The Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies (ICJS) is a non-profit organization that concentrates its educational expertise on the dual tasks of disarming religious hatred and establishing new models of interfaith understanding.
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Emerging Religious Leaders
The ICJS and the Washington Theological Consortium have partnered to offer a summer study program that brings together seminarians and rabbinical students to engage in textual study and conversation.
This intensive course raises up the commonalities of our traditions; but, more importantly, it focuses on the particular ways our respective communities read, interpret, and embody their traditions, thus opening the way for the examination of the roots of religious conflict and the promise of new models of collaborative learning.
Reaching Emerging Religious Leaders
Written by Dr. Adam Gregerman (July 1, 2013)
A new program for Jewish and Christian seminarians jointly coordinated and taught by the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies and the Washington Theological Consortium just concluded. Nineteen students from Christian seminaries in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the District of Columbia and from Jewish seminaries from around the country (such as Hebrew Union College, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College) spent four days in an intensive residential learning program at Pearlstone Retreat Center. Our focus was on Jewish-Christian relations, but we addressed interreligious relations in general as well. The eight faculty members were from WTC-affiliated schools and from the ICJS. Rabbi Dr. Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Reconstructionist seminary, a leading scholar in interreligious relations, was also on the faculty. The program combined lectures, discussions, student presentations, and small group text studies, along with social events and prayers led by students.
After some initial reticence (few participants knew each other before the program), students dived into the discussions and classes with enthusiasm. They demonstrated great openness to learning from each other, and conversations continued long after sessions had finished. In general, students showed respect for views they might not agree with while not refraining for asking challenging questions or offering thoughtful critiques. This is no easy balance to maintain, especially when the topics are difficult and when the relationship between Jews and Christians historically has been so painful. We directly tackled topics such as religious difference, suffering and theodicy (including post-Shoah theology), forgiveness and reconciliation, and preaching “difficult” texts. In addition to the learning that happened in formal sessions, we were glad to witness students forging friendships and relationships that are likely to extend beyond the program. Improvements in relations between our religious communities depend not only on changes in how we talk and teach about the other, but also on increasing our knowledge of the other, above all through personal contact. These future religious leaders gain colleagues from other traditions to whom they can turn to for guidance and support. This is one of the main benefits of a residential, immersive experience in which participants are brought together not just for classes, but also for all meals and for social gatherings.
Not surprisingly, few students had much previous exposure to other religious traditions in their seminary educations. While it is understandable that their schools prioritize learning about their own traditions, most students will serve communities, and all will live in societies, marked by great diversity. Some will be in churches and synagogues that include members from other religious traditions. They will need to engage with many in their communities who know little about their sacred texts, prayers and rituals, or history. Interreligious learning, in addition to its inherent values (e.g., moral, pedagogical, academic), can help students to meet these challenges of diverse audiences and perspectives. It is therefore heartening to see the WTC’s commitment to this program.
I was especially encouraged by the diversity of students who participated. There is a widespread (mis)perception that those who are interested in interreligious relations come only from the religiously (and politically) liberal segments of their communities and resist addressing difficult or divisive issues. Our participants came from a broad range of seminaries and held a wide variety of theological views. Discussions and even disagreements were handled graciously and, many students remarked, were enlightening, even when it was clear that students did not agree with each other. This is precisely the type of dialogue and learning we hoped would occur, and it models a type of interaction we hope that the students take into other settings.