This is my recollection of co-Founding the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Central to this effort was my co-Founder, Stephanie Varnon-Hughes. Without her, this project could never have taken shape.
I was sitting in my apartment in Jerusalem, hiding from the world. A war was raging a hundred miles south of me, and another seemed likely to start a hundred miles to the north. I felt unable to impact the situation at all.
When I ventured into the empty streets of Jerusalem, I heard the uneasy silence that war had brought. The creak of shop windows closing, the whispers of passersby, the lone shopkeeper still selling his wares in the market. In the Old City and the new, there was nobody to speak to. Everyone was staying home. There was no dialogue to be had.
In that atmosphere, my apartment became a refuge, a place where dialogue could happen. Palestinian friends from my wife’s office began joining us for dinner as regularly as our Israeli friends. It was a sanctuary in the midst of turmoil where we could connect to those we held close. In that peace, I began an ongoing dialogue with thought-leaders from around world. That winter we launched the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.
Even before the war, it seemed clear to me that the pain of conflict was amplified by the absence of dialogue. Even when dialogue was possible in a region so fraught, we often lacked words with which to make it meaningful. “We are all the same” drowned out “we are all different,” but rang hollow and left participants unsatisfied.
Called to a Deeper Dialogue
A more nuanced approach was necessary. I did not immediately have one of my own but knew others who could help compose one. I began by reaching out to my mentor, Eboo Patel, and then to colleagues elsewhere in the United States and new friends from Jerusalem. I told them I wanted to create a forum for meaningful dialogue about the most challenging of topics – the ones that rained silence over the sacred city. I wanted to connect people using the Internet, as it was one of the few means of communication that can be sustained in a conflict zone.
I wanted to bring new voices into dialogue in order to enrich the conversation and enhance the practical applications of discussions that spanned theory and practice. I wanted the publication to be at once rigorously peer-reviewed, open to innovative ‘field studies,’ and a forum for comment that would connect authors to readers. I wanted the Journal to link theory to practice and practice back to theory so that programs in the government, nonprofit sector, academic institutions, and congregations around the world can become more effective at addressing issues of difference between our religious traditions.
I wanted internal dialogue among the Journal’s new staff members and nascent Board of Scholars and Practitioners to match the dialogue taking place among authors, readers, editors, and organizations around the world. I wanted us not to shy away from controversial topics but to address them head-on, in a thoughtful manner, acknowledging different perspectives. I knew that the inter-religious war taking place outside my Jerusalem apartment could not be stopped by timid thinking.
The curse of living on the edge of a war zone was salved by the blessing of connecting to inspirational leaders, thinkers, educators, and seminarians from around the world. I was overjoyed when our first issue came out, with stellar contributors from people of multiple religions, ethnicities, and countries.
The Journal became a source of inspiration for me, a spark that launched related projects. As a first-year rabbinical student I’d managed to partner with other faculty, seminarians, and non-profit leaders to found a publication. Its inaugural issue immediately made it the most widely read peer-reviewed publication about the intersection within and between religious traditions.
Why did this publication manage to break through, we asked ourselves, when so many seminarians have the ambition, experience, insight, and desire to improve interreligious relations? Clearly seminarians need a venue, a place to actively and proactively enter into dialogue. As future religious leaders, we can explore fundamental shifts in interfaith relations. We found ourselves needing to learn in concert in order one day to act in concert – a realization leading a group of us to create State of Formation, the world’s largest forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. It is a collective of seminarians and graduate students who have established an interactive internet dialogue.
Starting the Journal fundamentally changed my relationship with American Muslims. While my seminary encouraged dialogue with Muslims, the Journal put me in touch with inspirational figures like Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, and Ingrid Mattson, then-president of the Islamic Society of North America. These people were no longer abstract figures but my colleagues, and we share a set of common goals. When one of them was maligned in a wave of Islamophobia that erupted two years after the Journal launch, it was personal. My friend was being smeared.
Engaging Seminarians as Interfaith-friendly Religious Leaders
As a rabbinical student, I am at once a learner and a teacher, a follower and an important leader within my religious community. So, too, are the thousands of other students in seminaries across the country and the world. While seminarians are among the greatest resources of their respective communities, their potential as change-agents has been underutilized. State of Formation is working to tap into their talent and enable students across the country to lead in a shift from acknowledging diversity to affirming pluralism.
We plan to gather 30 of State of Formation’s most dedicated Contributing Scholars for a May 14 conference at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. These young adult interfaith scholars will represent a dozen cities nationwide and come from different denominations and traditions. Two days of workshops and conversations with thought-leaders will include opportunities for more spontaneous interaction as students craft action plans for the coming school year on their respect campuses. Who will they aim to gather? What events will they hold? What is a desirable outcome for their particular school or region? Following the conference, they return home and begin implementing their plans, starting with initial contacts over the summer with mentors, administrators, and potential institutional partners.
While State of Formation will already have launched informal interfaith education programs in some of these cities prior to the conference, the gathering will generate a two-fold expansion nationally. Our goal is to have quarterly gatherings in each participating city, working directly with local seminaries to ensure internal support to the greatest extent possible.
At the same time, State of Formation’s lively online forum, with more than 600 articles published in its first year, provides a platform for reflective conversations about seminary programs, theological challenges, and how current events impact seminary education and seminarians themselves. This digital forum will continue to remove silos that exist between seminaries and ensure that 120 student Contributing Scholars can communicate collaboratively, knowing that the efforts within their individual schools and cities are part of a much larger effort.
We anticipate that the in-person programming at participating seminary communities will generate interest and new applications to become Contributing Scholars and regular writers for the State of Formation forum. This dual in-person and online approach should add vibrancy to discussions and ensure the replication of best practices across regions. Ultimately, we see State of Formation as a national society for seminary students, dedicated to interfaith study and action and to preparing leaders and effective interfaith engagement in our profoundly diverse religious landscape.
Across traditions and denominations, this can become an honors society for top-flight emerging leaders, a training ground for leading-edge programs that will accompany these future clergy to the pulpit, the academy, and other professional settings. By honoring seminarians most dedicated to interfaith work, we hope to transform the culture within seminaries and ensure that interfaith study and action become a bedrock for religious leadership and education in America. In turn, these transformational leaders can bring interfaith study and action to the hundreds of thousands of congregations they sustain around the country. The future of religious pluralism depends on seminarians as change-agents. In turn, we must invest in them.
This article was originally published in The Interfaith Observer.