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Jews, Christians And Muslims Study Together At Hartford Seminary


July 01, 2012

Call them warriors of hope in a crusade against ignorance. They are fighting for tolerance and trust among Jews, Christians and Muslims in a peaceful way.

Three Conservative Jews, all rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, have made the pilgrimage to liberal Hartford Seminary, marking the first time the Jewish seminary has allowed its pupils to study at the Christian seminary for credit.

It's considered precedent-setting.

Along with Jews, Christians and Muslims are also attending the Building Abrahamic Partnerships program this week. The program offers a practical foundation for mutual understanding and cooperation among the three religions. The religious exchange is taking place at Hartford Seminary's Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations. It's a place where books like "How To Be A Perfect Stranger" and "The Koran for Idiots" are available.

What makes this different is the formal blessing the Jewish seminary has given the study at the Christian seminary.

"The opportunity for rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary to study at Hartford Seminary in the multi-faith environment of Christian and Muslim colleagues is a godsend," said Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at JTS.

"We expect this will help create a cadre of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders who know one another's religions. This innovative opportunity will engender a network of like-minded clergy who can work together for a more hopeful future."

One of the Jewish students, Fran Snyder, an academic, said the pioneering partnership is extremely significant.

"When the institutions have a partnership, that's when the power gets behind it. Statements are made. Suddenly, there's a stake; there's a bigger stake because the institutions and the people behind them formally connect with each other," she said. "It's not so easy to back away. There's an agreement. People want to stick it out and make a success of it."

Another Jewish student, Jonathan Kremer, who prays he'll lead a congregation one day, said that without the program, it would have been reasonably easy to go through years of seminary training without speaking with a person of another faith.

"Having the institution encourage opening the doors, opening your eyes, opening your heart, I think is a terrific thing," Kremer said.

So Jews, Christians and Muslims are spending eight days together, ending Sunday, sharing their thoughts on the other religions and learning the truth about them. They're attending interesting sessions, including one where they offered "personal confessions about what they need from the other communities to trust them more," instructor Yehezkel Landau said.

Part of the miracle is being able to speak to others studying their own religions and hoping to be leaders in their faiths one day.

"To be exposed to people like that is not something I get every day," said the third Jewish student, Jason Kirschner.

The lessons are invaluable for Kirschner. He wants to be a chaplain, who would work with individuals or families.

"You could use this in a prison; you can use it in the military especially; you can use it in a hospital," he said. "Just further awareness of other people and their customs, their cultures, of their deepest beliefs, just helps you, hopefully, to be a better chaplain, a better rabbi, a better person, a better Jew."

Kremer, who is studying to become a rabbi, will be using the lessons he learns in different ways.

He won't be trying to teach tolerance to his congregation from the pulpit.

"I won't be running back to them ... and getting up on Saturday morning and railing at people that they have to be nice to their Muslim neighbors," he said.

The goal is not only to be able to answer questions posed by the faithful about other religious cultures, but to foster an understanding even if no questions are asked. The idea is to fight fear and promote peace.

"To me, it's more than answering questions if and when they come up, but it's taking action to educate our communities so that maybe that question won't come up because they'll have some familiarity with the others ... that we can teach them enough so that they're not afraid," Kremer said.

For him, that means getting Jews, Christians and Muslims together to feed the hungry or house the homeless. Picture a woman in a burka entering a synagogue and a man in a yarmulke walking into a mosque.

"We're talking about guys wearing kippot going into an Islamic cultural center for an evening of music and dialogue," Kremer said. "We're talking about ... a synagogue, a church and a mosque getting together to build a playground in a neighborhood, to have a mutual food pantry, to work together for the community, in short."

Besides charity, there are other commonalities between the groups. Snyder notes that the groups share religious texts and that would be a way to join them together for a scholarly discussion. She's interested in getting lecturers from each religion teaching believers in the others.

"Sometimes, a text is a way of getting people together because the text becomes the ground which you sit on," she said.

Finally, there is one tenet they all share: That's hospitality. During their stay, all the students will be going to houses of worship from each faith. That means visiting a church, a synagogue and a mosque.

"The main point is you got to be a host once, a guest twice," Landau said. "And in both directions, that can be intimidatring, scary, especially if you never crossed that threshold before. For many, if not most, Muslims, going into a synagogue can be a source of anxiety and apprehension. For many Jews and Christians, especially in this country, going inside a mosque, an Islamic space, might be forbidden. ... We push them beyond their comfort zone."

Sure, each religious community is hospitable within itself. But, Kremer said, "One of the things I'm learning here is we need to be more hospitable across the communities, to not be afraid to open the door."

Which door? The door to the home or house of worship?

"Shouldn't it be both?" Kremer asked.

But his instructor said, "It's the interior door of your heart."

Do they have any fear or trepidation in proceeding? After all, there are radicals on the fringes of any group who might not react well if they see a Jew entering a mosque or a Muslim walking into a synagogue.

"You can't control your lunatics. You just work around them. You let them be lunatics and try to keep them on the fringe," Snyder said. "I don't worry about lunatics. I worry about everyday people who have misunderstandings that read information into me that isn't true about me and didn't come from me, and my perception of the Muslims that I met is that they have that same fear. 'Don't look at me and think that I'm a terrorist. Yeah, there are Muslim terrorists. I'm not that person. I'm the person who's working hard because I want my kid to be a doctor.' There's a kind of commonality of just wanting to live and be left alone."

"I see what we're doing as a particularly American enterprise," Snyder added. "So when I say an American enterprise, geographically, naturally, America is about as neutral as it's going to get. America has a very long history of including people."

"It's a social experiment. So, in a situation like this where people are coming from other cultures, you know what? We've done it before," Snyder said. "We have experience in this. We have experience in allowing people to come and be. So I feel that this is a proving ground for an integration of Muslims, Jews and Christians, and Buddhists and Hindus and whoever else is on our shores."

Kremer said, "I think indifference is probably as damaging to one's self and one's community as fear, and by getting to know your communities, you can dispel indifference and fear."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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