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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…

A Deeper Dive: An Interview with an ICJS Fellow

Q: How has the fellowship experience helped you rethink how your congregation builds bridges across inter/intra- religious differences? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities for growth?

A: Participating in this fellowship has given me the opportunity to familiarize myself with other clergy, leaders and congregants within the greater religious community. In terms of the inter-religious differences, I found that the people who represented the different faith communities who participated in this group were open-minded, open-hearted, and interested in other religions and religious traditions. There was a lovely generosity in the way that people communicated, listened and responded to one another. In the intra-religious realm things felt a bit trickier. When we tried to create a set of practices, theology and ideology, to present “Judaism” to non-Jews, it became a complicated process. Not for the expected reasons, the complications existed between those who could communicate as “insiders” and those who felt marginalized through the fast-paced conversation and language that may not have been familiar to everyone in the group, which led to discomfort. The opportunities for growth seemed to me to be systemic. When we work together with others to create something it’s important to have time on our side so that intra-religiously we extend the same thoughtfulness and inclusivity that we would to those who aren’t within our faith tradition.

Q: This year the cohort explored the concepts of belonging, human dignity and flourishing from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim perspectives. What do you see as the connection between human dignity, belonging, and flourishing? How might this connection inform one’s relationship to self, G-d, and others?

A: It seems that when people feel a sense of belonging they also feel that their dignity is protected. From this place, people tend to also extend that same generosity and compassion to others.

Q: How do we create barriers that prevent dignity, belonging, and flourishing?

A: In our virtual world it is complicated to create a sense of belonging, but chats, and the opportunity to use different mediums of gathering are important. Small group conversations can help people feel safe and supported. Wholehearted listening and affirming or curiosity as a response can also help people feel both connected and holy.

Q: In what ways has this fellowship helped you see yourself as an interreligious leader within your congregation? What challenges and opportunities does that pose for you as a leader?

A: My sense is that the separation that was caused by COVID and the virtual replacement of what would have otherwise been “real presence” in a room impacted the feeling of community within the group. Yet even with these obstacles, it was important to begin the process of knowing other religious leaders and to have the opportunity to spend time together. We are very excited to create a shared program with AMES United Methodist Church for our respective communities. This project seems to be affording us the opportunity to dive in deeper into our relationship with one another and to work toward a shared goal.

 


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 Dana Saroken is a rabbi at Beth El Synagogue, founder of the Soul Center, and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Reimagining a More Expansive Idea of Faith

I am what many (including myself) refer to as a “Jew by Choice.” Several years ago I decided to start exploring the option and process of conversion: I was in a committed, long-term relationship with my now husband who was raised Jewish and who felt strongly about raising any future children in the same faith he was raised in and identified with so closely. I come from a historically Catholic/Protestant family background, but what little church I did attend growing up was Unitarian Universalist.

Religion and faith did not play a huge role in my life or in how I identified myself, or in how I related to others. When I converted to Judaism in 2018 one of the things the rabbi with whom I worked said to me, and that stuck with me, is that practicing Judaism is about coming together in community to worship and observe, and about sharing that community with others.

This was a far cry from the type of “individual spirituality” I had always labeled myself as having. But I made a commitment early on in my Jewish journey to ensuring that it always involved an active and vibrant religious community life. When I moved to Baltimore that meant joining my synagogue—an institution that has a practice of welcoming and embracing converts like me, as well as interfaith couples and families. I developed comfort in that space; listening to and learning from others about the what, why, and how of practicing Judaism in the Reform tradition.

But it wasn’t until I joined the ICJS as a Congregational Leaders Fellow that I had to grapple more seriously with my discomfort of being a representative for my more newly acquired faith. In our meetings, I am sometimes the only Jewish person in a Zoom breakout session. Or I am put into a room with many other Jews who I perceive as having much longer Jewish histories than I, or much more “traditional” experiences: growing up going to synagogue, having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, etc. One thing I have struggled with is how to convey my experience with Judaism as also being a distinctly Jewish experience.

Of course when I step back to reflect on my discomfort, I realize I don’t expect, for example, my Catholic cohort fellows to speak on behalf of all other Catholics. Indeed, when our Christian fellows did their joint faith presentation, it reflected a multitude of beliefs. I know treating any religious group that reductively—i.e., expecting one member to speak on behalf of the whole—is anathema to the point of us all gathering in the first place to share our diverse views and experiences across faiths.

But still there is a disclaimer I always felt compelled to offer in these spaces: that I am “new, relatively speaking, to Judaism,” and that anything I say about the faith should be understood within that context. I am working to embrace this disclaimer through my participation in this fellowship as something that is as much a part of my Judaism as someone’s experiences being raised in the faith are a part of their Judaism.

Studies show that my experience isn’t unique. One estimate suggested that 1 in 6 American Jews are themselves converts and that the racial demographics of American Jews are slowly becoming more diverse too. I sense among my cohort that this type of plurality of experiences within a religion is not unique to Judaism. It makes me think that as people of faith it is incumbent upon us to reimagine more expansive and inclusive ideas of what it means to be people of faith. This value is becoming a part of my Jewish identity and it certainly goes hand in hand with our Jewish concept of welcoming and caring for the stranger, as we were once strangers in a strange land.

 


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.


Lauren Kelleher is a member of the Bolton Street Synagogue in North Baltimore and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

LESSON PLAN: The Impact of the Russian Revolution on the Russian Jewish Population

What Does it Take?

As a member of a local synagogue and as a member of the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship, I am discovering pathways to become an interreligious leader. I am also learning that there are many entryways into interreligious dialogue and collaboration.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to be part of two listening sessions with members of the Bolton Street Synagogue (BSS) community. The parlor sessions opened with an icebreaker that explored the congregants’ most meaningful Jewish experiences. While the answers varied, two congregants mentioned the outpouring of community support following the Tree of Life massacre at the Friday night service immediately following the horrid event. The sanctuary was overflowing with community members demonstrating their backing in the wake of an anti-Semitic action, an outpouring of interreligious support in the wake of religious violence. Community support by people of faith in the face of violence is not unusual. For example, Bolton Street Synagogue is a member of the Black Lives Matter Interfaith Coalition that resulted from the death of Freddie Gray.

In the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship, one of our readings was by Diana Eck, a contemporary theologian at Harvard University. She highlights a number of examples where community violence has strengthened pluralism. When I looked at these examples, I concluded that acts of community hatred can spawn interreligious dialogue and collaboration.

However, there are other paths to fostering interreligious understanding. For example, BSS is involved with BUILD, “a broad-based, non-partisan, interfaith, multiracial community power organization rooted in Baltimore’s neighborhoods and congregations.” BSS has also been a part of Faith Communities of Baltimore with Pride (FCBWP), a multi-denominational collaborative “who believe in the human dignity of ALL people, especially our GLBTQIA sisters and brothers.” FCBWP actively plans interreligious events to promote inclusion, understanding, and community for queer people of faith and their allies.

In reflecting on my fellowship with ICJS, I have come to realize that there is also another approach to building interreligious dialogue. That approach is rooted in relationships and knowledge. Our workshop conducted by the Multifaith Storytelling Institute gave us the tools to connect the cohort. In addition to the lens stories provide into the other person’s soul, storytelling helps us make sense of the world, and communicates our values and beliefs. Our relationship with members of the cohort were deepened as we extended and received hospitality when visiting each other’s prayer services. BSS is working with St. Matthew’s Church to develop an event for our communities to gather in fellowship and text studies on love in our faith traditions. By closely working with my cohort members from St. Matthews, I have gotten to know them and their perspectives on community-building.

While part of the study for the cohort included academic and practical reading about interreligious dialogues, I personally found the lectures by the ICJS scholars to be the most helpful. Those lectures provided the underpinnings of understanding the tenants of each faith tradition which formed the basis to begin a dialogue about commonalities and differences in theology.

It is my aspiration to continue to build relationships and knowledge with other people of faith—as an individual, a member of BSS, and as a member of the broader Baltimore community. I invite you to engage in your own path of interreligious understanding through cultivating relationships with people of other faith traditions and learning. Together, we can help fulfill ICJS’s vision of building “an interreligious society in which dialogue replaces division, friendship overcomes fear, and education eradicates ignorance.”

 


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.


Marc Wernick is a member of the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Seeing Myself as an Interfaith Leader

Although prior to the ICJS Fellowship I would not have called myself or seen myself as an interfaith leader, having participated in the program for more than six months now, I do feel that many of my cross-cultural global experiences, my personal faith, and my professional exposure to other faiths have changed my perceptions of myself as an interfaith leader.

I come from a family in which cultural Judaism was very strong: every major Jewish holiday was celebrated in a large family gathering and we followed special traditions and practices passed down from our grandparents. My upbringing seemed very typical, living in a dominantly Jewish area in which my friends were Jewish, and my social life centered around the synagogue youth group. I received a formal Jewish education and completed several milestones to become an adult in the community.

I attended an undergraduate institution with a strong Jewish population, but I purposefully expanded my learning by taking religion classes and understanding faiths and their rituals. I developed deep friendships with people from other faiths. Because I grew up in such a closed community, I had never experienced much antisemitism or discrimination, although I knew it existed.

One event had a very strong impact on me: In college I dated a man who was Catholic, and we became close; but his parents could not accept me because I was Jewish and at the end of college we broke up. This had an enormous impact on me, and I struggled to understand this nonacceptance.

I went into the Peace Corps the summer after graduating from college and while that changed my life forever, many of my Jewish friends and family members thought I was crazy (“Good Jewish girls don’t go to the Peace Corps,” I was told). I spent three years in the middle of Africa, in a remote rural community made up of families who were converted by Christian missionaries but who vehemently practiced traditional African rituals and followed a faith which worshipped ancestors, the land, and the dead. Witchcraft and beliefs that linked natural phenomena such as lightning to death and destruction were used to control behavior and take revenge.

I came to understand how African spirituality operated, and I developed respect for traditional healers. I was hosted by a local evangelical Church and their families–they were my support system and I attended Church frequently out of respect. I ended up meeting my future husband in the Peace Corps. He was raised as a Christian, and we went to graduate school and were later married. We had friends in grad school from many cultures around the world. This seemed so normal for us after living in Africa.

I took a job with a Catholic organization focusing on humanitarian assistance and have been with the company ever since. There are not many Jewish people who work there and sometimes that can be uncomfortable. Many of my Jewish friends and family are surprised to learn I work for the Catholic Church as a practicing Jew. Some of my relatives believe that secretly they are trying to convert me, a common misconception among Jewish people from another generation. However, the work of this organization aligns with my personal set of values and embodies the Jewish sentiment of Tikkun Olam (repair the world) and Tzedakah (to do what is right and just).

My stepfather, who played a big role in my life from my mid-twenties to mid-forties, was a proponent of interfaith work and funded interfaith activities in his community. He believed strongly in the value of interfaith work, supported my humanitarian work, and encouraged me to join the Peace Corps.

The exposure to these belief systems shaped my appreciation for different faiths as a young adult. I easily understood other faith traditions and learned from them but remained committed to Judaism. My husband and I raised our children Jewish, although my husband never converted. I continue to be fascinated by different cultures and traditions as I travel across the world for work. Over the last five years I have worked exclusively in West Africa where Islam is the major religion, and I have become used to the calls to prayer that once caught me off guard. I now find that regular, rhythmic ritual even reassuring.

I have learned that many religions–and many peoples and communities–have so much in common. Personally, I am drawn to Judaism for its values, traditions and rituals and emphasis on social justice. I want to make the world a better place, give back, and leave the world a little bit better than I found it. But I have come to realize that that is what most Christians and Muslims want too.

 


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.


Jennifer Overton is a member of Chevrei Tzekek Congregation in Baltimore and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Forming a Different Kind of Torah

The ICJS and the Torah have something in common: they both value stories.

I used to be a story skeptic, especially in the world of interfaith work.

The Torah, like the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship (CLF), starts with stories. But the Torah’s first commentary, as reported by Rashi in the 11th century, poses a challenge to the Torah starting with stories: shouldn’t the Torah, which is a book primarily about human obligations, start with the first obligation?

I felt a similar challenge arise in me as I began the ICJS fellowship. I used to think the work is so much larger than any one particular story. Don’t we need to focus on the larger systems and patterns at play? The oppressions, the hierarchies, the obstacles that need addressing ASAP? Don’t we need to start with obligations?

And yet, what has stuck with me most through the CLF has been the stories. I’ve listened to Faiza tell stories about her work with her mosque to engage in their youth. I’ve heard Father Joe tell the story of his early transition to a new church with a totally different racial makeup and how he learned to think of his role in a very different way. And I’ve heard stories from other Jews about their struggles to feel like ‘insiders’ in their traditions and their quests for belonging.

It is a Jewish mitzvah, a communal obligation, to read the Torah every year—stories included. And as we read the stories, we have the chance to reflect with curiosity, introspection, and connection. In the story of Abraham, for example, God calls him to leave his family and his homeland and to go to an unknown place. As I read, I wonder: how did Abraham feel? What did he think? I reflect on what it would be like to be called to leave my home and to make a new life and a new community in a new place. Some years when I have had to move to a new house, I have wondered if God was calling to me to the new place. Each year, I find myself with new reflections.

When I hear the stories of my cohort and share stories of my own, I feel us forming a different kind of Torah. Looking to the future, I wonder what it will be like to return to these stories again and again, year after year, as our relationships deepen. As we engage with one another around these stories we practice curiosity, compassion, and self-reflection. And from here, we will build a whole new interreligious culture, and a new tradition.

 


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 Aurora (Rory) Katz is the spiritual leader of Chevrei Tzekek Congregation in Baltimore and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Relationship Before Task

A key principle in leadership settings, and particularly in intersectional spaces, is the concept of “relationship before task.” Essentially what this posits is that a foundational relationship based on trust and mutual respect are the ingredients underlying any meaningful work to create shared goals or to make change.

Let’s say you put several different interest groups together to work on a project, but none of these groups have ever worked together before. Assuming that those groups can come together and accomplish a shared task without first establishing some basic human connections would be a huge risk. Look at how good businesses invest in their teams: The smartest companies create culture around their best asset—their employees. Look at the team sports in the Olympics—the trust you can see when one athlete makes eye contact with their teammate. We know it when we see it (and we can also usually tell when it’s absent, too).

To me, the most fascinating proof of the importance of “relationship before task” came in a somewhat unexpected way as a member of the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship (CLF).

As Fellows, we have invested a good deal of time in getting to know one another across religions. Since January, we’ve gotten to learn about each other’s backgrounds and cultures and how we approach the world. Yet in March, each religious group of Fellows was sent off with its own members and given the task of creating a presentation about their own religion to then be shared with other members of the fellowship.

And, like falling right into a trap of my own making, we jumped right into the task. Oops. There were so many nuances, misfires, and miscommunications as we tried to accomplish this task. People (including me) defaulted to “insider language” without checking in to be sure we were all on the same page. Some lay people immediately gave deference to the clergy in the Zoom room, while others assumed we were in a community of peers and equals. I think the fellowship was so focused on getting us to meet folks from the other religions that we neglected to develop the important relationships within our own house, so to speak. Have you ever heard the expression, “two Jews, three opinions?” How about the story of the Jewish man stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues: one he attends, and one he refuses to ever step foot in!?!? We neglected the “relationship before task” principle at our own peril.

I am so thankful to the person who sent an email after our first meeting admitting how lost she felt in the conversation. It really gave me pause to think about how I may have contributed to feelings of exclusion or insider/outsider dynamics, all in the name of the almighty task accomplishment! I admit, I love a good task with a beginning, middle and end. I love productivity and efficiency. I often need to be reminded to build in time during programs for that all-important downtime so people can connect in a real way outside of the task at hand. And here I was, learning that lesson all over again.

In the end, we did come up with a pretty dynamic presentation. But it also involved more meetings to get to know each other and where we were each coming from, to be able to get to the point where we could work on the task. I hope as I continue to learn and grow, I can remember to always place the relationship building in the center of the work. The rest, as they say, is commentary.

 


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.


Rachel Siegal is a member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Learning While Teaching: Pedagogy at Work

One of the mikva’ot of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. This one was built in the early 1900s by the third congregation to worship in the building, Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh. JMM 1988.183.004

It may sound like a cliché these days, but I am so grateful for the opportunities I have to learn from the students who walk through the doors (or pop into the Zoom Classrooms) of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I’d like to share one of these moments that radically influenced the way that I approach teaching about one aspect of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, and how ICJS and the Teacher Fellows have helped me continue to hone this approach.

The Lloyd Street Synagogue is Maryland’s oldest synagogue and is the third oldest extant synagogue in the continental United States. One of the amazing parts of this historic building is that it is the site of not one, but four mikva’ot (singular: mikveh), one of which is the oldest documented mikveh in the United States. In Judaism, a mikveh is a ritual bath used for spiritual–not physical–cleanliness and purification.

The water of a mikveh has to be ‘living water,’ water that comes from a natural source; this means that most mikva’ot are communal centers. In most cases, using the mikveh involves dunking one’s head under the water and reciting a prayer. People may use a mikveh for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, the following:

The mikva’ot of the Lloyd Street Synagogue can be at once both deeply meaningful and challenging to teach. Not only is it a complicated and somewhat sensitive topic, but it is often the first time students are learning about it. Students understandably have many questions and comments about the mikva’ot.

One interesting phenomenon is that at the mikveh, more than any other space in the synagogue, students are the most likely to draw connections and see parallels between Judaism and other religious traditions. One of my greatest tasks is helping students make these connections in an accurate and nuanced way, one that recognizes the similarities that they see while also acknowledging and honoring the differences.

More often than not, students draw connections between the mikveh and baptism in Christianity. But once, a student group took me completely by surprise! They were a small group of high school students who were taking a class on several different religious traditions. In the classroom, they had just finished their unit on Islam and were beginning their unit on Judaism. When these students saw the mikveh, they made the connection not to baptism, but to a ritual washing practice in Islam–wudu.

I have to admit, I think this was the first time I had heard of ritual washing practices in Islam, let alone wudu specifically (which I later learned is only one part of the ritual washing practices in Islam). The students shared with me a little of what they had studied in class, and we briefly discussed these practices before we had to move on to other parts of the tour.

But I found myself, even long after this group had visited, thinking about and reflecting upon this moment. I considered how unprepared I felt to guide the students through that conversation. I wondered what information I needed to gather to help students navigate a nuanced conversation on these two practices. Then I wondered how I would even go about finding that information.

And then I wondered what other religious and cultural practices students might see reflected in the mikveh. How can I support students wanting to make those connections, and how can I help students with a variety of religious backgrounds feel seen and recognized in this space?

ICJS, with the Teacher Fellowship, provided a profound space of care, curiosity, and community to explore these questions, and others. I was connected with ICJS Muslim Scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan, who answered my questions about wudu and ghusl, and helped me see the parallels and differences in these practices. With the Teacher Fellows at each monthly meeting, we discussed the best methodological and pedagogical ways to approach religion in the classroom, and helped each other hone our skills and grow as educators. I am so deeply grateful for these opportunities and know that what I have learned will undoubtedly help me guide students’ learning with deep empathy and understanding.

Marisa Shultz isa Museum Educator at The Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM). Shultz was a member of the 2020-21 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.