A business leader exclaimed: “How can groups of different religions dialogue, when denominations within the same religion won’t talk to each other!”
A good will ambassador said sadly: “I’ve been attacked many times for my views.”
An activist declared: “Talking about our views and doing nothing together is a waste of time.”
A rabbi complained: “Usually, we just talk about our commonalities, and gloss over the important differences.”
A Holocaust survivor said with a heavy heart: “The ones who want to dialogue aren’t the ones we need to worry about.”
Call me idealistic, but I think interfaith dialogue can save lives. My favorite example comes from the memoir of Zivia Lubetkin, the only woman on the command staff of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1940, Lubetkin and fellow youth leaders took in the orphaned teens arriving in the Warsaw ghetto. In response to dehumanization of Jews, they organized underground schools for their teens. In response to scarcity, they organized work permits. When scarcity progressed to starvation, they put the teens to work in soup kitchens. When they learned of the death camps, they armed the teens, fought alongside them, and helped survivors escape. At every step on the way, they worked with contacts outside the ghetto: their friends from interfaith summer camp.
Why am I so idealistic when others are so cynical? Why do I hold out high hopes when others lose faith in dialogue? Perhaps it’s partly my open-ended view of what counts as interfaith “dialogue.” Dialogue is conversation, communication, an exchange of speech. Speech comes in many forms, some nonverbal; communication can come simply through shared experience.
Reflecting on the many modes of dialogue, I am reminded of the Kabbalistic concept of four worlds of consciousness. Simultaneously, we live in worlds of action, feeling, thought, and being. Under the rubric of interfaith dialogue, I have participated in projects touching all four worlds.
In the world of action, Ahavat Olam, a Vancouver havurah, has organized a Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry project. Together, Jews and Muslims serve meals at a Christian-sponsored homeless shelter. Discussion of religious differences is not the point. Instead, participants focus on the familiar comfort of working with the same people month after month. Communication about shared values happens in the doing.
In the world of feeling, our regional Christian seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, hosts an annual concert “Musical and Sonic Landscapes in Islam.” Contemporary Islamic composers lead the students in exploring the role of sound in spirituality. Students move, sing, speak – and are surprised by their own confusion, laughter, and mixed feelings. Emotions are aroused, and their meanings discussed. Music communicates by stimulating emotion, which in turn stimulates conversation. This, too, is dialogue.
In the world of intellect, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community organizes interfaith dialogue panel discussions. Religious teachers and leaders representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups speak to a deep existential question, such as “How does my religious tradition address suffering?” During the Q & A that follows, attendees ask questions in the language of their own tradition. Sometimes this mismatch of language is strikingly odd, requiring presenters to re-frame teachings most familiar to them. This awkward conversation, too, is dialogue; thoughts are stimulated, and curiosities sparked.
In the world of being, the Vancouver Multi-Faith action society recently hosted an ecstatic “Sacred Earth Celebration.” This interfaith service raised awareness about a shared human concern: the health of our planet. Its intent was not, like so many interfaith services, to declare each community’s commitment or show how each community prays. It was to unite us for an evening into a single community, brought to heightened awareness through music, poetry, images and food. No information about different religious traditions was shared, though elements of all were woven into the service. Just being together in altered consciousness was a kind of soul-to-communication; this, too, was interfaith dialogue.
I agree with the cynics, just a little bit: if you try to reach people by speaking only to one dimension of their experience, you may well find ill-will, ignorance, inaction, fear and disunity. But if you reach out on every level, sharing action, feeling, thoughts and being—as many youth do at summer camp—you just might find one harmonic convergence that grows into a reliable connection.
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Like it or not, intermarriage is a fact in Jewish life.
And for the most part the Jewish community has learned to live with it. Sure, different movements deal with it differently. Sure, some congregations are more adept and accommodating. But from Renewal to Orthodox we no longer assume that a Jew by birth will marry another Jew by birth.
But as demographics shift in the United States, the nature of intermarriage is changing too. And the Jewish community will need to adapt if it hopes to continue to create spaces for these new Jewish families.
In particular, my concern is with multiracial and multicultural families. There is nothing new about Jews from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There were Jews in Ethiopia centuries before there were Jews in Poland and Jews in India before there were Jews in Spain. Jewish institutional life in the United States, however, has largely been built on the presumption that Jews are white. And our welcome to interfaith couples has similarly assumed that intermarriages between one white Jew and one white non-Jew.
But interracial marriages are at an all time high in the Unites States, a trend that is expected to continue as the population becomes increasingly more diverse. And Jewish households are clearly part of this trend.
We will need to change our language and approach in order to live up to the welcoming image we have of ourselves. Having become accustomed to Jews who have blond hair and blue eyes or wear “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, we need to be open to those with dreadlocks or who celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Because these new members of our extended community come from many different backgrounds, we cannot make assumptions about how they understand religion, community, or family. We will have to personalize our approach. We need to meet others who see Jews not just as a religious minority but as part of the white establishment. We need to broaden our own learning, so that we understand and appreciate the cultural challenges and gifts that they bring.
In the last year I’ve attended several b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that exemplify the power of embracing multiracial, multicultural Jewish families. At one service, the boy chanted from the Torah while wearing a Korean hanbok. Blessings were said in English and Korean as well as the traditional Hebrew. At another the bar mitzvah spoke of being half Japanese, half Australian and fully Jewish in a synagogue decorated with origami chains for the occasion. At another, the bat mitzvah took the occasion to also take on a traditional Japanese name sharing her multiple new identities with the congregation. In each case conversations had to be had about how to bring together multiple elements of identity into what is so clearly a Jewish setting. In each case, thought and respect were evident throughout.
These are the success stories, families who feel fully welcome, fully empowered. They are passing on Jewish traditions even as they expand them. They shine of an example of that to which we can all aspire.
Jordan, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Ethiopian, has been Jewish for 12 years and involved with Judaism for more than half his of his life. But only recently he decided to publically come out of the closet about being gay.
Growing up in Baltimore, Jordon did not have a strong Black identity. His diverse group of friends and his interest in punk rock – he shaved his head and sported a Mohawk for a while- set him apart from other black kids. But even as a young kid others identified him as gay and bullied him. Yet as a teen, when he was drawn both to drag and to an observant life, he felt he had to choose between his identities. And so being gay was not officially part of the equation for many years. Ironically, as he became more observant and involved in the hassidic community, being black became more central to his sense of self. Eventually, however, hiding part of himself, meant that he felt less able to fully embrace the mitzvot that originally drew him to Judaism.
So for Jordan, coming out is a coming together of all of the elements of his self. Speaking by phone he explained, “Prioritizing identities, that’s a concept does that does not exist, I am never more one thing than another… now I am able to express myself fully.”
While there are those in the Orthodox world who have condemned him for coming out, the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. Both the hip hop and Orthodox worlds have reputations for being homophobic but Jordan’s experience since coming out publically in Out Magazine suggests that the world is changing. Last week rap impresario Russell Simmons reached out and so did some prominent Orthodox rabbis. It makes him wish he had taken this step years ago.
Y-Love has long been a role model for Jews of color, advocating for diversity in the Jewish community. Now he has added the LGBTQ community to the list of those he seeks to motivate and strengthen. “I’ve heard from a trans woman who says I’ve inspired her to continue studying towards conversion to Judaism and from other rappers who say they wish they had my courage to come out,” says Jordan clearly gratified that his choice to come out is inspiring others.
Not in a million years would I have imagined that becoming a rabbi would lead to this.
Hora and rabbis go together to be certain, but in conjunction with mariachi? Seriously? But in this setting, nothing could have been more fitting than the juxtaposition of castanets and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”
We were in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the closing gala of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL). The music, the food, and the setting –the historic courtyard of city hall- were a perfect fit.
For the most part American Jews, and by this I really mean Jews living in the United States, rarely if ever think of Jewish life south the border. If we are to go by size, this oversight might be forgiven. There are only 40,000 Jews in Mexico and in Guadalajara a mere 500. But as our 5 days in Guadalajara proved, size is by no means the only measure when it comes to Jewish life.
All the communities that belong to the UJCL are small; at 180 members the Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara is no exception. Yet, the community put their heart and soul into opening up their home to us and to showcasing what it means to be Mexican Jews and they succeeded.
I was met at the airport (at the very delayed hour of 1am) by Louis and Roxanne. As we drove to the hotel, I learned that every Friday night the entire community comes together to share Shabbat dinner, the sense of belonging is real. There is no Jewish school in the city, but the children are very engaged in congregational life, getting up for minyan weekly. Indeed, when we came to the synagogue on for services all but one part of the Torah reading was done by teens. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen that in any community in the United States. Moreover, the 180 members of the community absorbed nearly their number of guests inviting us into their homes for dinner on Friday night.
The members of Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara are also very proud of their Mexican heritage. In addition to the sessions on Jewish life in Central America and the Torah learning, we experienced some of the cultural sights and sounds of the area with visit not only to the historic city hall but also the Cabañas Cultural Institute – a Unesco World Heritage site, with extraordinary murals and architecture. Like the Mariachi music to which we were treated, the tequila is a local specialty. The town of Tequila is located near the edge of this bustling city.
The Jews of Guadalajara are deeply connected to both their Jewish and Mexican roots, proud of both elements of their heritage. Ahead of Cinco de Mayo, I asked Rabbi Joshua Kullock the rabbi of Comunidad Judia about this dual identity and how he sees it in his community. “Take a look at the video we made singing the Hatikvah,” he suggested. I did, and recommend you do too. Young and old, singers and crooners, with accents that belie their Spanish mother tongue, these Jews remind us of how communities can come together, bringing together multiple identities to help create and share meaning.
This Cinco de Mayo, I’ll raise a glass tequila to my friends in Guadajara and thank God for a rabbinate that includes this.