Early in the week, I was fascinated to see on Facebook a link to an article honouring the legacy of Rev. Clark Lobenstine, who had died a few months earlier. For more than 35 years, Rev. Lobenstine was the director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. This was an organisation that began by building bridges among Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities and ultimately ended up incorporating eleven religious traditions from around the world. In a celebration of his work, a former deputy Mike Coggin noted that previous interfaith organisations had been Christian in focus, tentatively reaching out from the comfort of their faith to extend a hand in friendship to others. The IFC was different. The religious faiths that were a part of this endeavour, and their affiliated congregations, were all seen as equals. Nor, as Coggin noted, was there any effort to simplify or whitewash the significant differences among faith traditions. Multifaith work was and is messy, and the only way that meaningful dialogue can happen is to acknowledge that truth.
This article was a source of particular joy to me because my late mother Naomi Kaminsky served as the first administrative assistant of the IFC. She went to work for the organisation when I was in year 9 and stayed on for four fascinating, sometimes challenging or even infuriating years. Working with religious leaders, some of whom were treated as royalty by their own congregations, was seldom easy, but my mother found the work tremendously rewarding. She was encouraged in her efforts by her rabbi Eugene Lipman, who himself was committed to the work of building multifaith relationships.
You will be surprised to learn that I was a bit of a nerd in high school. Following my bat mitzvah, I joined the Temple Sinai volunteer choir, where I became the youngest member by about twenty years. We sang mostly at the high holy days, but in the second year after I joined, we took on an additional project: we agreed to prepare two songs to sing at the inaugural Interfaith Thanksgiving concert a few days before that beloved American festival. The concert took place in a massive church in downtown Washington, DC, with at least a dozen choirs participating. We were the non-Christians, but the Christian diversity was astonishing, including some very straight-laced white church choirs, and just as many black gospel choirs. All these years later, and I still remember how the choir of Sts. Paul and Augustine African American Catholic church absolutely rocked my world. I’ve been longing to sing Jewish gospel music ever since.
These experiences of my teenage years forged me into a lifelong enthusiast for multifaith dialogue, in all its exhilarating, occasionally messy glory. I was able to find another outlet for this affection in seminary, where for two years I was part of a program run by the Council of Christians and Jews called Seminarians Interacting. Sadly, this program was limited only to Christians and Jews, but once again the diversity within these two groups was impressive. We rabbinical students from several denominations chatted, argued, and occasionally butted heads with students from Christian seminaries including Catholic, Greek Orthodox, evangelical, and eclectic African American. The program caught all of us at that point in our lives when we were most open to one another, and the relationships were transformative. I have never learned as much about myself as a Jew as I did in my dialogues with Christians.
It’s 25 years later. The world has moved on to a certain extent, but I have not. Attendance at meetings of the Council of Christians and Jews has been low. My efforts over the years to bring together people from different faiths have generally been unsuccessful. For many years, I have been dismayed to discover that very few people out there are prepared to take the risks to their own faith that true religious dialogue demands. I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne in 2009, an enormous gathering of people from every corner of the world and every faith tradition imaginable. It was deeply discouraging to see that the vast majority of the sessions consisted of people congratulating one another on sitting down together and celebrating their similarities. It was a lovely, warm environment, but there were none of the breakthroughs to true understanding that I’d seen emerge out of a place of courageous confrontation.
It is indeed a frightening thing to leave one’s comfort zone and interact honestly with the other. It happens less and less, and, not surprisingly, misunderstandings around the world seem to be increasing. My own experiences have convinced me that true peace comes only when we peacemakers are prepared to be changed by the experience. We need to be willing to let go of what we have believed to be unswerving truths. Clark Lobenstine did that, but in today’s world, such multifaith coalitions are becoming increasingly rare. I’m proud to be a part of the work of the Abraham Institute, which through its Pursuing Peace program in high schools, begins the lifelong process of teaching people to be open to the extraordinary possibilities that come when we truly encounter one another. Let’s hope this work flourishes in the future. Shabbat shalom!
Here is the original article about Clark Lobenstine: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/07/clark-lobenstine-had-pioneering-concept-interfaith-can-it-survive/?fbclid=IwAR31g9jjViJMjLZkqOcVmhkWfsU9Huwi4l8BHrY7pg2PCCKz5kCQtoivY9E&noredirect=on&utm_term=.f09672887b1c