Tag Archives: interfaith

Losing (and Finding) My Religion

by Maddie Ulanow

It’s always interesting when, on a particular Friday night, we get a new high turnout of students for the weekly Shabbat services – and only about half of them are Jewish.

It would be higher, but some of the regular Jewish attendees are skipping out for the Buddhist meditation.

A 2009 Pew Research poll revealed that 44 percent of American adults no longer identify with their childhood religion; of those who still do, nine percent changed or questioned their faith at some point. Fifteen percent of the Protestants surveyed now identify with a different Protestant faith, and nine percent of the Catholics surveyed are either unaffiliated or Protestant. Nine percent of the Christians surveyed converted to a different religion altogether, one of the options of which includes Judaism.

What is it that makes a change in religion so attractive? And what is it that brings people to, and conversely turns them away, from Judaism? What is it that lures a curious outsider to simply observe a Friday night service, and what is it that leads to a more in-depth inner exploration on the subject?

People pull away from the religions of their birth for a variety of personal reasons, whether it be disagreement with the doctrine, difficulty in observing customs, perceiving ridicule because of it, or simple lack of identification. How, then, do they find a new religion, should they find one at all?

The Buddhist meditation, at least on college campuses full of religion majors, curious freshmen and a diverse student body is often extremely popular among those not originally of Buddhist faith. It offers something new and exotic, and has a reputation for bringing about a peace of mind. Similarly, the Hindu holy book readings may draw a number of interested students. Catholics attend Jewish services and tap into something of their own religion’s past; Jews attend Muslim services and delight in drawing parallels; students, and to a larger extent all of us of all faiths, can explore all religions and find it enriches our own. In relation to Judaism–a  religion once exiled and ostracized–our services and rituals are now a subject of curiosity to the interested outsider, and the number of non-Jews attending Jewish services are increasing.

Why, you might ask, would anyone give up a Friday night or Saturday morning if they didn’t have to, and if they had no clue what was going on? I know I wouldn’t. One factor might be the increasing rate of intermarriage; 54 percent of American Jews today marry non-Jews, and 33 percent of currently wed couples are intermarried.  With these kinds of numbers, congregations, not just on diverse college campuses but across America, must make shifts to accommodate unfamiliar but eager new participants.

Some use prayer books with both English translations and transliterations, so those with a good ear for tune but no knowledge of Hebrew can still sing along, and understand what they’re praying for. Rabbis might stop between prayers for explanations which benefit not just non-Jews, but the Jews in attendance as well. An interesting tidbit from a recent service I attended was that the “lai-la-lai” and “bum-ba-dum” verses of multiple prayers and songs emerged from the peasants of Eastern Europe, Jews who didn’t necessarily know all the words or meanings but wanted to raise their voices in prayer nonetheless. It opens up a path to spirituality and participation to those the eager people who seek it, even curious outsiders exploring the religion for the first time.

We would hope that other religions offer these subtle, welcoming opportunities to Jews as well – and they do. In a diverse society such as ours where more people than ever are questioning and exploring, especially in the area of new faiths and ideas, pursuit of different religions is a natural outcome. Learning about another religion can help enrich our own, and in turn, teaching someone about Judaism is mutually beneficial. This holiday season, perhaps an attempt to learn something new, and also teach something new, would grant an important new insight for an exciting new year.

The Long and Winding Road to Interfaith Dialogue

by Steven Philp
While the media spent the morning of September 11 replaying footage of the terrorist attacks of that day in 2001, small groups of people gathered across the country to show that wounds can heal with faith and conviction, if not time. These gatherings on that day brought together Jews, Christians and Muslims to remember those who lost their lives in the attacks, and to show a renewed commitment to developing bonds between our different faith communities. According to Haaretz, approximately 15 interfaith memorial services were planned for New York City alone, with others taking place in major cities across the United States – including Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Washington, DC. The first official interfaith gathering occurred on Friday, September 9, when more than 2,000 individuals crowded into a mosque in uptown Manhattan; the service was officiated by head imam Ali Shamsi, two rabbis and two priests. Raymond Kelly, Commissioner of the New York City Police Department was also in attendance.

Although the event was held in remembrance of those who lost their lives on September 11, the memorial service also focused on the need for coexistence between American religious communities. “We’ve defeated the terrorists,” explained Imam Shamsi in an interview with Haaretz. “The terrorists who acted on September 11 sought not only to kill innocent people, but also to divide the public and sow hate among us, to incite man against his fellow man. But they failed.” Shamsi participated in a total of eight interfaith services, taking place in churches, mosques and synagogues across Queens. He explained the need for people of different religious communities to enter each other’s places of worship, to get to know their neighbors first hand. “The attackers wanted and still want the believers of different religions to hate one another,” Shamsi said. “But in the wake of the attacks, we’ve become closer.”

Unfortunately, not all American religious communities share Shamsi’s positive outlook. Only last year several Christian and Jewish organizations–including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Zionist Organization of America–mounted demonstrations against Park51, a proposed Muslim community center breaking ground two blocks away from the World Trade Center Memorial in downtown Manhattan. Although containing a large Muslim prayer space, proponents have been quick to point out that Park51 is not a mosque–in fact, the majority of its facilities will be open for use by the general public, including a small memorial to the victims of September 11.

It is a testament to the perseverance of individuals like Imam Shamsi that such a large number of interfaith memorial events occurred.  Perhaps in our shared grief it has become apparent that internal divisions need to be considered and–with a building of mutual respect and understanding–be placed aside. “The relationships between American Jews and Muslims have become tightly knit, and evermore significant,” said Shamsi.

This hopeful sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Speaking to Haaretz, he explained, “Ten years ago there were no ties between Jews and Muslims in the United States. Today they exist, and are experiencing a blossoming of cooperation.”

The Catholic Church Changes Gears on Interfaith Relations

By Gabriel Weinstein

Last week a group of twenty cantors from the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) serenaded Catholic officials in Rome with rousing renditions of Adon Olam and other Jewish liturgical melodies.  The concert was a part of the Interfaith Information Center’s conference on Catholic-Jewish relations. Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, priest of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, said it was “very important to be here [at the concert] together and praising our god.”  While Jewish-Catholic relations have been steadily improving for decades, a new Catholic push to mend ties with Muslims is pushing the Church’s Jewish priority to second place.

For thousands of years Catholic Jewish relations were marked by antagonism and contempt. For centuries, central tenants of Catholic doctrine included Supercessionism, the belief God rejected Jews and anointed Christians as his chosen people, and Translated Responsibility, which holds Jews accountable for Jesus’ death. From the medieval era until the 19th century, the Catholic Church endorsed an array of discriminatory proposals against Jewish residents.

Catholics’ relations with their other monotheistic peer, Muslims, were marked by similar confrontational episodes. When Islam emerged in the eighth century, Catholic scholars were quick to pronounce the new doctrine as heresy. Catholics’ initial dismissal of Muslim doctrine foreshadowed the bloody Catholic crusades against Muslim rule of Palestine in the medieval era.

By the early 1960s the Vatican grew tired of having frayed relations with other religious groups and reformulated their millennia old interfaith policy. In 1965 the Church issued Nostra Aetate, their seminal document on interfaith relations. Nostra was the first time the Vatican advocated for interfaith dialogue between Catholics and other religions. One of the Vatican’s primary objectives with Nostra was to rekindle its relationship with Jews.  It is no coincidence that the section of Nostra discussing Jewish relations is the longest. Nostra renounced charges of Jewish deicide, acknowledged Jews’ covenant with God and decried anti-Semitism.  Some Church officials challenged Nostra’s detailed discussion of Jewish relations and were joined by Arab countries in protest. However, the Vatican’s insistence on redefining Catholic-Jewish relations cemented the section discussing Judaism.

Nostra also discusses relations with Muslims, acknowledging the frazzled history of Muslim-Christian relations, but noting that both view Jesus as a prophet and the Virgin Mary as a holy figure.  The Vatican pleaded in Nostra with “all [Muslims and Christians] to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

In the 45 years since Nostra Aetate Catholic-Jewish relations have remained stable.  The Church has issued a series of documents on Jewish-Catholic relations ranging from 1975’s  Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (No. 4) to 1998’s We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. Three popes have visited Israel since 1964, with Pope Benedict XVI making the most recent visit in May 2009.

But all that may be changing.  According to National Catholic Reporter John L. Allen Jr., dialogue with Muslims is now the Vatican’s most important interfaith priority, perhaps displacing the importance of the Jewish-Catholic relationships.  The bulging global Muslim population, increasing Catholic presence in Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East are some of the major factors fueling the detente.

One of the main priorities of the Catholic-Muslim interfaith effort is securing freedom of religion for Catholic minorities in Muslim dominated countries. The Vatican would like to see the religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West extended to Catholic minorities in countries with large Muslim populations.  For example, Pope Benedict has maintained steadfast support for Asia Bibi, a jailed Pakistani Christian who faces death for criticizing the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

The prioritization of Muslim relations has ushered in a change in the Vatican’s demeanor towards its Jewish relations.  Whereas the Vatican consistently sought to apologize for past grievances against Jews when Jewish interfaith relations were the priority, now Catholics no longer worry about critiquing their Jewish peers or voicing their displeasure.  For example, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent praise of Pope Pius XII has upset Jewish Holocaust survivors, as many believe Pope Pius could have done more to rescue Jews from the Nazi regime.

But Allen states that the Vatican’s Muslim interfaith efforts are redefining its interfaith relationships in a broader way. Catholic interfaith efforts have moved from “interreligious dialogue” to “intercultural dialogue” which emphasizes shared understanding of cultural issues such as religion’s role in civic life and eliminating poverty.  Hopefully, the Church can avoid the trap of swapping out good Jewish relations for good Muslim relations by focusing on the important cultural and humanitarian issues important to all three monotheistic faiths.