Last year, while I was still a student in rabbinical school and serving as advisor to Jewish students at Haverford College, I helped to organize and staff an Interfaith Encounters alternative spring break trip run by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia. I found the experience so meaningful that even though I no longer serve in any official capacity at Haverford I volunteered to help with this year’s Interfaith Encounters trip.
I knew for certain that I had wisely allocated my scarce free time even before the trip officially started. As part of a pre-trip orientation I asked students to talk about their religious or non-religious identity and was immediately inspired by the offering of a student who identifies as a Pentecostal Christian. She spoke with ease and honesty about her efforts to grow in her relationship to God—something I’d like to do, but a subject almost never discussed in any Jewish community where I have spent significant time.
During trip downtime I read portions of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America by Eboo Patel, and I come across his distinction between “faith club”-style interfaith activity, on the one hand, and building an interfaith social movement, on the other. In faith clubs, a small, religiously diverse group draws inspiration from one another by sharing their spiritual journeys. Building an interfaith social movement, on the other hand, means “rallying the masses” in support of religious pluralism, to drown out “the thrash metal of religious prejudice.”
Most of my own interfaith experiences fit into the “faith club” category, including the inspiring moment at the pre-trip meeting. Moments such as this one have catalyzed my growth as a Jew and a human being. Early on in the trip, however, I was reminded of the need for a powerful interfaith movement. I asked Abby Stamelman Hocky, the executive director of the Interfaith Center, why she helped found the organization more than nine years ago, since there didn’t seem to be any religious violence in Philadelphia.
In response to my question, Sharan, our trip coordinator, spoke up. She belongs to a Sikh community and she very patiently explained, as she has probably found herself doing all too often, that the Sikh community faced profound suspicion and hostility in the wake of September 11th, and even suffered numerous hate crimes, including murders, of which the shootings at the Oak Creek temple in Wisconsin is just the most recent. I already knew Sharan was Sikh, and I was somewhat ashamed that I forgot about the prejudice and violence that I already vaguely knew menaced Sikhs, but I had never met a Sikh, so my knowledge and empathy were shallow. (My question and Sharan’s answer also demonstrated to me that I had forgotten the lessons of my Jewish ancestors’ experience of being religious “strangers”—not just in the Jews’ mythic past in Egypt but also in my baube and zayde’s American childhoods—further proof for me that we can’t “remember [we] were strangers in Egypt” unless we cultivate relationships with those who are strangers today.)
A few days later, the leader of another Interfaith Encounters trip told me her students met with a religious leader who disparaged other religious groups. The leader told me she found this very discouraging and at first I actually tried to convince her that it’s a good thing to hear directly from opponents of pluralism–this was my liberal arts training talking, perhaps. Having just been reminded that lives depend on the creation of an interfaith movement, however, I stopped myself and really listened to my colleague and thought more about what I had read in Sacred Ground. According to Patel, people will be more likely to join the interfaith movement if they meet allies, and in this meeting the students encountered a powerful obstacle. In that sense, it really was a discouraging meeting.
When Passover begins next Monday night we will retell the Israelite slaves’ liberation and I will have new appreciation for the interfaith connections that catalyzed it—between Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam, Moses and his Midianite father-in-law and wife. May they inspire us to create the interfaith social movement our world needs now.