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.
Last 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.
This 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.