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.
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.