Meaningful and Productive Interfaith Dialogue is a Conversation between Two People

I want to share my reflections on an interesting experience that I had last semester in two parts, one for each of the valuable lessons that I learned from the experience. I had the opportunity to put all of the thought and time that I have been concentrating on interfaith dialogue to work at my student congregation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was asked to participate in a meeting that a congregant had organized. The goal of the meeting was to assemble a mixed group of Jews and Evangelical Christians to talk about Israel and how the two groups could work together to support the Jewish state. As I’ve mentioned in previous reflections, I entered my fellowship this year quite ambivalent about interfaith dialogue, but through my work with highly educated Christians that are knowledgeable in their faith and liberal in their outlook, I was able to break through my ambivalence. Yet the thought of working with Evangelical Christians stirred my dormant ambivalence.

As it turned out, the meeting was a fantastic learning opportunity in which I had the pleasure to meet some incredible people. Each of the Christians at the meeting except for one was an ordained minister. The meeting began with each of us taking a moment to share why Israel was important to us. Three pastors went first, and each used theological and biblical language to describe their relationship with Israel. When I spoke, I spoke about briefly about my ideological commitment to Israel, but mostly about my personal relationship with Israel. I mentioned that my concern for Israel’s safety and security was not theoretical at all. I have real friends and family who serve in the army there, and a fiancée who spent many nights during the Gulf War as an innocent child forced to sleep in a bomb shelter because of the rockets that Hussein fired upon her kibbutz. Amazingly, when the next pastor whose turn it was to speak, he mentioned that he had been to Israel three times, twice in uniform and once in civilian clothing. In the middle of his response, he suddenly rose and walked toward me and extended his hand. “In the Gulf War,” he said, “I was deployed to protect your fiancée’s kibbutz from the scud missiles, but I’ve never actually met anyone who knows someone that I was sent to protect. It’s an honor.” It was a powerful moment that cut through all of our religious, cultural, and rhetorical differences. The rest of the conversation turned to focus on how each of us as human beings are complex individuals, that labels like “evangelical” distract from the human connections that we share. We noted how much diversity there was just among the Jews in the room, and how much diversity there was among the Evangelicals.

I often find myself surrounded by people very distrustful of Evangelical Christianity. It was this distrust that made me nervous to attend the meeting. The distrust is not entirely misguided. I am sure that had the conversation turned political, especially regarding domestic policy, I would have passionately disagreed with many of the pastors’ views. Yet what my prejudice failed to note was that speaking about groups in the abstract detracts from each person’s individuality. The meeting was not a conversation between Jews and Evangelicals, but rather a conversation between me, David, Bijorn, and the others—a conversation between human beings. During the meeting I realized that I can solve my ambivalence by regarding interfaith conversations not as conversations between Judaism and Christianity, for example, but a conversation between Jewish people and Christian people, a dialogue between human beings.

Although I had a significant emotional and educational experience at the meeting with the Evangelical pastors in South Dakota, the purpose of the meeting was not to have a warm emotional experience nor to contribute to my education. The meeting was to determine how two communities, the Jewish community and the Evangelical Christian community, could come together to support Israel. The meeting was a brainstorming session, fairly unstructured, in which we had to determine an idea for how the two communities could work together toward this goal. I found myself reaching to my fellowship experience, both in the classroom and in my field work, to come up with the suggestion that the group ultimately endorsed.

After our introductions, the meeting turned to how we should proceed. Two options were placed on the table. Option one was to determine a project to do together, perhaps something involving lobbying local politicians on pro-Israel issues, and advertise it in each community to involve more Jewish and Christian laypeople. The second option was to simply continue meeting, with no particular agenda, and see if any ideas for how the group could work to support Israel emerged from further conversation. I was torn between the two options. The former seemed to fit what I have learned from all of my courses on community organizing, namely that bringing people together around the project unites people around a cause, enriching their relationships. Yet the latter relied on deepening the relationships between Jewish and Christian leaders before choosing a cause around which to unite. I asked myself during the meeting what guidance Ron Wolfson, whose book Relational Judaism was our common read for the fellowship this semester, would offer.

My response I believed combined Wolfson’s ideas with the focus of my fellowship. I suggested that we work together on a project, but not yet a political campaign. Instead, I suggested that we jointly plan a day of study. I described my fellowship project to the group and told them about all that I had learned about the power of bringing people together around text to learn more about each other and each other’s traditions. Studying together in hevruta, I suggested, would build trust and allow the group to choose a project which reflected the values that we share based on our readings of each other’s texts. I must have been somewhat convincing, because the group seemed intrigued by my suggestion.

Unfortunately, because of my job search, Lent, and Passover, I did not have enough free time in South Dakota to join the group for any more meetings, and I will not be able to see how the project develops. Still, I was quite excited to see how I could put the lessons I’ve learned from our fellowship cohort meetings and my field experience to use.

Josh Herman

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