As a rabbinical student, one of my greatest aspirations is to learn how to build and strengthen communities. In many ways, my future rabbinate will be defined by my ability to create community and sustain it within the framework of my congregation. This past summer, I was gifted the opportunity to build a community where there was none.
Partnering with the Bruggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University, I set out to create a cross-campus interfaith community engaging students from the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, and Northern Kentucky University. Supported by my TJF fellowship mentor, Dr. James Buchanan, I envisioned a collaborative and ongoing interfaith community of student leaders engrossed in the participation of service-oriented interfaith programming. Dr. Buchanan and I worked together to create a framework of programs and outreach strategies, and I set off to create the new interfaith community.
We were able to organize a number of successful events that brought together students from diverse backgrounds. For example, our interfaith group volunteered at Mathew 25, a Christian nonprofit organization in Cincinnati which services relief efforts all around the world. Our work with Matthew 25 acted as a catalyst for ongoing conversations about volunteering within a religious framework. We held a series of community building events and open dialogues where we discussed the role that religion plays in our own volunteering efforts. Additionally, we worked toward integrating our respective faiths into a myriad of service opportunities.
The relationships formed during our summer events were heartwarming and genuinely inspiring. I consider myself lucky to have been able to work with such a wide range of motivated and dedicated young men and women. These students were truly committed to creating for themselves a community centered on a shared willingness to serve others while participating in a multifaith organization. Through conversation and action, we achieved these goals and engaged in a fulfilling service project.
While all this was energizing, I have unfortunately witnessed this interfaith group stagnate without service events to organize around. It has been unsurprising yet disappointing to observe our Facebook message board, once filled with lively conversations, remain devoid of notifications over the last few months. The rise and fall of this particular interfaith group is far from unique. The service-oriented programming was the raison d’etre for this group, and without it there has been no need for communication or continuity. A successful community demands a commitment to action.
Judaism provides a model for this notion. Jews have long constituted a society defined not exclusively by a set of beliefs or dogmas but rather by common practices. Our religious rituals and mores have bound us together as a Jewish community for millennia. It is our services, ceremonies, and rituals that tie us together as a faith community. Without ritual, without action, we would be left with a belief system detached from our tangible earthly experience. It is a commonly held belief that the early Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am once said, “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” one can extrapolate the meaning of this quote to include a myriad of our Jewish rituals. What Jews do is of upmost importance.
In the case of my cross-campus interfaith community, we are left in a state of shared belief without shared action. We know that a common passion for interfaith engagement and service-oriented programming binds us together, but without an event to physically bring us to the same space, we remain separated and apathetic. Luckily, the solution is readily available. The relationships and infrastructure have already been built; this interfaith community only needs the next event to motivate them to engage and act. Similarly, the Jewish community survives and thrives because of our commitment to our ritual actions. As a future rabbi I hope to tap into this preexisting communal organizational strength and, by doing so, continue to build strong communities within my congregation and within the Jewish community at large.
Rob Gleisser is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR studying on the Cincinnati campus.