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Statement on the Mass Shooting in Buffalo

The Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) mourns the lives of our brothers and sisters who were murdered in Buffalo, New York. ICJS strongly condemns the racism and bigotry behind this hate crime, and we stand in solidarity with Black communities who are experiencing deep pain, grief, hurt, and fear.

The perpetrator of the Buffalo mass shooting targeted Black shoppers at a neighborhood supermarket indicating he was motivated by the so-called “Great Replacement Theory,” a racist ideology that is unfortunately growing in popularity. “Great Replacement” asserts the superiority of white Christian culture, and is a religiously and racially bigoted worldview grounded in anti-Black, anti-brown, antisemitic, and Islamophobic ideology. The murders in Buffalo echo attacks targeting Jewish worshippers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; Muslims at prayer in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand; Latinos shopping at a Walmart in El Paso; Asian women killed in the Atlanta-area spa shootings; and Black Christians praying at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. This form of white supremacy is especially pernicious and must be called out when it is espoused on national television by political pundits, used in rhetoric by publicly elected officials, promoted in online spaces, and adopted by religious leaders.

“Great Replacement Theory,” and other expressions of bigotry directed at racial and religious minorities, are a direct threat to building an interreligious society—which is the vision and mission of ICJS.  In these dark hours, we must take time to grieve and accompany those who are grieving. We must remain vigilant, continually calling out these acts of hate and redoubling our efforts to dismantle the bias and bigotry that underlie them. And we cannot lose hope—we must continue to be champions for a multiracial and multireligious democracy. 

The Power of Storytelling—With a Nudge from the Spirit

I surround myself with creative people, but I usually do not consider myself to be creative. So I was shocked that I volunteered to work one-on-one with a storyteller to tell my Teachers Fellowship cohort a story at our Fellowship retreat. I am a preacher and a teacher, but I have never done something like that before. At that moment, I think that God was nudging me to practice what I preach and teach my students: to get out of their comfort zones as much and as often as they can.

I had the privilege and the honor of working with storytelling coach Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff for several sessions prior to our Fellowship retreat. It was a blast to get to talk shop with someone who engages with the Bible in such creative ways. My time with Jennifer reignited a passion and an excitement for a Biblical narrative that I have been working with for years. She helped me to think about the narrative of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) in ways that I had never considered. I have worked on this narrative from an academic perspective for so long that I was actually afraid to teach it to my students—I feared that I would talk over their heads, go too much into my doctorate research on the topic, or make the lesson inaccessible to them. I was so worried that my passion for the work would negatively impact their experience with it that I actually denied them the opportunity to engage with such an important narrative.

My academic work on the narrative of Joseph focuses on reading the passage as a migration text. Specifically, I focus on the concept of forced migration in the Bible as it impacts our modern understanding of forced migration. Jennifer helped me to realize that when I put myself in the story that I didn’t have to worry about being too academic. Her exercises helped me to really feel the pain that Joseph felt. I imagined him looking in the mirror at his own almost unrecognizable image. I also pictured him giving his newborn son a Hebrew name that connected him with a land he would never know. I was able to tap into emotions that I knew Joseph probably felt; I was able to feel them with him and convey them to an audience.

Working on this story with a Jewish Biblical storyteller was powerful. I have often experienced what Episcopal priest and religion professor Barbara Brown Taylor calls “holy envy” when I hear or see Jewish scholars engage with the Hebrew Bible narratives. Storytelling seems to be woven into Judaism in a way that I don’t always “get” in Christianity. Maybe this is because of the Oral Torah and Midrashic traditions that shaped early expressions of Judaism.

I have always wanted to understand how to make a Bible story come alive like the Rabbis can. But then I finally got it. I had to get out of my head and into my heart. Telling this story was so powerful and Spirit-led because I treated it like prayer. I let God lead and I just spoke the words that God wanted me to convey.

As of late, I have been intentionally taking direction from the Spirit. I let God guide my thoughts, words, and deeds in directions that I would never go alone. This has been a helpful (and sometimes terrifying) practice in my life, in my classroom, and from the lectern. I am a faith teacher and a chaplain at a religious school, so one might expect Spirit to be involved in my vocation in this way. But this is a new role for me, and it is a fairly new practice for me to surrender to God’s guidance at all times.

I am so appreciative to my cohort for reminding me how much fun it can be to teach religion. Hearing them talk about why they teach and their plans for their classes makes me want to continue to challenge myself to create more engaging lessons for my students.

If I really believe that religion is a powerful force for good, then I have to keep challenging myself to do good in new ways that are sometimes scary. The Teachers Fellowship cohort presented an opportunity to learn something new and provided the support for me to give it a test drive before I tried it with my students. My time with the Teachers Fellowship has helped me to realize how much pandemic-era teaching has sucked the joy out of teaching. We have all been so busy surviving and pivoting that there has not been much time to engage in the teaching activities that we love. Engaging with passionate individuals and challenging myself to embody joy in my practice has rectified something that I didn’t know I had lost these last two years. It is crazy how one nudge from the Spirit made me level up my entire approach.

Allison Harmon Allison Harmon is the middle school chaplain at St. James Academy. She is a member of the 2021-2022 ICJS Teachers Fellowship.


Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Teacher Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. 


My personal religious journey—so far

Fr. James Casciotti, S.J., pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Community in Baltimore and an ICJS Congregational Leader Fellow, offers this reflection of how his own religious journey, which began in Altoona, Pa., has given him a greater appreciation for religious difference and asking: What can we learn from listening to each other and walking together?

 

StoryCorps: Justice Fellows Venesa Day and Amy Greensfelder

Venesa Day and Amy Greensfelder, alumni of the 2020 cohort of Justice Leader Fellows, talk about their faith journeys.

Listen to StoryCorps Recording

StoryCorps: Christopher Leighton and Heather Miller Rubens

Former ICJS Executive Director Christopher Leighton and current ICJS Executive Director and Roman Catholic Scholar Heather Miller Rubens talk about transitions and their inspiration for engaging in the work of creating an interreligious community.

Listen to the StoryCorps Recording

StoryCorps: ICJS Founders George Hess and Charles Obrecht

Two ICJS founding board members, George Hess and Charles Obrecht, reminisce about Jewish-Christian relations in Baltimore and events that led to the creation in 1987 of what was originally called the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Listen to StoryCorps recording

Statement on Texas Synagogue Hostage Incident

The Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) gives thanks for the safe release of members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, who were taken hostage in their synagogue during Shabbat services this weekend. ICJS strongly condemns antisemitism and all acts of religious hatred and violence. Everyone should be able to worship safely and peacefully. 

We are heartened by the stories emerging about the deep interreligious relationships in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as the many expressions of solidarity from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders around the country. 

So happy for Rabbi Charlie [Cytron-Walker] and his beautiful family, and that all hostages are safe. Make no mistake that the trauma will continue as it always does… But we will be there for our Jewish neighbors again as they recover,” said Omar Suleiman, founder & president of the Dallas-Fort Worth-based Yaqeen Institute, an Islamic research institute.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we raise our voices against religious bias and bigotry, and do the hard, but essential work of engaging in interreligious dialogue in order to build the interreligious society; we need to be there for our neighbors. ICJS will continue to watch in hope as these interreligious conversations continue in the coming days and weeks.

Sincerely,

Heather Miller Rubens, Ph.D.                                                             
Executive Director and Roman Catholic Scholar                               

Irfan Malik
President, Board of Trustees

Deepening Congregational Connections in Times of Crisis

In the midst of a global pandemic, a national reckoning with racism, and increased political and religious polarization, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious and lay leaders from nine religious communities committed themselves to building interreligious bridges as the inaugural cohort of the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship.

The goal of the year-long fellowship is to build an interreligious network with balanced participation. This cohort included African-American Protestant, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Mainline/Evangelical Protestant congregations. 

“It is our hope that as a result of participation in the Fellowship, both lay and religious leaders have developed the skills and sensibilities to cultivate a culture of interreligious engagement within their congregations and the broader community,” said Dr. Alisha Tatem, the Congregational Leaders Fellowship program director.

The fellowship is grounded with an understanding that in a pluralistic society, religion is an integral factor that shapes our worldview and actions in the world. Congregational leaders play a key role in helping their communities engage religious diversity, combat religious bigotry, and promote religious pluralism through the teachings, practices, and relationships that shape their community. 

“In the times in which we are living, it is of utmost importance that congregations engage in interreligious understanding that leads to a sense of belonging for all people,” Tatem said.

The Congregational Leaders Fellowship participants include one clergy member and two lay leaders from each congregation. This past year, there were 26 leaders participating from nine congregations: two Muslim, four Jewish and three Christian. They met virtually at least monthly for study sessions led by ICJS scholars, as well as readings, discussions and skill-building workshops related to the program theme of “Exploration of Human Dignity, Flourishing and Belonging in Abrahamic Faith Traditions.”

The pandemic presented a challenge, Tatem acknowledged, especially given that participants shared deeply and intimately about their faith and spirituality. But any obstacles were overcome through trust, hard work, and good will. Tatem said she was pleasantly surprised at how quickly deep relationships formed. When people got sick, other members of the cohort would check in on them. Many shared life events, both happy and sad. “The offline connections that were made were amazing,” Tatem said. 

The Fellowship year culminated in a series of interreligious events organized by groups of congregations. Members of Beth El Congregation welcomed members of Ames United Methodist Church virtually into their synagogue during a joint Sabbath worship service in November. Ames will in turn host the Jewish congregation in the new year. During the sermon, the Rev. Marlon B. Tilghman of Ames UMC and his assistant pastor sat on a panel with the clergy from Beth El as they posed and answered questions. And during the service, congregants from Ames were able to ask questions as they arose in the Zoom chat, which were answered immediately by a designated member of Beth El.

“It was very educational,” Tilghman said. “Everyone was engaged and learned a lot, and felt it was very rewarding.”

An easing of the pandemic allowed for limited in-person gatherings. This included an event at the Islamic Society of the Washington Area (ISWA), who invited members of College Park United Methodist Church and Chizuk Amuno to help them prepare the mosque’s community garden for winter.

“Our project definitely opened my mind to the possibilities of working together across faiths. My experience with ISWA was so welcoming. I have learned a lot about hospitality from them,” said Rev. Amy Caruso, pastor of College Park United Methodist Church. “Our partnership will continue in the spring when ISWA will help us with our community garden that we are starting.”

Members of the Islamic Society of Northern Baltimore joined with Chevrei Tzedek to cook and serve food to the homeless men, mostly veterans, of The Baltimore Station. 

“It was a powerful event whereby two different faiths came together for the greater good of helping those in need and building much-needed bridges at a time of social and political upheaval,” said Omer Awan, M.D. of the Islamic Society of North Baltimore. “It has created much more mutual understanding and camaraderie between the two congregations.”

Members of St. Matthew Catholic Church and Bolton Street Synagogue got down to some serious dialogue, but through a fun activity: Spiritual Speed Dating. Participants sat facing one another in concentric circles, and within a five-minute time limit traded answers to some probing questions, such as “What do you pray for?” Then the circle shifted for a new question and new partners. Later, they studied texts from the Christian and Jewish traditions on love.  

Many entered as strangers, but left feeling strengthened in the relationship with fellow parishioners and those from a different faith tradition,” said Rabbi Andy Gordon of Bolton Street Synagogue.

Several of the congregations are making plans to meet in the coming months, even though their cohort has formally ended. “This initial event will form the cornerstone of future collaborations,” said Marc Wernick, a lay leader from Bolton Street Synagogue. 

He believes the experience of the Congregational Leaders Fellowship will help his own congregation in the long run. 

“I also think the work the three participants have done as a group will bring a set of skills as Bolton Street Synagogue interacts, not only with the broader communities of faith but also as we explore our voice and participation in the Jewish community,” he said.


For more information on the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship, contact Alisha Tatem, program director, atatem@icjs.org

The Power of Storytelling

“Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual.” —Grace Lee Boggs

One of the main lessons I learned from participating in the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is the power of stories to help grow a synagogue and interact with people I do not know. As Sam Keen once said, “The telling of your stories is a revolutionary act.” The Congregational Leaders Fellows began our journey into the wonderful and useful world of storytelling on January 13, 2021, by inviting us to share brief descriptions of ourselves. This activity taught us how to take a small risk by telling our own stories. The stories we told included times we experienced rejection, racism, and a sense of feeling unwelcome. From this sharing, I learned that stories can be used to bring about change.

We continued to learn about the power of stories through a storytelling workshop where we were given a formula for making our stories more accessible to those with whom we were sharing. The really enjoyable part of this workshop was listening to the stories of our fellowship mates and being able to share our own. We were becoming storytelling experts.

Through the spring and into the summer the focus of our sessions was on what flourishing and belonging meant in each of our religious traditions. We prepared group presentations explaining how each of our traditions understood these concepts. Preparing and delivering our presentations helped us perfect the ability to share our religion with those who were of a different tradition.

The last segment of the Fellowship focused on interreligious projects. My synagogue, Chevrei Tzedek, joined with The Islamic Society of Northern Baltimore to address hunger in Baltimore. We teamed up with The Baltimore Station to prepare and serve a meal to the veterans in their program. This was a truly fabulous experience. One of the highlights of the experience was the moment when members from Chevrei Tzedek, Islamic Society of Northern Baltimore, and the veterans stood in a circle in front of The Baltimore Station and shared our stories. This was a wonderful way for us to get to know each other better.

Stories not only helped me get to know the individuals in the cohort and the veterans at The Baltimore Station, but it also helped me and my synagogue come up with a way to continue to grow our community. At our community meeting we decided that through telling and listening to each other’s stories we can help visitors feel comfortable and welcomed. We want visitors to feel that Chevrei Tzedek is a place that they could belong.

According to the writer James Carroll, “The very act of storytelling, of arranging memory according to the structure of the narrative is, by definition, holy.” Through this Fellowship experience, I realized that stories are so powerful because they allow us to pay attention to the human factor in our fast paced, technology- driven society. When we do this, we can make connections through our experiences — and that is holy.


The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.


Emma Hawthorn attends the Chevrei Tzedek synagogue and is a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about the ICJS Congregational Leaders programs here.

Laughter, Trust, and Love

A few weeks ago, Bolton Street Synagogue, a Reform Jewish congregation where I serve as rabbi, and St. Matthew Catholic Church gathered together for an interfaith event. On that Sunday afternoon, over 30 people entered the church’s meeting hall and found seats set up in two concentric circles. Over the next hour and a half, we spent lots of time facing each other in one-on-one conversation, as we studied, listened, and shared. Many entered as strangers, but left feeling strengthened in the relationship with fellow parishioners and those from a different faith tradition.

As the event ended, Pat Jones, a lay leader at St. Matthew Catholic Church and partner in this project asked the group, “Should we do this again?” She was answered with resounding applause. I’d like to take some time to reflect upon that applause. What made this event a success? What caused a rabbi, a priest, Jewish and Catholic lay leaders, and so many others to leave the church hall feeling uplifted after a short time together?

Laughter

After our event was over, our planning group found some time to gather and reflect upon the event. One thing we kept coming back to was laughter. We believed that this was one of the main ingredients that helped this event succeed. From our early planning sessions, we were often laughing and joking with each other. All of us have good senses of humor (Elaine Crawford, Father Joe Muth, Pat Jones, Marc Wernick, Lauren Kelleher, and myself as well). I think we often fed off each other with a pun or a joke! It might not seem to be the epitome of interfaith dialogue, but I believe the laughter and joking in our planning sessions helped break down barriers and allowed for a common connection that helped us get to know one another.

In addition, Marc Wernick of Bolton Street Synagogue came up with a wonderful ice breaker for our event called “Spiritual Speed Dating.” As I shared above, we began our gathering seated in two concentric circles. We faced one another and spoke face-to-face. The questions asked were not easy. “What do you pray for?” is an example. But, in each case there was a little bit of laughter, smiles, and joking. I firmly believe that this helped each of us to become comfortable with one another, to become better listeners, and to dig deeper into our personal spiritual story.

Trust

Interreligious dialogue and interfaith gatherings are not always easy to plan or easy to attend. There can be many pitfalls to planning such an endeavor: food, timing, prayer, egalitarianism, unease, and mistrust to name a few! Yet, in our case none of these pitfalls seemed to come to fruition. I believe that this was true because of the trusting relationship that we built over time.

First, Bolton Street Synagogue and St. Matthew Catholic Church already knew of each other and had already built a relationship. The two congregations are both members of the community organizing initiative BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) and have been involved in various social justice projects, including the Black Lives Matter Interfaith Coalition as well as the Faith Communities of Baltimore in Pride. In addition, our clergy (myself as well as Father Joe Muth) knew and respected each other. These opportunities provided us with a foundation to begin our work.

In addition, we were able to meet and to get to know each other during our time in the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship (CLF). I commend CLF Program Director Alisha Tatem and the leadership at ICJS for putting the interfaith events towards the tail end of our fellowship. This allowed the six of us from Bolton Street Synagogue and St. Matthew Catholic Church to get to know each other, to study together, to learn from each other, and to begin to build a trusting relationship. It was through these moments that we were able to begin to plan this wonderful event.

Love

We decided that our program would focus on the theme of love. Throughout the event, we studied three texts: a Jewish text from Midrash Rabbah, a Christian text from 1 Corinthians, and a text from both of our traditions from the Book of Ruth. Each of these texts focused on a different aspect of love.

I believe that by focusing our time together on love, we were able to help strengthen relationships amongst our participants. Sometimes in an interreligious dialogue, we think that we must focus on the “big” issues of the day: prayer, theology, ritual, and practice. These topics are often hard in just a singular religious gathering and even more challenging in an interfaith context. We might question God, feel anger at our religious leaders, struggle with religious beliefs or practices, which makes interfaith dialogue more difficult. By focusing on love, we addressed a universal feeling that wasn’t innately “religious.” All of us have loved and have been loved albeit in different ways. We know that feeling and what it means. It became a wonderful entree into our discussion.

Next Steps

So, what’s next? We’re not sure yet, but we know that we have a wonderful foundation built upon laughter, trust, and love! We hope to partner together on Afghan refugee resettlement and to continue our interfaith dialogue and conversations. The path is long and there will hopefully be many forks ahead, but I’m looking forward to the journey!


The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.


Rabbi Andy Gordon is rabbi at the Bolton Street Synagogue, and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…