Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, my community mainly consisted of people like me: Caucasian, Christian, and middle class. Throughout most of my childhood, I existed in a comfortable bubble populated by people who shared my experiences and values. This bubble was abruptly popped, however, when I matriculated at the regional high school. Suddenly, I was attending classes with students who didn’t go to church, but synagogue—students who were part of the town’s small but vibrant Jewish community. As I slowly built relationships with these students, my eyes began to open to other ways of seeing the world.
Then, just a few days into my freshman year of high school, the events of September 11, 2001 occurred. Suddenly, the imperative to understand other faiths became dire.
Though these are events in my personal life, they represent the importance and the risk of living in a multifaith world. At its best, a multifaith society provides an opportunity to build relationships with people of other perspectives and beliefs, and in the process, be changed by these relationships. It was only when, as a teenager, I encountered people of different religious and ethical traditions that I began to question my Protestant upbringing. Ultimately, what I found was that my true spiritual home was in Judaism, not Christianity. While one need not convert to another religion after meeting people of different faiths, my own experience teaches a valuable lesson: only when we are exposed to alternative beliefs and practices can we be certain of our own. Building relationships with people from different ethical and religious traditions provides each person the opportunity to strengthen his or her own faith, whether it was one he was raised with or one that she chose.
A multifaith environment, of course, can also be a site of conflict. I can still remember how discomfiting it was to realize that other people believed deeply in ideas that were different from my own. Similarly, my conversion to Judaism was not always an easy venture. When my family was confronted with my decision, deep-seated fears and misconceptions bubbled to the surface. While everyone involved attempted to be open and affirming, the process was far from smooth. In a multifaith world, there is plenty of opportunity for people to make judgments and assumptions. It would certainly be simpler for everyone to remain isolated, among people of their own faith.
Isolation, however, can be even more dangerous than interaction. The events of September 11 and subsequent anti-Muslim vitriol in our country proved that a lack of understanding of other faiths can lead to anger and hatred. Misunderstanding allows each side to demonize the other, and justifies acts of senseless violence. While building relationships with people of other faiths can be frightening, it is absolutely necessary. It is our charge as citizens of the world to arm ourselves with knowledge of other cultures, faiths, and traditions, in order to not only know ourselves better, but to build bridges of peace with others.