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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
Israel

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.

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
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.

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.

Categories
CCAR Convention General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “Being in the Right Place at the Right Time”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

I had a paternal grandmother who truly believed that much of life was “b’shert,” the result of fate. In my 50 years as a rabbi, I feel as though, I was often in the right place at the right time.

After ordination, I became an assistant rabbi in the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. My senior was Rabbi Maurice Davis z”l.  I learned so much from him. Both of us possessed a passion for working with teenagers. We had both been advisors to the Ohio Valley Federation of Temple Youth.  We were both deeply committed to Inter Religious Dialogue and Civil Rights. We opposed American military intervention in Vietnam.

Two and a half years into my assistantship, Maury invited me to his house for lunch. This was not unusual, because this was not an infrequent occurrence. You see, all of the sermons delivered from the bimah of IHC were recorded and he and I would evaluate my sermons.  But this day was different.  A few weeks earlier, I had been asked by the then UAHC to become the Southeast Regional Director with headquarters in Miami.  I wanted to remain in the Midwest, having been born and bred in Chicago. At that time, I believed only senior citizens lived in South Florida.  My grandparents moved there in 1935. Maury Davis’ message to me was simply: ”You’ve made a big mistake. They’re going to offer you the position again. Take it.”  Little did I know then, that within three months, he was going to become the rabbi of the White Plains Jewish Community Center. He had been one of the main reasons I wanted to be in Indianapolis – to learn from him.

And so, 48 years ago, my wife Penny and I and two of our three children, the third being born in Miami, moved to South Florida. We have never regretted the decision to journey to our “subtropical paradise.” In my new position, I travelled to and spoke to, at that time, 56 different congregations in five Southern states and Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.  I served as advisor to the Southeast Federation of Temple Youth and I was responsible for the creation of new congregations.

In 1970, after four years of travelling for the Union, I wanted to get back to being a Congregational rabbi.  A new temple forming in Hollywood, Florida  with approximately 35 families asked me to be their rabbi.  I was offered a one-year contract; the rest was up to Penny and me to make it work. It was a gamble. Should I take it? I asked CCAR placement. They said,” It’s up to you.” Was this “b’shert” or a mistake about to happen?  Well, that one year contract lasted for 37 years until I chose to retire as Temple Solel’s Founding Rabbi Emeritus.

Out of our large Temple family, we produced two rabbis, one a member of the CCAR and the other a Reconstructionist rabbi. We have produced an invested Cantor. We have produced two writers of Broadway shows – one who had three shows playing on Broadway at the same time and the other a Tony Award winning writer of “Avenue Q.” We have produced various congregational leaders throughout North America.  We have produced leaders in science, medicine, the arts, the commercial world, mayors, city commissioners, state senators and representatives and a member of the Congressional House of Representatives. We created the Interfaith Council of Broward County, Florida, the Broward Outreach Center for the homeless and hungry, and continue to serve in leadership positions in an African American Community in Hollywood.

Even though I’ve retired, I really haven’t! I keep busy with lifecycle ceremonies for so called “old timers” and 30 and 40 year olds who grew up in the Temple. I now conduct their wedding ceremonies and name their children and occasionally speak at the bar/bat mitzvah of their children.  I teach World Religions on two college campus’s and serve on numerous boards of directors. I lead services for Jewish holidays on various cruise ships. I just “can’t say no ” and I wouldn’t want it any other way!  My Orthodox colleague in the community sent me a delightful note congratulating me on my 50th year as a rabbi, in which he wrote: “Even a Hebrew slave is freed after 50 years!!!”

If these past 50 years were slavery, I’ll take it.

Do you think all of this was “b’shert?”