Modern Israel and Interfaith Relations: A Sacred Journey

Oct 3, 2017 by

Modern Israel and Interfaith Relations: A Sacred Journey
Recently, I was guest lecturer at Georgia Tech. I addressed a bright group of young juniors and seniors taking a Religion and Science course. My assignment was to give them an overview of Jewish beliefs and practices from a personal point of view, something they wouldn’t gain from their required textbook. The class was made up of Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims. After an hour of presenting Jewish tradition and the wide spectrum of current practices and beliefs, I opened the floor for questions. The first question was prefaced by an apology that it might be too complicated for the remaining 15 minutes. Could I explain, “If two of the most highly regarded teachings of Judaism are that all human beings are equal and that one must not do to others what is hateful to themselves, how do you feel about the way Palestinians are treated by Israel?” I wasn’t surprised —this was not my first interfaith rodeo — and this is often a common question from interfaith groups.

Working in Jewish education for over 25 years, I have had countless opportunities to explore ways to teach and experience Modern Israel. And, most recently, I spent two intensive years working with Professor Ken Stein at the Center for Israel Education (CIE), an organization associated with the Institute for Modern Israel at Emory University. I had the pleasure and challenge of working with Ken and a couple of other educators developing workshops and curricular materials focused on methodologies for teaching Modern Israel.  So, I explained to this young student and his classmates, that the answer is a little complicated, to say the least.

In the past six years, I’ve also shifted from occasional participation in interfaith programs to undertaking a major role in my community as an interfaith leader. I sit on the board of Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. I have been a guest speaker at rallies, vigils, city council meetings and seminars, and I’ve been blessed to be on the leadership team of several interfaith trips comprised of Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims as we forge close and meaningful friendships.

And, yet the intersection between my work life at CIE and my avocation as an interfaith leader is rare. It’s clear to me, as I imagine it is to many of my rabbinic colleagues, that the single most challenging topic of discussion for liberal faith leaders and lay people is that of Modern Israel. Israel is often a deal breaker in interfaith relations, or at the very least it’s the elephant in the room as it was on my visit to Georgia Tech.  It can be awkward and emotional to bring up the painful aspects that emerged as we sought, build, and as we support and sustain the Modern Jewish state. However, I can say, that as difficult as the topic is, I strive to be honest and forthright with my closest interfaith friends. They are willing to hear me. And, I am willing to hear them. Because we have come to deeply trust one another.  And because we know how each of us strives for similar principles and ideals of human behavior, it is possible to broach challenging conversations. 

I am grateful for the insightful essays that tackle the struggles for liberal Jews on Israel in the upcoming CCAR publication The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices in Liberal Zionism. It will surely provide all of us with new considerations and also fresh ways to express ourselves as modern Zionists.

I also firmly believe that the insight and experience we can gain from the upcoming CCAR-sponsored interfaith clergy trip to Israel from January 28 through February 3, 2018 will be invaluable. I am confident that the intimate alliances formed with travel buddies yield a deep trust and friendship that opens the possibility of discussing the most challenging of topics. We have so much to gain from this opportunity. My hope is that two or three colleagues from various locales along with their interfaith clergy colleagues will form teams that can explore Modern Israel together on the ground. Then, upon their return will continue the discussions and embark on learning modules for their respective communities, teaching other colleagues in their area how to approach dialogue about Israel amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other faith groups. Our world and God are crying out for us to find partners with whom to bring about the deep friendships and greater understanding that are necessary and will provide the foundation for lasting peace. In preparation for this sacred work, I hope you will invite your interfaith colleagues to join you on this sacred journey hosted by CCAR staff and members.

Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser is in her second year as Co-President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Most recently, she has worked at The Center for Israel Education at Emory University as a rabbinic fellow, developing and disseminating curriculum for teaching Modern Israel. She has now moved on to be a full-time volunteer in the Interfaith activities in Atlanta, GA.

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