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Interfaith Dialogue Put to the Test

by Tamar Snyder
Published on May 27, 2009 in The NY Jewish Week

In an expan­sive room at Auburn Theological Seminary on 121st Street in Upper Manhattan, a diverse group of Jewish and Protestant semi­nar­ians are munching on kosher food and discussing Just War Theory, a doctrine that outlines the moral justi­fi­ca­tions and prereq­ui­sites for waging war. They are seated in two small circles of eight students each, a mixture of both faiths, and their atten­tion is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Judaism hasn’t had to ask these ques­tions [about waging war as a Jewish state] for the last 2,000 years, until the sover­eign state of Israel was estab­lished,” says a Jewish student. “This is all new.”

When was the last time a Protestant army or country waged a war as a Protestant country?” another Jewish  student asks.

Searching for common ground: A session of the Protestant-Jewish Seminarians Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary. (Courtesy of Auburn Theological Seminary)

Searching for common ground: A session of the Protestant-Jewish Seminarians Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary. (Courtesy of Auburn Theological Seminary)

The Protestant students look at each other, seri­ously consid­ering the ques­tion. “Well, look at Northern Ireland and the battles between the Protestants and the Catholics,” a Protestant student replies.

Are there church author­i­ties who offer ethical guid­ance?” a Jewish student asks.

The Church can’t actu­ally wage war,” a Protestant student replies.

The Jewish student considers the response. “So, if the Church can’t wage war, how can it be crit­ical of the Jews?”

Conversations like these during the five meet­ings of the Protestant-Jewish Seminarian Dialogue group — believed to be the first of its kind for rabbis and ministers-to-be — are laying the ground­work for the more diffi­cult discus­sions yet to come regarding Israeli settle­ments, the Palestinian plight and other hot-button issues. Things heat up next month, when the group of 16 future rabbis and minis­ters embarks on a 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Together they’ll travel to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, where they’ll expe­ri­ence the holy sites from the perspec­tive of the “other,” perhaps for the first time.

Auburn’s core mission is to build leaders who have the capacity and under­standing of the ‘reli­gious other’ to reach across lines of reli­gious differ­ence,” says Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, the incoming pres­i­dent of Auburn Theological Seminary and a long­time propo­nent of multi-faith dialogue.

The program, spon­sored by Auburn and the New York Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, is an outgrowth of the Presbyterian-Jewish conver­sa­tions that began in 2004, when the Presbyterian Church proposed that it divest from compa­nies doing busi­ness with Israel, such as Motorola and Caterpillar. “We wanted to bring a clearer under­standing among the Presbyterians of the pain and fear this move engen­dered in the Jewish commu­nity,” says Diane Steinman, director of the New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee. “At the same time, we wanted the Jews among us to under­stand what the roots of the divest­ment move­ment were and how the Presbyterians were seeing things.”

An initial meeting of some 75 Protestant and Jewish lay leaders and clergy led to several broader dialogue groups during the course of the next two years. “We might have known each other socially and even shared similar polit­ical and social commit­ments within the American constel­la­tion,” Steinman says. “But we didn’t know each other as committed Presbyterians and Jews.”

A level of trust devel­oped and in February 2006, the steering committee, which included Rev. Henderson and Steinman, decided to visit Israel together. At the time, Hamas had just won the elec­tion in Gaza and Olmert had been elected prime minister but hadn’t taken office yet. “The future looked very murky,” Steinman admits.

The trip was profound and hope-inspiring, partic­i­pants attest. “It opened up a whole new level of appre­ci­a­tion and under­standing and patience with ‘the other,’” says Rev. J.C. Austin, an asso­ciate pastor at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and incoming director for the Center for Church Life at Auburn.

A memory that stands out for Rev. Austin is the group’s visit to Atarot, an old indus­trial park to the north of the Old City, near Ramallah. “It was described as the end of the world; no one comes here,” he says. In fact, a dump truck ille­gally dispensed a load of refuse while the group was there. There, in the fallow ground nobody seemed to want, a joint Arab-Israeli-owned busi­ness was working to rede­velop the land.

When we came back, there was a sense of urgency not to let this be a onetime, private expe­ri­ence,” he says.

That summer, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church did not adopt divest­ment. “We felt like we were an impor­tant part of the process, and an enor­mous sense of relief and grat­i­fi­ca­tion,” says Steinman.

Yet the possi­bility of divest­ment is still on the table, even if it oper­ates mainly in the realm of symbolism. “The divest­ment conver­sa­tion made a light shine on the fact that there can be a deep discon­nect between the narra­tives of many Christians and Jews regarding the Middle East,” says Ethan Felson, vice pres­i­dent of the JCPA. It’s not just different narra­tives, but also different modes of commu­ni­ca­tion, he says. For example, some­times when Christians speak of “doing justice,” their focus is on alle­vi­ating the suffering of the poor or weak, whereas for many Jews the term often means “doing the right thing morally and ethically.”

It was Rev. Henderson’s “bolt of light­ning,” Steinman says, to recreate this life-changing expe­ri­ence for emerging reli­gious leaders, to teach them about the complex­i­ties on both sides of the conflict and posi­tively impact their congre­ga­tions for decades to come.

It took more than two years for the Protestant-Jewish Seminarian Dialogue to become a reality, and those involved believe it’s the first of its kind. Since semi­nary students typi­cally aren’t living off the fat of the land, the steering committee raised $140,000 to heavily sponsor the Israel trip (students pay only a $150 out-of-pocket fee).

The trip to Israel is crit­i­cally impor­tant, partic­i­pants say. “Real dialogue takes place outside of the struc­tured dialogue spaces and we haven’t had enough of that,” says Kymberly Mcnair, a student at Union Theological Seminary.

Although the issue of the settle­ments has come up, “the discus­sion has been kept, at this point, to the theo­ret­ical and abstract,” says Josh Frankel, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. “I expect that we will confront the real issues when we visit them on the ground in a couple of weeks.”

In fact, the group will be visiting a Jewish settle­ment in the West Bank as part of the itin­erary, confirmed Rabbi Justus Baird, the orga­nizer of the program and director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary.

None of the faculty during the three learning sessions discussed the settle­ments directly, since the learning goals were to discuss the theo­log­ical, histor­ical and social justice narra­tives, Rabbi Baird said. “We’ll be delving into the polit­ical real­i­ties on the ground when we arrive.”

Right now, Mcnair says, “I’ve been keeping my mouth closed and my ears open; I want to really understand.”

While dialogue alone will not solve the problem, it is the best place to start,” says Charlene Han Powell, a Princeton Theological Seminary student. She says that discussing faith and holy texts with the Jewish semi­nar­ians has “revo­lu­tion­ized the way I look at the holy texts of my faith tradi­tion.” The prelim­i­nary sessions have helped to build a level of open­ness and trust, which will likely be tested in a big way when faced with conflicting facts on the ground. “We’ve been a bit too polite,” Mcnair says. “One of the diffi­cul­ties for me is not having the time to really talk about the settle­ments or what ‘Zionism’ and ‘Hamas’ mean to this group.”

At the first dialogue session, the students partic­i­pated in an eye-opening “paper bag” exer­cise. Students were given paper and asked to write down their first thoughts upon hearing buzz words such as “occu­pa­tion,” “holy land” and “Hamas.” The responses, which were anony­mously tossed into a paper bag and then tran­scribed on large posters, were star­tling, as they expressed a wide range of mean­ings. The word “occu­pa­tion” mustered up feel­ings of “oppres­sion and control of people consid­ered a threat,” “lost homes, lost fami­lies, lost memo­ries,” as well as reac­tions such as, “Who’s occu­pying whom” and “leftist.” “Hamas” was at once a “Palestinian polit­ical party” and “Evil, taking care of short-term needs at the expense of long-term opportunity.”

The exer­cise helps “people feel comfort­able expressing what’s uncom­fort­able to say, espe­cially in a new group,” says Lisa Anderson, Auburn’s educa­tion programs asso­ciate. “It gets them talking.”

After each dialogue session at Auburn, the students break into “faith-alike” groups. There, in the safety of members of their own faith, they discuss diffi­cul­ties they encounter while trying to commu­ni­cate across reli­gious lines. For the Protestants, there was a sense of discon­nect from Israel, a palpable feeling that the Jewish students (one of whom served in the Israeli army) exhib­ited a more intense connec­tion to the holy land. They spoke about their struggle to find their own voices during dialogue sessions, as well as the fear of being viewed as anti-Semitic. “Not because I am anti-Semitic, but what I say may stem from igno­rance,” one Protestant student said. “Yeah, we need Judaism 101 and Christianity 101,” a fellow Protestant student replied.

It’s hard to trust each other when we don’t have rela­tion­ships outside of these issues,” another Protestant student said. “We’re just getting to know each other’s names.”

Interestingly enough, the inter­faith program has led to increased dialogue between diverse intra-faith groups, too. In the Christian camp, students hail from the General Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary. More diversely repre­sented, however, are the Jewish rabbinical schools, with rabbinical students repre­senting Hebrew Union College, JTS, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and — perhaps most star­tling — Yeshiva University.

We approached this deci­sion with the ideals Rav Soloveitchik artic­u­lated in an article called ‘Confrontation,’ in which he clearly defined appro­priate conver­sa­tions from an inter­faith perspec­tive,” says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, adding that Rav Soloveitchik was against theo­log­ical conver­sa­tion in a multi-faith setting, but in favor of estab­lishing friends outside of the Jewish community.

The Orthodox spend too much time talking to them­selves” and are often unaware or igno­rant of other denom­i­na­tions and other faiths,” says Noah Greenfield, the YU rabbinical student partic­i­pating in the program. “YU and CJF have to be commended for trying to break that mold.”

The goal, Greenfield says, is not to come back from the trip in full agree­ment but rather to “develop friend­ships that can over­come and respect disagreements.”

The trip to Israel will be unlike any other, even for someone like Jonah Geffen, a JTS student who has been to Israel some 33 times. A prelim­i­nary draft of the itin­erary indi­cates that the semi­nar­ians will meet a diverse group of commu­nity leaders, including Israeli Jews, both reli­gious and secular; Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. Students will meet with IDF soldiers, jour­nal­ists, polit­ical leaders and theolo­gians, as well as Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, and coex­is­tence and pro-peace process orga­ni­za­tions. With the help of a group called Encounter, the rabbinical students will, many for the first time, witness Palestinian life in the West Bank. They’ll also have the oppor­tu­nity to visit Muslim and Christian holy sites, including Bethlehem, small churches in the Galilee and holy sites in the Old City. Those plan­ning the trip say that it’s impor­tant to expose the future reli­gious leaders to a variety of viewpoints.

The goal, as Geffen artic­u­lates it, is that of greater under­standing — “under­standing of one another, of our personal faiths and of the role we see for our reli­gious tradi­tions in helping to change conflict situ­a­tions for the best. And to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict through a different set of eyes, to grow and under­stand that we (what­ever we believe) do not have a monopoly on truth.”

There’s also the hope that reli­gious leaders can bring new perspec­tive to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We wanted to show society that reli­gion isn’t simply fuel for fires of conflict,” says Rev. Austin. “Religion provides resources to address the conflict, to find ground for peace. And that starts with understanding.

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