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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…

A Deeper Understanding of the Common Ground

Having studied Comparative Religion as my major in undergraduate studies at George Washington University, I have always had a profound respect and appreciation for all religions, particularly the monotheistic faiths. However, I have never interacted with the other faiths as intimately as I have this last year through ICJS’s Congregational Leaders Fellowship. This experience has had an enormous impact on me as a Muslim, a student of religion, a citizen, an American, and a father.

This fellowship gave me the opportunity to really build bridges and meaningful relationships with fellow Jewish and Christian citizens. Through regular monthly virtual meetings, I got to hear firsthand views on common themes such as dignity, respect, spirituality, the Divine presence, and social justice; and how they fit into the various understandings of different faiths. This dialogue left a permanent imprint on my soul, and fostered a deeper understanding of the common ground that all three monotheistic traditions share with respect to the integrity of the human spirit, with man’s role as vicegerent on this Earth.

These relationships of community, brotherhood, sisterhood, and understanding are so central to develop given all the political, social, and racial turmoil that has plagued America in the last year or so. Through dialogue and mutual understanding, we come to realize the true value of religion, and the common themes of humanity, love, and dignity that permeate all religious traditions. This fellowship could not be more relevant than in the confusing times we find ourselves in.

Specifically, having had the chance to participate in a Jewish congregational activity was very instructive for me as a Muslim. I learned quickly how devoted the congregation was to their love of God. Just by listening and observing, I saw the outpouring of love they all showed to each other and me during the service. This was reminiscent of Islamic services that we offer at our congregation as part of the Islamic Society of Northern Baltimore.

I am also excited to be working with Chevrei Tzedek on a community outreach project serving food to the needy population of veterans at The Baltimore Station. This project has fostered a mutual understanding of love, respect, and community between two different congregations coming together for the sole purpose to serve others, which is such a central and pivotal dimension of all religious traditions. These bonds and ties have been created in the name of this fellowship, and for that, I am forever grateful.

I am most grateful for the relationships and friendships I have created through this fellowship, people I likely would not have ever met otherwise. I text and email with many in this fellowship, and I hope and pray these relationships develop and flourish in the future with many more meaningful collaborations where we can serve others and the communities we live in together. Creating a culture and environment of understanding, friendship, and fraternity is the true essence of this fellowship. Thank you ICJS for a memorable experience that I hope will grow for many years to come!


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.


Dr. Omer Awan is an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a congregant of the Islamic Society of Northern Baltimore, and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Faith, Wealth, and Social Justice

I lead a Baltimore nonprofit that operates from a foundation of faith and explicit values that acknowledges the following: Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person; Work is God’s invitation to be co-creators and co-laborers in creation’s unfinished work; every person is created in God’s image; and that through our own lived experiences, we can create work that produces Goods that are Good for society and Services that Serve society.

Our work focuses on reducing the adverse impact of historical policies and practices that underlie much of the societal inequities we experience today—mainly the racial wealth divide. Accomplishing the mission requires us to seek financial resources from individuals, families, and institutions with aligned values, which requires enormous time, energy, and emotional labor. Spending a tremendous amount of time and energy to pursue resources needed to serve our brothers and sisters is not unique to my organization; it is one of the most time-consuming strategic objectives of nonprofit organizations. Over the last several months, with many institutions finding a renewed voice in being explicit about their stance on social justice issues, I have continued to struggle with the role of faith in not just how we serve, but our relationships to wealth in doing so.

The philanthropic culture in our nation, especially in Baltimore, has roots in faith systems, whether explicit in its public position or as a personal practice behind the individuals whose wealth fuels the sector. This realization then begs a bigger question about how much the sector integrates faith into self-accountability. Most nonprofits find it very difficult to hold funders accountable, especially to systems of values, because of the imbalance in the relationship between the person providing the resources and the person doing the work. Over the last months, the teachings through the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship experience have called upon us to re-examine what it means to put God at the center of our work. More specifically, we have wrestled with the following:

For many, we aspire to explore ways to use our gifts and talents to pursue a vocation that helps us provide for ourselves and serve others. These two pursuits are wrapped into the same roles for some, especially for those in the nonprofit sector. For others, wealth accumulation happens by a combination of putting individual gifts to use and by leveraging earthly resources provided to us by God (land, air, water, etc.). For far too many, neither individual gifts nor earthly resources are sufficient; history tells us that our economic systems have intentionally excluded many from economic prosperity.

A philanthropic model that is faith-centered should examine how we’ve historically accumulated wealth and imagine a future without wealth hoarding from an economic justice framework. This framework can be central to how we co-create a future in God’s image, alongside our brothers and sisters, without the power dynamics inherent in such relationships.


A. Jay Nwachu is President and CEO of Innovation Works, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Finding Our Spiritual Truth

The human experience is a complex and often disorienting ride. Collectively, we encounter common questions over and over again through the chapters of our lives and the long arc of human history. We ask: “What’s it all for? What is my purpose in this life? How can we be good to one another?”

These questions are timeless and ever-present, and also ever evolving in the social context of a given time and place.

As modern, “Western” humans existing in a divided city, in a divided country, at the tail end of a pandemic that has separated us and unified us in ways we could never have imagined, how are we encountering those questions now? How are we finding our way forward in the context of layered crises and critical questions about our past and our future as a species on this planet?

Historically, religion and spirituality have shown up to guide us through hard times. They offer time-tested theories and frameworks that calm our anxieties, root our crises in a larger set of values, or draw out our rights and wrongs to be judged by people and forces considered to be greater than ourselves. Religious institutions aggregate stories and lessons across the ages to guide vulnerable humans through the inevitable trials of the world. They build hierarchies and structures to lean on. They offer respite from the intense demands pressing on individuals by connecting our experiences to the collective. They enable us to place our trust in “experts” who have gone down the path of spiritual exploration before us.

Religious structures can serve as a balm to our insecurities and provide a sense of stability. At the same time, they are constructed by humans—subject to the same imperfections as those who come to our churches and mosques and synagogues seeking “the truth.” As with any institution, they reflect the flaws of humanity and the inevitable distortions of humans with concentrated power. They hold the potential to distort reality, advance agendas, and commit abuses. Religious leaders can choose to wield the stories, lessons, and structures of an institution for the sake of amassing and maintaining their own power. We have seen these patterns and practices unfold since the dawn of religious institutions themselves.

More subtly, religious institutions can obscure our natural relationship to our own inherent wisdom. They allow us to shortcut our own hard work of discovery and evolution. They feed us pre-determined “truths” and placate our concerns by giving us an easier path. We can feel virtuous simply by showing up and doing what we’re told.

In modern times, religious institutions have begun to lose their grip. Centuries of accumulating and abusing power have led to lost trust and lost ground. Society has asked hard questions and received unsatisfying answers. Many have discarded religion wholesale on the grounds of disillusionment. What often gets lost in the process is spirituality and spiritual practice. We throw the baby out with the bathwater. People are left to move through the motions of life on their own, with little guidance or pursuit of inner peace. Instead, we chase dollars, credit, justice, beauty, and joy at a surface level for our own individual gain. We go to bed at night feeling like we’ll never get there. We feel alone in this world. That we are not enough. Not doing enough, not earning enough, not being enough.

The past 18 months has brought many realities into stark relief. We have seen shocking examples of institutional religion being corrupted for political or financial gain. And we have seen how this leads us into misery and separation. Huge swaths of society have doubled down on religious identities that permit them to feel superior to others, while others have released their grasp entirely on a spiritual existence—waging a purely intellectual path forward into what “should” be. We go to church or we go to Twitter, and both tear us apart.

There is very little space in the rhythms of our modern human existence to get in touch with the simple truth of what “is.” Opportunities to connect with a community of spiritual practitioners unmitigated by the hierarchical relationship of an institution are rare and largely absent from a mainstream American experience.

I’ve heard many great thinkers this year call for a new “social contract.” I agree, and I also feel we must be grounded in our own sense of a spiritual truth to guide us into a brighter future.

To restructure society towards greater care, joy, and justice, we need to locate these forces in ourselves. We need to trust these forces in the core of our being. And we need pathways to access a spiritual truth that is not only rooted in our very own personal experience, but also in the complex and varied experiences of the collective.

What do we have in common? What rituals can we create together to connect to each other and ourselves? What practices will bring us home to a grounded and caring reality that enables us to do better as a society? What do we need to let go of?

These are our spiritual questions of now. We need to come home to places of connection, quiet, identity, tradition, and humility. We need to wean ourselves off the junk food of fast, now, me, win, take. These habits are killing us and destroying our promise of collective growth. We have ancient spiritual practices and wisdom all around us and deep within us. Now is the time to find places where we can invite it back into our lives.

Economic justice must be rooted in questions that are larger than ourselves. What spiritual truths are emerging in you and your community? What practices enforce their existence? What social contract will enable us as a society to take care of one another and ourselves?


Michelle Geiss is Executive Director and Co-Founder at Impact Hub Baltimore, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Power Grids and Fireworks

It is always good to explore new metaphors and new ways of understanding interreligious and interfaith efforts. At ICJS, our aim is to build an interreligious, multigenerational, racially diverse network of institutions, schools, nonprofits, and religious communities in our area. What would it take to get there? At our best, we could be bringers of light—an image shared across many religious traditions—. But there are many kinds of light. In exploring different ways that we could do this important interreligious work together, I consider whether ICJS is the firework or the power grid?

The firework is hot, bright, and beautiful—a symbol of celebration and commemoration. The sound of the explosion draws our attention, then we ooh and aah in unison as we look up into the darkness together and, for a moment, see clearly a shape, a form. Our eyes are focused for the moment, and we share a common vision. But then the firework fades. The light burns bright, then burns out.

In moments of great stress and conflict, religious leaders often gather together and shoot off fireworks. We bring light and heat and clarifying beauty. We make statements. We stand as allies. We send thoughts and prayers. We can command the attention of crowds to a common vision. But fireworks are not sustainable; nor are fireworks a sustaining source of light.

The power grid is an interconnected network that brings light to homes and institutions every day. The electricity comes from a variety of producers; it travels in and out of our lives, almost invisible, yet incredibly powerful. A functional power grid keeps the light on, the coffee pot brewing, and our computers humming. The power grid sustains our connectedness.

Creating and sustaining the power grid is not quick work. Building reliable infrastructure requires vision, time, and hard, sustained labor. And while people ooh and aah over fireworks, it is the rare person that has that reaction to turning on a light switch in their home. But while there are not many public accolades for the power grid, our common life is made better daily because if it. And our homes glow with sustained light.

In order to build the interreligious infrastructure necessary to reach our vision of a robust and sustained interreligious, racially diverse, multigenerational power grid for Baltimore, we need long-term partners, and long-term commitments to being in relationship with one another. I am hopeful for the future, grateful for our partners in this important work, and interested in continuing to learn and grow together.

Heather Miller Rubens, Ph.D., is executive director and Roman Catholic Scholar of ICJS. 

The Tension of Religious Intolerance

I moved to Nigeria, my home country, immediately after I graduated from elementary school for my middle school years. My parents were unhappy with how quickly we were losing a sense of our Islamic language, and cultural identities.

Upon our arrival in Nigeria, my sister and I were enrolled in a prestigious, all-girls, Catholic missionary school, which is known for its high quality secular education, inclusive environment, and tolerance of other religions and Indigenous practices.

In fact, the school was run by a missionary for the sole purpose of empowering girls to think for themselves. My dad had always planned for us to attend this school for our secondary school education. The school promotes not only high academic excellence, but also it’s an enabling environment for young minds to grow and thrive as independent thinkers without the sacrifice of religious beliefs and cultural identities.

Based in the heart of the ancient city of Kano, which is a bastion of Islamic tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, St. Louis for the girls, and St. Thomas for the boys, produced brilliant young minds from northern Nigeria who grew up to become productive members of the society. However, northern Nigeria today is bedeviled by an international terrorist organization, Boko Haram, which promotes intolerance and anti-Islamic rhetoric across the Sahel. Since 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency and the government’s military response have killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced millions across the Lake Chad region, which straddles Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Boko Haram is responsible for the abduction of over 250 mostly Christian female students.

It’s mind boggling how a country with a nearly 50-50 distribution of Muslims and Christians has been unable to douse the tension of religious intolerance. The northern Nigeria of today, which appears to be highly intolerant of other faiths and cultures, is completely different from the one I experienced when I attended a Catholic missionary school almost 30 years ago.

ICJS Jewish scholar Ben Sax’s presentation on the dignity of work from the perspective of the Torah reminded me how similar the Torah, Bible and the Quran are, and confirmed why my educational experience in a Christian environment afforded me the mindset to approach Islam from a place of intellectual understanding and reasoning. The presentation, particularly the point made on the dignity of work, reminded me of one of the Divine principles of being a servant of Allah as mentioned in the Quran, “And that man shall have nothing but what he strives for.” (Q53:39)

My parents made a difficult decision to accept high quality education, despite coming from a preferred source, but still built on an authentic faith tradition with a proven track of producing erudite scholars and thinkers to avoid raising children who may grow up as intolerant followers of a tradition that they may not have a full understanding of. This reminds me of when we find ourselves in non-homogeneous environments and whether we make room for others or create barriers for others to benefit from the value of work.

As I reflect on the Justice Leaders Fellowship and how this relates to economic justice and equity, I wonder whether I personally wait for what I need or strive for my needs despite hidden and apparent roadblocks. I am grateful for this self-realization through the presentation.

Moreover, as a practicing Muslim, ICJS Muslim scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan’s presentation transformed my relationship with salah, the compulsory daily prayer. The illustration of salah being a key to access the Owner of everything regardless of one’s socio-economic status is a powerful reminder that Allah, the Creator, doesn’t look at what’s on the outside. Rather, it is only our deeds that matter. If the Creator doesn’t place a barrier between us and Himself, then why should I place a barrier for others to access what is required to live a dignified life? My understanding of justice and equity has been transformed through the teachings of scripture, and I am grateful for this experience.


Jamila Fagge is Media Consultant and Communications Strategist at First SouSou, LLC, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Work & Worship


Leon F. Pinkett, III is a Baltimore City Councilman in the 7th District, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Adding Heartbeats to the Beloved Community Through Interreligious Engagement

It is almost impossible to describe how the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship has helped me better understand the Abrahamic faith traditions and see each of our religions as expressions of our belief systems. While there are differences in beliefs and practices it seems that the essence of the God we honor is love. As an interreligious leader it is this love demonstrated through empathy, and the ability to seek to understand rather than be understood, that is at the heart of connecting with someone no matter what religion they adhere to.

Through this fellowship I have learned that developing interreligious relationships requires a sacrifice of time, talents, and treasures because true fellowship is about intentionally getting to know someone. As a pastor who has multiple roles and responsibilities it can be a challenge finding time to build new relationships. However, I have found having initial one-on-one conversations with a person of another faith—where you are actively listening in order to find shared interests in ministry and community—is very helpful. During the conversation, if there are shared interests and a mutual desire to learn and grow with each other, you can plan to set aside two to three hours a month to get to know each other. Prioritizing getting to know each other over a sustained period of time is important because, as the adage says, “no one cares what you know until they know how much you care.”

In addition to the learning and growth that takes place through these interreligious relationships, these connections also have a societal benefit. In my work with BRIDGE Maryland, Inc.—which is a multicultural interfaith coalition of religious and lay leaders dedicated to training and developing leaders to create the Beloved Community of peace, justice and equity the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to establish—I find it is important to know about the religious traditions of others and invite them into this work of social justice. As people of faith we have a responsibility to bring about equity within communities in Maryland who are in desperate need of restorative justice.

Participating in the fellowship reminded me that although there is a sacrifice of time, the price of forfeiting that time is even more costly. In other words, not spending the time to develop interreligious relationships and learning about the religious traditions of others is a detriment to all of God’s children because we are in an inescapable network of mutuality, as Rev. Dr. King, Jr. so eloquently shared in his writings and oratory presentations. Therefore, I would encourage anyone who wants to see a better tomorrow for their children and grandchildren and all generations to consider participating in opportunities like this fellowship in order to enhance your spiritual development and learn how to become a more effective interreligious leader.

 


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.


Rev. Marlon B. Tilghman is the Pastor at AMES United Methodist Church and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Baltimore Youth Experience Dignity Through First Jobs

I came to Baltimore for my first job, as the first full-time employee at Dent Education, a youth-centered social enterprise empowering Baltimore youth to be social innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs. There are many ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship (JLF) concepts that have evolved my understanding of economic justice through a religious lens and informed how I show up in my role at Dent. My most influential learnings are:

Sodomite Legal Structures Still Benefit the Rich

The story of Sodom & Gomorrah is one in which God destroys these cities for their “wickedness”. Sodomite legal structures—paired with a cultural value of rugged individualism—still thrive in the United States where wealth disparities run rampant. “The law of Sodom benefited property owners over orphans, rich over poor… The city went so far as to criminalize giving to the needy.” In the U.S., the wealthiest billionaires somehow pay 0% in taxes, yet people working two jobs and 80-hour weeks struggle to make basic ends meet.  

Co-Facilitating Youth Dialogue on Capitalism

Inspired by JLF, Made@Dent Youth Co-Owners and I co-organized a structured dialogue on the impacts of capitalism. Made@Dent is a co-owned social enterprise where youth build and design custom products to meet community needs. During the pandemic, Denters made $50,000 and 35,000 face shields to protect frontline workers.

In the conversation I supported two Co-Owners in facilitating, we explored the lens Made@Dent offers into capitalist structures. Made@Dent plays within our current system of capitalism – for example, youth are both owners who revenue-share with the business and makers who build products. Yet, in experiencing their power to create change, Made@Dent Co-Owners, most of whom are Black youth harmed by capitalist beliefs and structures, are empowered to hopefully one day be in positions to dismantle capitalism’s harmful effects. 

Experiencing the Divine through Work

While I am Jewish, I did not previously know the Jewish concept of “work as dignity.” However, I am fortunate to experience its benefits—the next-level joy and pride that comes from a meaningful, passion-filled career.

Where does this concept originate? At the beginning.

The Torah starts with the story of creation. This Genesis—to me, symbolic of our universe’s billions of years of evolution—are six days where God worked to create the world and a 7th, Shabbat, where he rested. 

That God spends over 80 percent of the week working connotes a special significance to work. Work is the daily motor that propels life before our special day of rest. The practice of Shabbat, one of Judaism’s great gifts to the Jewish people, promotes self-care, quality time with loved ones, and spiritual growth. In Judaism, Work + Shabbat = a divine, meaningful life.

Even the Hebrew words for work bear special meaning. “Avodah” means “worship” in the sense of “service,” and “eved,” translated as “servant,” references our service to God when we act on mitzvot—good deeds.

This teaching gave me renewed focus on the importance of how Dent runs our programs—paid summer internships and economically empowering experiences where youth learn and earn. As a non-profit, we align with the teaching of Jewish scholar Maimonides, who said that the highest form of “charity” is to economically empower someone with a loan or a job.

In Dent’s programs, Baltimore City high school students have an “I Can” experience as they learn 21st century skills like 3D printing, music production, and graphic design and apply equity-centered design thinking to launch their own ventures, create art, or aim to solve community problems.

While Denters have earned over $400,000 at Dent—through YouthWorks, our Made@Dent operation, and profits from their ventures—our programs could just operate in ways that increase youth creativity and innovation without economic empowerment. Our mission at Dent is to promote equity by empowering under-resourced youth to discover and develop their innate creative potential to shape the world around them. In theory, aiming to achieve that mission does not have to achieve economic justice.

Dent could just run awesome after-school and summer programs where youth learn skills, launch businesses, and connect with community. Other non-profits like Philanthropy Tank—which invests up to $15,000 in youth ventures, or NFTE, a nationwide network training teachers to teach entrepreneurial mindsets—do not pay youth.

So why do we pay our youth?

Before JLF, my answer would have been that economic empowerment is the only way for us to equitably run Dent. Our long-term goal at Dent is for our youth to live with agency and achieve upward mobility, for which economic empowerment is crucial. Furthermore, when our programs didn’t pay youth, some left Dent to take jobs at Burger King. If we don’t pay youth, they often cannot access our programs.

However, through JLF, I now envision paying youth at Dent as more than just a means to an end. Doing their jobs can be divine acts directly connected to our youth’s sense of self-worth and dignity. 

Work is essential for our young people and the fact that Dent is a job for them—not just an extracurricular activity—provides an avenue to a sense of divine work and meaning often unattainable in school or menial jobs. 

Furthermore, paying youth distinguishes us from other comparable programs. We can hold the expectations of a jobpride in your work, feedback, engaged participation, and driving towards growth and goals. 

Working at Dent offers dignified work sometimes inaccessible to high schoolers. Unlike most work environments, Dent is known as a family to our youth. It is a supportive, challenging culture in which youth can bring their full selves, embrace the learning that comes with failure, gain mentors who are adult innovators and educators, practice Dent Mindsets key to finding success and joy in our rapidly changing world, and learn skills that will differentiate them in the 21st century job market.

It is beautiful that youth at Dent, like myself as a young professional, get to experience work that offers purpose. As Wendell, a first time Denter, said, “This summer has been amazing. I never thought my first job would connect me to so many people, push me to learn new skills and try new things, all while changing my mindset.”

For the majority of Baltimore youth, work is essential. At Dent, it is essential that the work we offer provides an opportunity to find divine meaning.


Micky Wolf is Director of Programs at Dent Education, Baltimore, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Articulating Useful Visions for Justice

I’ve participated in and watched many different Jewish communities—sat in many synagogues, heard many sermons, and listened to lots of conversation. Many values show up in these contexts, some of them inspiring, and some less inspiring. Seldom is economic justice a primary theme.

In many Jewish communities, I feel an insular tendency; after all, we Jews have been victims over and over through the centuries, and that kind of generational trauma can lead a group to identify with victimhood. Once we adopt the stance of a victim, with all the suspicion and vigilance that involves, it can be harder to understand our responsibility to people outside the group. Some Jewish communities place a strong value on the fruits of financial success, generating a hierarchy that gravitates toward money. The narrative of American Judaism often centers the economic success of the white immigrants who left Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, while emphasizing the need to remain vigilant against antisemitism. It’s not a stance that predisposes people to focus on economic justice throughout society and within the Jewish community.

So it was a true pleasure to learn from ICJS Jewish Scholar Ben Sax what the Jewish sources have to say about economic justice. Judaism is a religion that is based on arguing about the interpretation of texts, relying on the works of rabbis from centuries ago who were arguing about how to interpret older texts. This means that Ben cannot simply articulate “the” understanding of the Jewish view of economic justice—because there is no such thing. (As the saying goes: three Jews, four opinions.) He does offer a valid view, one that helps me feel more grounded in my religion.

According to Ben, the tradition teaches that we should foster each other’s economic well-being. For example, the key sin in Sodom, the ancient city destroyed by God because of its sinfulness, wasn’t the sexual debauchery or other excesses of a society out of kilter: it was the hoarding of wealth. The ancient scholars wrote in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Sandehrin 109a): “The law of Sodom benefitted property owners over orphans, rich over poor, locals over travelers, and criminals over crime victims…The city meted out cruel punishments to those who attempted to share food with the hungry.”

In contrast, these scholars teach that it is a sin to prevent people from benefiting from our wealth in ways that don’t hurt us. When we do this, our motivation is only to prevent the other person from doing well. In fact, there is a prohibition from obstructing others’ flourishing.

Ben also showed us how Judaism understands work to be sacred—a cooperation with God in creating the world. That might sound like an open door for exploitation (think of the gates of Auschwitz, with their inscription “Work will set you free”). But it is really a call for the dignity of the worker. If we wouldn’t ask God to work without dignity, then workers shouldn’t either. This translates, for example, to decent wages, working conditions, health care, and retirement.

ICJS Muslim Scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan’s presentation about economic justice in Islam had much more to say about the role of work and the people who do it. She painted a picture of an ecosystem of care that can create economic prosperity for individuals and society. Zeyneb painted a vision where Muslims are stewards of the world, and, as such, they are entitled to the resources that will allow them to do that job. In turn, the rich are responsible to those with less, thus creating the conditions that will allow for people to reach their potential. Wealth is stewarded, not owned, and should be distributed equitably. Waste is frowned on. Investments must not harm the environment and people must not profit off unlawful or immoral practices. Nor should people profit from others’ debts. In this economic ecosystem, wealth serves people, rather than the other way around. Here in Baltimore, where economic injustice goes hand in hand with racism, this economic vision is particularly valuable.

The conversations among the Fellows that followed Ben and Zeyneb’s presentations were a heartening reminder that there are many knowledgeable, thoughtful people working toward these ideals, even if the topic does not come up much when people talk casually. (Not that this is any random group of people; I’m thrilled to be among them.) Our religions can do a great job of articulating useful visions for justice, and this can give us a way to connect and build the work.

I am coming to the fellowship from a volunteer role in government. I strongly value the separation of religious institutions and the state. While I can personally draw on the Jewish and Islamic visions of justice, is there a way to bring this language into public discourse? This is something that I’ll be considering, especially as we learn about the teachings of the Christian traditions, which historically have been hegemonic in the United States’ public life.


Miriam Avins is co-chair at the Baltimore City Commission on Sustainability, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.