Complexities, co-edited by Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. The editors have gathered an array of articles by scholars, communal professionals and activists that explore the engagement of Jews and Muslims in America. Together they provide a comprehensive review of the well publicized flashpoints of tension and conflict between Jews and Muslims and also the emerging dialogues, encounters and educational programs designed to enhance relationships. In the end, the book left me surprisingly optimistic about our communities’ prospects for a shared future.

Many of the flashpoints of recent years will be familiar to readers of this volume. Keith Ellison reminds us of the uproar in 2007 around his choosing to take his ceremonial Oath of Office with his hand on a Qur’an. Debbie Almontaser revisits the episode in 2008 that deprived her of her job as principal and New York City of its first Arabic language charter school. Omid Safi provides a careful study of the propaganda film, Obsession, and explores how in 2008 this diatribe against Muslims and Islam, disguised as a documentary, was distributed to 28 million people. And Aaron Hahn Tapper tells of the 2010 disruption of a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren by members of the Muslim Student Union, an event that was followed by pressure from Jewish organizations such as Hillel and ZOA to ensure the students were punished.

Continue Reading

Yona Shem-Tov: A Young Leader to Watch

Yona Shem-TovYona Shem-Tov, the newly appointed executive director of Encounter Programs brings to this position a remarkable set of experiences as a multifaith educator and activist. Last night I learned more about Yona while attending a Gala to honor the outgoing director of Encounter, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.

Yona was educated in Toronto in a Jewish day school, so she comes to this work with a strong grounding in her own identity and tradition. At the same time, Yona has always appreciated national and cultural diversity. Her mother survived the Holocaust as a child in Europe; her father was born in Iraq and was part of the first airlift of Jews from that country to Israel in 1951.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

Religious Hatred is American Treason: Peter King Hearings and a Lesson from 1921

John Webster SpargoIn the weeks leading up to the House hearings on "the radicalization of American Muslims," anti-Muslim rhetoric continued apace in some segments of the media. At an Islamic Society of North American dinner in Arlington, Virginia last month, over 200 Muslims shared their concerns as panelists discussed the challenges facing the Muslim community. Professor Ingrid Mattson, the immediate past president of the organization, began the program by reminding the audience, "We are not alone -- our interfaith family has our back."

This is not the first time Americans of faith have stood behind a religious group singled out for suspicion. In 1921, at a time of widespread, virulent defamation of Jews, John Spargo, a lay Methodist minister, social critic and activist, said "It should not be left to men and women of the Jewish faith to fight this evil ... Anti-Semitism commands our special attention today ... but my plea is not for pro-Semitism." Rather, he opposed efforts to "divide our citizenship on religious lines." He did so out of "loyalty to American ideals." In a lecture later that year, Spargo called religious hatred "American treason." In his eyes, the "Jews' problem" was actually an American problem.

Continue Reading

Rabbinical Training Helps in Planning Immigrant Rights Demonstration

On November 2, 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer carried the following article:

Pro-immigrant protest hits Philadelphia City Hall

Pro-immigrant Protest - Day of the DeadCarrying cardboard coffins and wearing "Day of the Dead" masks, pro-immigrant groups led by the New Sanctuary Movement marched on Philadelphia City Hall and the District Attorney's Office on Monday, seeking to end the contracts that govern cooperation between local police and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.


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

Here is Michael's reflection on the demonstration: 

In rabbinical school, we are constantly working to create rituals that communicate profound content clearly yet elegantly. A recent demonstration at City Hall on behalf of Immigrants' Rights provided an opportunity to put my rabbinical training to work. When I joined the interfaith committee planning this event, the group had already decided to hold a protest to coincide with the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday at the start of November. The major elements of the protest would be delivering a petition to the District Attorney and marching around City Hall, stopping for cultural performances by immigrant groups.

Continue Reading

Getting the Christmas Spirit

Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-KraininOur rabbinical college, RRC, launched a new website this week, In addition to a light hearted game exploring Jewish identity, the website also includes a blog with room for more probing explorations. The editor of the blog, Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin, launched the conversation with a post on being a Jew at Christmas. A wonderful dialogue has already begun.

One of the rabbinical students, Amy Loewenthal, responded with her reflections on Christmas in light of her recent experience of interfaith learning with Christians as part of her rabbinical training. Here are some of her thoughts (slightly edited.) The whole discussion of Christmas can be read here.

Our Jewish-Christian Hevruta class (RRC and Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia) had a transformative discussion of Christmas.

Continue Reading


This is the archival site for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It is no longer updated.

For the new site, please visit