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Books interfaith Social Justice

Learning to Speak the Language of Faith Again

In 2017, a newly elected conservative Congress introduced legislation that would have stripped 40 million Americans of health insurance. Within days, hundreds of clergy from all over the country gathered at the U.S. Capitol to oppose the bill, calling it a Death Bill. In this first of many actions to come, we packed the hallway outside Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s office. One by one, Jews, Christians and Muslims read from our sacred texts and told the stories of those who would suffer and die from these cuts. At the end of the protest, a lay leader looked at me with the eyes of one standing on holy ground and said, “I feel like I am learning how to speak the language of faith again.”

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, edited by Rabbi Seth Limmer and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, empowers religious leaders and activists to boldly speak the language of faith in this challenging moment in our nation’s history. In part one, leading Jewish scholars lay a scriptural foundation to wrestle with the critical issues of our time. Part two shares organizing strategies from cutting-edge Jewish advocacy leaders.

As we advocate for justice, we must recognize that powerful people in our midst seek to implement policies motivated by greed, Social Darwinism, and the ties of “blood and soil” rather than love of neighbor. Our voices, grounded in scriptures that instruct us honor the image of the divine in every person, welcome the stranger, and proclaim the year of Jubilee provide a powerful antidote. God calls us to resist tyranny — to never forget our own vulnerability and oppression because we too were once slaves in Egypt. To preserve these teachings and values, we must be well-organized and courageous, and loudly speak the language of faith.

As a Presbyterian pastor who leads an interfaith network of clergy, I see firsthand the richness and power of this nation’s diverse faith and moral traditions. Each one brings unique wisdom to bear on how we live together. Even as we speak the unique language of our own faith, our unity is powerful. We don’t need to have the same talking points and theology to march under the same banner for the same cause.

Our moral vision is critical for the survival of our communities and our nation. We must be articulate and bold in communicating these to the public. And we must be strategic as we organize resistance to rising white nationalism, growing inequality and the oppression of religious, sexual and racial minorities. I keep this book close at hand as I seek to meet the challenges of the present moment. I urge you to read it, and I look forward to seeing you lifting up your voices on the streets, and in the halls of power.


Reverend Jennifer Butler serves as the CEO of Faith in Public Life. She was also Chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships during the Obama administration.

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interfaith Passover Pesach Prayer

Tragedy and Transcendence: Opening Prayer for the CO State House in a Time of Holiness and Horror

Rabbi Joe Black read this opening prayer for the Colorado State House of Representatives before they began their session on Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

Our God and God of all people:

This Friday night, Jews around the world will tell the ancient story of Passover.  We will gather around our seder tables and experience the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom and redemption. On Easter Sunday, Christians will celebrate the potential to be reborn with hope and faith.

This is a sacred time – when we are reminded of both the fragility of life and the potential for renewal and redemption. Now should be a period of gratitude and introspection that helps us to see the best in all of humanity.

And yet, in the midst of these festivals of holiness and hope, over the past two days our state was suddenly and brutally thrust into a climate of terror and dread brought about by a heartbreakingly disturbed young woman who played out her demons as we anticipated the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

The juxtaposition of the anticipation of these two sacred festivals with the ugliness and paralysis of potential violence reminds us just how little progress has occurred in the years since our innocence was shattered on April 20th, 1999. We have become numb to the horrors of violence brought about by each new tragedy. For a parent to have to tell their child that it is too dangerous to go to school is an obscenity and anathema to the values that are embodied in this sacred chamber.

When messages of rebirth and redemption are overshadowed by fear, we must take stock in who we are and who we are becoming. We can try to write off each tragic incident as distinct and separate, but taken in an aggregate we have no choice but to acknowledge that there is a sickness in our nation that cannot be ignored. Whether it is caused by easy access to weapons of destruction or the political divisions that paralyze us, it is essential that we come together to bring about change – to strive to see the veracity and sanctity of all humanity – even if we disagree. If the deaths of innocents are not enough to move us to action, then what have we become?

May the messages of hope and rebirth symbolized by both Passover and Easter motivate all of us to see the holiness infused in every soul. As we anticipate this painful anniversary, may we be inspired to use every means at our disposal to ensure that the hopelessness and despair that we have been feeling these past two days will be replaced by a sacred determination to bring about healing and change.  Only then will we be able to ensure that we are doing God’s work on earth.

Amen

Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. This blog was originally shared on his personal blog.

Categories
interfaith Israel Rabbis

Making Strides for Religious Understanding in the Holy Land

Pastor Todd Buurstra, Dr. Ali Chaudry, and I have been making strides together for some time now. Moved by the travel ban that singled out Muslims for discrimination, we organized a prayer vigil that brought together a community of communities representing nine different religions to stand together against hate. A few months ago, after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Accords on climate change, we held an interfaith teach-in on environmental responsibility that included 10 different religious traditions.

Recently, the three of us were blessed to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land — to walk in the footsteps of the forebears of our three faiths, bear witness to the truths that each of us holds dear, and reflect on the greater truth of the One God that unites us all.

Pastor Todd and I shared our journey with the CCAR Interfaith Clergy Mission to Israel, which included six rabbis, six Christian clergy, and one imam; Dr. Ali joined Rabbi Marc Kline on an Interfaith Clergy Mission with the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ. Though these two missions were organized under different auspices, their itineraries were so similar that it is possible to speak of them as if we had shared the same experience.

Upon reflection, Pastor Todd, Dr. Ali, and I agreed that the most powerful aspects of our journey fell into three categories: Witnessing Faith, Witnessing Hope, and Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians.

Witnessing Faith

I have visited the holy places of other faiths before, but I must confess that such encounters were primarily of academic or historical interest. This time, the experience was remarkably different. Standing side by side with Christian and Muslim friends for whom these sites were part of their living-faith narrative made them come alive with emotion and drama. We were witnessing each other’s faith as we listened to the stories of events that happened in each place and saw them through each other’s eyes.

We spoke openly and soulfully about what these events and places mean to us, how they have shaped us, and also of our struggles to reconcile the contradictions inherent in religious symbolism. I noted the discomfort of my Christian colleagues as they watched coreligionists kissing the burial slab of Jesus. And they saw my distress at how the Western Wall has become a place of exclusion, division, and even violence against those who don’t hew to ultra-Orthodox interpretations. The more we learned and engaged in heartfelt dialogue, the more we returned to the same mantra to describe what we were observing, intoning like a chorus the words, “It’s complicated!” But through all the complexity there was the deep emotion of witnessing each other’s faith that touched our souls. Through the differences we saw an illuminating similarity shining through, and that was the shared experience of God’s presence in the world and in our lives.

Witnessing Hope

News reports from Israel and the Middle East depict a bleak reality of bitter conflict and discord. Rarely do the media offer reason for optimism. But there is much more to the picture than hatred and violent struggle. There is also cooperation, coexistence, understanding, and even loving fellowship between Jews and Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It may not make the headlines, but it is there to be seen, and it is cause for hope.

One shining example is the work of an organization called Roots, which was founded by former extremists Rabbi Hannan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awad. Hannan is a West Bank settler who once believed that the entire Land of Israel was given by God to the Jewish people. He had never met a Palestinian face to face. In fact, he says they were invisible to him. Then, one day, he had a transformational encounter with a Palestinian neighbor that compelled him to understand and embrace the truth that there is another people, the Palestinians, who have a legitimate claim to the same land and a right to their own sovereign state.

We met Hannan along with a young Palestinian man from Bethlehem named Noor Awad. Noor and his family have experienced great hardship under Israeli occupation, and many of his friends have embraced the path of militant resistance. But Noor, too, was moved by a human encounter with his neighbors, Jewish settlers whom he has embraced as partners in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. At this stage, Roots is promoting dialogue and human understanding, but they realize that this is a precursor to the quest for a political solution that will involve two states that share one homeland.

Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians

From afar, the Middle East takes on a mythic quality. It seems more like a seething cauldron of powerful forces that threatens to overflow and scorch the earth than the actual pastoral landscape of hills and valleys, verdant vineyards, bustling cities, and diverse people living colorful lives day by day. The land of the Bible, the place where Jesus lived and taught and the site of Muhammad’s rise to heaven, is also a thriving modern country inhabited by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is not a place only of dreams deferred, but also one of dreams fulfilled, though certainly more so for the Jewish people than the Palestinians. But here, too, lies a source of hope. Israel is a model of a people dispersed and despised returning home to build a nation where they can be self-reliant.

That quest has come at a cost. Security is a constant challenge, as we saw when we visited the northern border, where threats loom large from Hezbollah and ISIS in Syria and Lebanon. Standing on the Golan Heights, it was clear to all why Israel had to take control of the hills from which Syrian artillery rained down on Jewish communities in the valley below from 1948-1967.

Similarly, one cannot fully understand what Israel means to the Jewish people unless one goes to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It brings home with the most painful clarity why the Jewish people believe in the necessity of a sovereign Jewish state. One of the most meaningful moments of our journey was the tearful embrace of a Christian colleague that conveyed to me the depth of that understanding.

Yes, Israel is a complicated reality. Yes, there is so much more to do to realize the promise of peace and dignity for all the people who are destined to share that holy land. But we, three faith leaders from Central New Jersey on a pilgrimage to the roots of our respective faiths, discovered the greater truth of all our faiths that was forged on that sacred soil — that we are all children of the One God, sisters and brothers who must learn to love one another and share the gifts that God has given us.

Rabbi Arnold Gluck serves Temple Beth-El of Hillsborough, New Jersey.

Categories
interfaith

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.

Categories
interfaith Rabbis

An Open Letter to My Dead Mother-in-Law at Christmas

Dear Bestemor (Grandmother),

We are here in Norway over Christmas.  I am sure you would be surprised since we have not visited at this season for the last 14 years. Before then, we regularly came at Christmas and stayed through New Year’s. I sat at your holiday table next to the Christmas tree in a house fully decked out in the Norwegian Christmas spirit, less garish than the American mode, but still full-on Christmas. In appropriate Norwegian style, we never spoke of why we stopped visiting at this time of year, but my guess is that you knew why. If you had been a Jewish New Yorker like me, we would have surely talked heatedly about this or perhaps even yelled and said regrettable words to one another. And you would have plagued me with unrestrained guilt for withholding the joy any grandmother deserved. But you were Norwegian and so bore your feelings wordlessly.

I thank you for making it easier. I apologize that now only after your death we have reappeared at the darkest time of the year to clean out your home and care for your widower, our beloved Bestefar, Grandfather.

As you knew, I am a Jew, a religious Reform Jew and a rabbi at that. It is not clear to me if you fully understood that last part, so integral to my identity. I met your son, my beloved, in Jerusalem on Rosh HaShanah. He was studying as a visiting doctoral candidate at Hebrew University; I was starting my American rabbinical studies with a first year in Israel. He was deep into his conversion studies; I was heady with my renewed love of Judaism. A perfect match.

Now 24 years later, I preach and teach, confidently speaking of intermarriage, pronouncing that we are ALL intermarried, whether we know it or not. It is true. In every American Jewish extended family there are members who are not Jewish. It would be extraordinarily rare to find a family untouched by the mixing inevitable in our modern world. Ours is no different. We navigate holidays, vacations and lifecycle events with this extra dimension of challenge, blessing and, yes sometimes, tension.

I could not continue to return for Christmas even though I wrote about my experiences at your holiday table so glowingly (“Kosher Christmas Dinner,” The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, CCAR Press: 2011). I described the kosher food laid out harmoniously next to the abundant treif, non-kosher food. Yet, I could not continue to visit during my son’s formative years despite your joy to host him. As someone trained to imprint religion on the next generation, I fully understood that the sights, sounds, tastes of a holiday, mixed with folklore of presents brought to the good little barna, children, all within a grandmother’s loving embrace, is the most powerful way to bond with religion.

It is ironic, as we were just about to announce a Christmas trip to Norway this year when you died suddenly in November. Our previous vacation plans fell through and, aware of your and Bestefar’s age, we thought it prudent to add an extra visit to the yearly schedule. The toddler who once marveled over the Christmas decorations in your house is now a teen, developing his own Jewish identity. He is surely beyond the stage of simple imprinting.

Please know that I never wanted to cause you any heartbreak. We stopped visiting in December and instead found other times for the long haul to your family. In addition, a continent away, I put your pictures around my baby’s crib and surrounded him with Norwegian culture. It was only fair to my husband and you, his family, that our child grow up knowing his people on both sides. I think you knew this, as you enjoyed speaking Norwegian with him on the phone and in person. Perhaps, this brought you joy the other 364 days of the year, but I am sure on Christmas it did not. Thank you for not obstructing our choices as parents; thank you for accepting difficult compromises with grace.

With much love,

Your American Jewish daughter-in-law

Mary Zamore is Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and was editor of “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic.”  She is also currently the interim director of Mentoring for the CCAR.