by Emma Hawthorn, ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellow

“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.