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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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RRC's Muslim-Jewish Retreat for Emerging Leaders

Emerging Jewish Muslim Leaders Retreat
2011 Retreat “Alumni Facilitators” Professor Homayra Ziad and Rabbinical Student Diana Miller, pictured at 2009 Retreat.

This week - from June 13th-16th, at the Trinity Retreat Center in Connecticut, 24 Jews and Muslims will gather for four days to learn together, establish relationships, and imagine the future they hope to build together. This will be the second retreat in a series that RRC has planned part of a larger goal of creating a network of emerging Muslim and Jewish leaders. Four alumni from the first retreat are returning to help facilitate this event, along with RRC Multifaith Studies faculty members and guest scholars.

As in the past, the group will focus on the Joseph/Yusuf saga, a narrative found in both Torah and Qur’an and on the fascinating history of interpretation in both Muslim and Jewish traditions. From learning texts together, we will move into sharing in other modalities, including storytelling, the arts and creative ritual. We plan to also share our challenges leading our communities toward greater understanding and cooperation. We will explore the "promising practices" we have each found in our work, and bring our collective wisdom together as we move into the future. 

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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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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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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.

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New Perspectives - Holy Land Narratives and Politics

George Wielechowski (RRC, 2015) spent his one year Multifaith Internship helping to plan and staff a 10 day interfaith clergy trip to Israel, organized by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Here are some of his reflections:

Israeli scholars and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian AuthorityOur interfaith group of more than 20 highly-accomplished and experienced rabbis, bishops, monsignors, priests, reverend doctors and the like had been studying “holy land narratives” together in an academic setting for more than four months as part of the Maryland Clergy Initiative. Yet it took only a few days together 24-7 to start talking in a new way: one in which we felt safe to question our own assumptions. Once this happened, none of us came away unchanged.

During our trip we spent time with a spectrum of leaders: Rabbi Michael Melchior, former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Sharon government ; Haim Peri of Yemen Orde, two retired Israeli Army colonels, one of whom was the lead designer of and our personal guide around the Security Fence; several Knesset members; Arab priests and ministers deeply involved in social justice work; Israeli scholars and (in a private meeting, picture above left) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority.

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