Millennial Jews Go to Kosovo

A week after being ordained a rabbi, I packed a bag and headed to the Balkans. It was three years ago. First meeting a friend in Serbia for several days of exploration, I took overnight busses successively to Macedonia, Montenegro, and Croatia. But the real mind-opening experience came in the country that persuaded me to travel to the region in the first place – Kosovo. I had been invited to speak at the annual international “Interfaith Kosovo” conference, being held that year in the small city of Peja. The conference was the pride of Kosovo’s leaders, showing the potential for a “newborn” state to become a leader in interfaith collaboration even after the brutal regional conflicts of the 1990’s. I was initially skeptical about the extent to which the ethos of collaboration truly permeated the society – but found that skepticism diminish in the course of meaningful interactions, not only at the conference but informally with countless Kosovars. I felt safe wearing a yarmulke around town and was greeted lovingly by total strangers, perhaps because they associated our tradition with the aid Israel had provided when they needed it most and the role that American Jewish leaders had played in averting genocide in the late 1990’s.

I left the conference knowing somehow that I would return – and with a desire to show other young Jews Kosovo, as well.

image3Last year, I had the good fortune of realizing that aspiration. I was invited to bring five young Jews to the Interfaith Kosovo conference with me. They were all leaders in Tribe, a collaborative initiative of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, which engages and empowers young Jewish Millennials living in New York City. For the six of us, it was a completely surreal experience. Presentations by heads of state, leaders of religious denominations, and social entrepreneurs; nights out on the town with much of Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry and ample opportunity to ask top leaders tough questions; the chance to represent the Jewish community at an event of international importance. As a 23-year old participant from Tribe put it to me, “I’ve never felt so proud to be Jewish.” She needed to venture far in order to feel at home in her Jewish identity.

image2This year, Interfaith Kosovo was even more generous, paying for nine leaders from Tribe and myself to attend the conference. We were a like a Jewish minyan in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina. The leaders of the conference and Foreign Ministry officials made us feel at home, the Acting Foreign Minister joined us at a café the first day, the President tweeted us words of welcome, and our group bonded within hours of its arrival. While the formal sessions left a lasting impression, the more informal conversations and person-to-person dialogue was just as impactful. Several Tribe leaders immediately associated Kosovo with Israel, suggesting that in some ways Kosovo could be seen as an even younger, more unsettled version of our spiritual homeland. Others expressed how (joyfully) unsettling it was to experience such kindness and warmth from Muslims in another country. Still more said that the trip afforded them a new way to articulate their identities as rising Jewish leaders. Most have already asked about whether we might return.

What are the chances that a country whose population is 80 percent Muslim would fly Jewish professionals from New York to experience its premier conference? What are the chances that they would be received with such care and genuine affection? The opportunity that Interfaith Kosovo provided for a reframing of Muslim-Jewish relations should not be overlooked – and neither should the power of interfaith dialogue in inspiring the next generation of Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton serves Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and co-Leader of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York. He also serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.

News Social Justice

Fighting Intolerance in an Election Year

Looking back on my first three years as a rabbi, I am embarrassed to admit how often I have shied away from policy issues in my sermons, adult education sessions, and even published articles. I do speak more openly about my views individually and in small groups, but spend most of my time in larger presentations delving into Torah and broader questions of meaning.

Yet multiple times so far this election, I have felt called to address what I see as egregious discourse that does damage to our social fabric. Are leading candidates calling for a ban on Muslims this week  – or singling out immigrants? Have women been maligned once again in sound bites designed to “go viral” online? Has the call for “revolution” (and the subsequent mockery of that call) obscured meaningful discourse on policy? Have rhetoric-filled social media diatribes by diehard supporters of individual candidates caused people to lose meaningful friendships?

I don’t think many of us have been able to remain silent with public discourse so fraught. This is one of the messiest and most strident elections in modern American history. I also think it affords us with a tremendous opportunity.

The day before the New York state primary, I had the opportunity to speak at a hope-filled multi-religious “Faith Not Fear” rally at the Interchurch Center on the Upper West Side. Organized by the Reverend Jennifer Crumption, our call was simple and non-partisan: as religious leaders, we call on candidates for public office to eschew hateful rhetoric and other actions that pit Americans against each other. It was an unlikely honor to be among a roster of speakers that included the president of Auburn Seminary, the Reverend Katharine Henderson, television host and Senior Minister Jacqui Lewis, activist Professor Simran Jeet Singh, and Muslim community leader and mayoral advisor, Dr. Sarah Sayeed.

It seems that gatherings and rallies like this are springing up in different states – and could provide a helpful counterweight to what will likely remain a divisive election cycle. Though clearly cathartic for the religious leaders who spoke, it far more importantly gave renewed purpose and sense of urgency to community organizing and interfaith collaboration. It would be unlikely and truly noteworthy if a legacy of this election could be strengthened community relationships and deeper trust between community leaders. It would not come from political leadership – but instead from us. Enduring bonds of trust and friendship would give meaning to the idea of religious leadership in the public sphere and remain an asset to our communities going forward.

One date in particular will call us to act together. As I learned from a fellow presenter at the rally, this year, September 11th and the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha coincide. Given the state of political discourse, images of Muslims celebrating their holy day on a day of national commemoration and mourning are likely to flood the media. Muslims will be called terrorists. Calls for deportation will increase. Genuine acts of hatred or violence could take place against a fellow minority religious community.

Especially given that the Muslim holy day commemorates our shared ancestor, Abraham, perhaps we can change the conversation and give nuance to an all too Manichean electoral contest. Perhaps we can reclaim one day out of the election year for civility, humanity, commemoration, and pluralism.

In New York, religious leaders have only just begun visioning a commemoration for our shared losses on September 11th that affirm pluralism. With just over four months to go and political rhetoric only spiraling, time is of the essence. Yet I remain optimistic that with vision and renewed collaboration, a day that could be hate-filled could instead become one in which we bring communities and people together.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton serves Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and co-Leader of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York. He also serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Transformation of Catholic-Jewish Relations

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest events in religious history. It was an event so groundbreaking and transformational that we can’t even remember a time before it. But all I have to do is ask my grandparents. There was a time when many Jews and Catholics did not get along at all.

My older relatives remember as children being harassed, spit on, or and beaten up on the way home from school by young Catholics who had learned in their Sunday school classes that Jews had killed Jesus. On Easter, there could be moments when it felt risky to be out in the streets.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton at IJCIC Meeting at the UN. Photo by Dov Lenchevsky
Rabbi Joshua Stanton at IJCIC Meeting at the UN. Photo by Dov Lenchevsky

People of my parents’ generation remember being ill at ease talking about religion with Catholic friends and colleagues, who didn’t necessarily espouse anti-Semitic views but didn’t necessarily have a favorable view of Jews, either.

As a 29 year-old rabbi, I remember nothing but love. I remember getting cards and hugs from Catholic neighbors and friends on the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah. I remember running in the bird sanctuary of my alma mater with a traditional Catholic who wanted to have “at least 9 children” but had nothing but affection for Jews, whom he saw as fellow people of God. I remember a dear Catholic colleague bringing his son to meet me at my synagogue earlier this year, so that his son could learn about Judaism and how beautifully it connected with his own faith.

Loving, openhearted relationships are now the norm between Catholic and Jewish communities. But it could not have been so without Nostra Aetate, the landmark accord that the Church promulgated as part of the Second Vatican Council. The proclamation affirms the sacred nature of the Jewish people and their covenant with God:

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

The theological clarification of Nostra Aetate was mirrored by continued changes in the attitudes of Vatican leadership and the Catholic Church as an institution. These shifts were so significant that it is difficult for many to envision a time before them.

IJCIC Meeting at the UN. Photo by Dov Lenchevsky
IJCIC Meeting at the UN. Photo by Dov Lenchevsky

This week, on December 16th, leaders from the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultation (IJCIC), which liaises on behalf of the Jewish community with the Vatican and World Council of Churches, and includes representatives from major Jewish organizations, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, convened a celebration at the United Nations in collaboration with the Holy See. It commemorated the full half-century since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate and looked ahead to the promising future of Catholic-Jewish relations.

Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy delivered a keynote address, along with discourse from leaders of both communities, including Archbishop Bernardito Auza, who leads the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations.

I am fortunate to be one of the CCAR’s representatives to this organization and had the privilege of helping to convene the gathering at the United Nations. It was a moment of celebration and formally acknowledged just how far Jewish and Catholic communities had come in their relations with one another.

I had the unlikely opportunity to speak at the convening, providing the perspective of a younger person, who was not alive until decades after Nostra Aetate was issued. For me as a Millennial and a rabbi, it seemed fearfully evident how easy it would be to overlook the time before Nostra Aetate. The document falls prey to its own success, as changes happened so quickly since its issuance that we can scarcely conceive of what it might have been like to be called a Christ-killer or have anti-Semitism run rampant in the world’s largest religious institution.

Many young Jews and Catholics have never even heard of the document. But when it is easiest to forget, we should be particularly keen to remember.

The process of creating Nostra Aetate and the tremendous efforts on the part of Jewish and Catholic leaders to lay the groundwork for it should serve as an enduring example. Even the most fraught of inter-communal relationships can be changed. Nostra Aetate should be not merely a reminder of the past, but also a guide to the future.

Yes, it took years of toil and challenging conversation within and between Catholic and Jewish leadership circles to complete. But in the end, Nostra Aetate is an enduring testament to interreligious dialogue and a reminder of the good it can do. In our time of turbulence and global uncertainty, it should serve as a guide to our steps and call us to improve relations between the Jewish community and those of other faith traditions.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and co-Leader of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York. He also serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.