multifaith rabbi strikes again

The Jewish Week's Directions Magazine is running my latest piece on multifaith work. It is included in a collection of visions for the Jewish future. You can read it here.

A Bridge Across

About four years ago,the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner invited me up to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to meet with a small circle of his friends whom he affectionately dubbed “the woolly mammoths.” Sounds like a good name for a rock band, I thought. It was Balfour’s title for a nearly extinct species — octogenarian male religious leaders who could recall the street protests of the 1950s and ‘60s and hadn’t lost an ounce of righteous anger.

I recall the woolly mammoths because making any suggestion regarding the future of inter-religious relations begins with tracing their footsteps. I was grateful that these battle-scarred clergymen shared their life stories with me and offered me a window into America’s multifaith history. Born during the first great era of America’s interfaith awareness, they were accustomed to the ecumenical dialogues and Thanksgiving celebrations of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

But during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the time when the woolly mammoths were freshly minted rabbis and ministers, they went from dialogue to activism. Most in my generation have heard of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s crossing of the cobblestone river of Broadway to speak with the tall steeple Protestants about the need to support civil rights and oppose the war in Vietnam. But he was not alone in crossing boundaries. All of the woolly mammoths had been arrested for acts of civil disobedience (Rabbi Brickner even got in trouble for a few scuffles with counter-protesters), and they had attended numerous prayer vigils and ecumenical gatherings in the name of combating racism, ending war, and promoting a more equitable social vision.

Fast-forward to my life as a rabbi who directs a center for multifaith education in Manhattan. Those tall steeple churches can hardly get a minyan. But hundreds of emergent Evangelical churches and Pentecostal revival halls are hopping. Muslims from Istanbul to Indonesia have established over 60 vibrant religious communities in New York, and Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists are all becoming significant players in the life of the city. At the same time, the political landscape has become increasingly complex, riddled with divisive issues such as how to respond to terror networks, how to navigate the culture wars over sexuality and reproduction and how to react to a growing population of undocumented workers. Building coalitions becomes difficult, especially when it is unclear to whom to speak.

Here is a test that I would not recommend actually conducting: Ask any Jewish person you know to name three rabbis in New York City. No problem. Ask them to name three local politicians or business leaders. No problem. Now ask them to name three non-Jewish religious leaders in New York City. My bet is that unless you are talking to a Jewish professional then you’ll have a hard time finding folks who can do it.

My point is this: At the same time that we are more integrated than ever into the life of this city, we are more segregated than ever — New York has a Jewish mayor but only a handful of Jewish kids now attend New York City public schools. The younger generation sees this vividly — the great success of having new Hillel buildings on college campuses also means that Jews have physically removed themselves from the other religious communities on campus. It is a mixed blessing. For all our love of promoting good inter-religious relations, and our desire that non-Jews understand Jewish history and Israel, we often place actual partnerships with non-Jews very low on our list of communal priorities.

So what should Jewish involvement in multifaith work look like in New York’s future?

First off, we need to learn from some of our success stories. The fact that there is no annual or even biannual meeting where lay leaders, rabbis, nonprofit professionals, teachers, and others who have built successful interfaith partnerships get together to address this issue is a glaring absence. We need major players to step up to the plate and contribute the creative thinking and resources to make this happen on a large scale.

Because New York’s religious diversity has radically expanded, a new effort to proactively locate and reach out to new communities is in order. Jewish organizations that focus on public affairs and community relations have limited time and resources. The real potential is to tap all Jewish institutions in New York that are open to new partnerships and encourage their lay and professional leaders to reach out to institutions from other religious traditions. We need to connect to Mexican Pentecostals, to Bangladeshi Muslims and to Sri Lankan Buddhists.

I envision that the Jewish Community Relations Council or a similar organization could launch a citywide effort to track and organize such partnerships and the Jewish press could devote a monthly section featuring the many different expressions of inter-religious bridge building. Ideally, efforts to reach out will be accompanied by an expansion of multifaith education across the Jewish curriculum. Adult education centers, like the Skirball Center, the 92nd Street Y, the JCC in Manhattan and others have already invited in both Muslims and Christians to speak.

This is a good first step. Now every Hebrew school and day school director should ask the question, “What are we teaching our students about the religious other? And why?” Often the most basic school projects — like one I heard about between Manhattan’s Heschel School and the Al-Iman School in Queens — can build meaningful ongoing relationships between communities. If we really desire to be understood by our neighbors and build a city where religious diversity is seen as an asset, then we need at least a hundred of these projects to be nourished.

Remember the righteous anger of the wooly mammoths? Their basic insight was that education and dialogue are not enough. Today, we must not let complex political issues get in the way of building inter-religious partnerships with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others that respond to the growing inequities in our city and our world. I’ve seen impressive efforts to reform the criminal justice system (I-CARE), to respond to disease (NY Alzheimer’s Association), and to address genocide (Save Darfur) that have harnessed inter-religious partnerships.

The more we build communal partnerships that advance shared social and political goals, the better position we will be in to work on the more divisive issues. That includes issues regarding human rights, economic disparity, sexuality, bioethics and citizenship, as well as issues regarding the safety, security and continued vitality of Jewish communities around the world and in Israel.

Finally, a hope. I envision multifaith engagement that not only transcends prejudice and social division but builds a renewed sense of civic responsibility. The civic pride I felt five years ago, as New York came together in the wake of 9/11, is one of the most powerful forces of community and good will that I have ever experienced. It reminded me of the words of Proverbs 11:11 “Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted.” When done right, multifaith work not only reconnects us to the wisdom of our own traditions, but renews our faith in our neighbors. In doing so, this work can give birth to a world in which our promises to care for one another are put into action.

Rabbi Brickner, who wrote a fantastic book on gardening two years before he died, would say that it is a good thing that many in the Jewish community have already tilled the soil and planted the seeds. Rather than let inter-religious tensions with Muslims, liberal Christians, conservative Christians and others mar the headlines of the future, it would be best for Jewish communities to water the seeds of these relationships and nurture a new crop.