by John Rivera, ICJS Communications & Marketing Director

Interreligious dialogue is difficult even in the best of times. But in the fraught atmosphere around the Israel-Hamas War, is dialogue possible—or even a good idea?

This dilemma confronted the ICJS scholars this spring as they prepared to lead the annual ICJS 2024 Emerging Religious Leaders Intensive (ERLI), a week-long residential experience at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Md. with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian students training for ministry. 

Maybe it would be prudent to cancel this year, the organizers mused.

“We had serious concerns about having these hard conversations during a collective time of grief, sadness and anger,” said ICJS Muslim Scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan. “My impulse was to pull out and let people process their emotions on their own. However, in retrospect I am so grateful that my colleagues convinced me that it was valuable to have and continue this difficult dialogue.” 

A decidedly different ERLI

This year’s ERLI had many of its regular features, including sessions on the teachings of each religion and participatory Muslim, Jewish, and Christian worship services led by students. Each year ERLI includes a mix of instruction, discussion, interreligious experiences, and informal conversations over meals and recreation. The program was structured in three phases, one for each day. They are: Orientation (learning about each faith), Disorientation (challenging questions), and Reorientation (acknowledging emerging new perspectives).

But this year’s ERLI experience was decidedly different. During the Disorientation phase, participants directly took on discussion of the Israel-Hamas War, replicating the dialogue model ICJS has used for more than 130 people in the Baltimore area over the months since Oct. 7th. This includes submitting written answers to three questions about the conflict in Israel and Gaza that are then read aloud when the group gathers: One thing I know with certainty, one thing I think I understand but could be wrong about, and one thing I don’t know. The responses were read aloud anonymously by the entire group, with some students reading viewpoints that were in conflict with their own perspective, but that may have also prompted them to think about how it might feel to have written those words.

A tense, but frank dialogue

A frank dialogue ensued. Many described the experience of the dialogue as one that was extremely difficult, but that also had a tremendous impact.

“To hear the whole room filled with each of us taking on the other people’s perspectives, it really moved me because it made me feel like interreligious dialogue was really possible, even on the hardest things,” said Jordan Wesley, a Christian who is studying to be an Episcopal priest at General Theological Seminary in New York. “That if we could actually take the perspective of someone else, the person who’s not us, then maybe we could actually work for peace together.”

“It was one of those moments that was massively tense and uncomfortable, but definitely one of the high points of the week,” said Reuven McCullough, a Jewish student from Seattle studying at the Aleph Ordination Program. “That discomfort and the emotional upswell that people had around it allowed a sort of breakthrough and allowed people to realize the actual pain that other people were feeling.”

A safe space

Tahira Wellman, a Muslim student at Boston Islamic Seminary who is studying to be a hospital chaplain, described it as “very hard and daunting initially.” 

“This was a safe space for us to talk about something very difficult. And it was OK to be confrontational,” she said. “It was a moment where we didn’t have to be politically correct. We didn’t have to be guarded. We could speak our truth. We were allowed to do that in a respectful way. And so I think being able to do that and feel heard, this is the first time I’ve been able to do that since the conflict started.”

Above all, ERLI students came away with practical experience in engaging in interreligious dialogue. The Rev. Lawrence Patterson, a Christian pastor who just graduated from the Howard University School of Divinity, described it as “an opportunity for me to close the textbook, come from behind the pulpit and do what the scripture says.”

“I’ve not been in an intimate space with an imam, an intimate space with a rabbi, and being able to ask questions and share similarities and differences respectfully, and being in a safe space where you are able to have conversation, real conversation that impacts you right now,” he said. 

“This I know: That I’m forever changed,” Patterson said.