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A Pastor, a Rabbi and an Imam will walk into a Museum…

A Pastor, a Rabbi, and an Imam will walk into a Museum…Tomorrow night!

Visit the Museum of the City of New York tomorrow night for Faith in the 5 Boroughs. Reporter Sarah Maslin Nir sits down with three religious leaders — Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, Pastor Kenneth Hart, self-proclaimed “Hood Pastor” of an unorthodox new church in Harlem, and Imam Shamsi Ali of the Jamaica Muslim Center, New York City’s largest Muslim community center – in our latest edition of Only in New York.

Use code OINY for $15 tickets

Remembering Sir “Siggy” – Reflections from a Fellow Traveler for Interfaith Understanding

Queen Elizabeth II is presented with the Interfaith Gold Medallion Peace through Dialogue from Sir Sigmund Sternberg, joined by Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks (right).

Sir Sigmund Sternberg presents Queen Elizabeth II the Interfaith Gold Medallion Peace through Dialogue, as Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks watches. Credit: Catholic Herald

I join friends and colleagues in mourning the death of the legendary — but very real and very human — Sigmund Sternberg. As long as I have worked in the field of interreligious relations, well over half a century, “Siggy” was there, offering support, encouragement and discernment. In addition to a common concern that dialogue should lead to changes in attitudes, behavior and institutional policies, we shared an attachment to Hungarian Jewish history. Like Siggy, my husband was Hungarian; unlike Siggy, he didn’t get out in time, was deported as a youth and survived a slave labor camp. They had a very sympathetic relationship.

When my former boss and colleague, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, died untimely, it was Sir Sigmund who pressed his widow, Dr. Georgette Bennett, to establish an organization that would preserve his memory and extend his work. The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, thanks in part to his foresight and tenacity.

Sir Sigmund Sternberg, one of the first Jewish papal knights, was knighted by both Queen Elizabeth II (1976) and Pope John Paul II (1988)

Sir Sigmund Sternberg, one of the first Jewish papal knights, was knighted by both Queen Elizabeth II (1976) and Pope John Paul II (1988)

I fondly recall Lady Hazel somewhat ruefully complaining about the weight of the black velvet costume and plumed hat signifying Sir Sigmund’s papal knighthood that had to be packed for meetings involving a papal audience. I only saw him wear it once, but it was a most gratifying sight.  

They were an endearing team. Sir Sigmund was a gracious host, a generous donor and man who used his many resources to make the world a better place. Our world is poorer without him. May his memory be for a blessing.    

Judith Banki
Senior Advisor, Interreligious Affairs

Confronting Religious Violence

Union Theological Seminary
October 2-3, 2015

3,000 female captives held by ISIS. American Journalist Eliza Griswold told the story of one of these women, relating how, with the intervention of her father, she managed to survive and became one of the lucky few who escaped her captors.

Griswold offered poignant narratives obtained from members of the Iraqi minority communities living under ISIS during her remarks that marked the first day of the conference on Confronting Religious Violence hosted by the Union Theological Seminary early in October. Injecting a personal and human element into her remarks, Griswold spoke of a father she had interviewed who was forced to pose as a member of ISIS to purchase his daughter in order to get her back from the ISIS traffickers who had kidnapped her. Although there was a happy ending for this family, the tragic realization that so many others will not have such good fortune is heart wrenching.

Griswold spoke eloquently of the fine line she must always walk as a journalist and the need to avoid any appearance of being an activist. Although most people would agree that the powerful stories of the people who live amidst this terror are essential to the discussion of religious violence, they give rise to the question of “what do we actually mean by ‘religious violence?’”

Rev. Serene Jones, President of the Union Theological Seminary, started the conversation with the concepts of “Informed piety” and “compassionate wisdom,” tenets of the Seminary, along with “intellectual responsibility and a seriousness of focus” that must pick up where “religious violence” has become a trite reference when framing the complex nature of the conflicts we face today. We must understand current global conflicts contextually and not simplify their complex births with crude and ironically loaded terminology that has become ‘obsolete,’ ‘irrelevant’ and ‘ambivalent.’ In an effort to do just that, the conference sought to bridge the divide between the scholarly, religious and policy-making worlds. The historical, theological, political and legal discourse regarding the causes as well as the interpretation of and response to current trends of religious violence were explored. Speakers spanning a broad range of disciplines highlighted the shortcomings of the current mainstream understanding of “religious conflict” and specifically addressed the fallout from the war in Iraq and the current crisis in Syria. The conversation, although occasionally heated, found a consensus when the term “religious violence” came under review. However, while all agreed that religion does indeed matter, their thinking diverged on how it matters.

Father Patrick Ryan S.J., the McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University stated, “We people of faith have seldom looked inter-subjectively at war.” Father Ryan’s examination of the “fatal subjectivities” of the Abrahamic faiths, both in antiquity and modernity, was a powerful moment of reflection during the conference, which revealed how deeply religion does indeed matter.

In contrast, scholar Dr. Hossein Kamalay of the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department at Barnard College sought to highlight the deficiencies in using the history of Islam and its theological underpinnings to understand today’s religious violence. Paraphrasing his argument, he suggested that violence could not be solely understood in terms of religion and belief but that it must be understood within the context of the economics, politics and the ever importance of power relations in a particular situation. Moreover, what we choose to study from the past greatly matters and it is in what we do not examine in history that may hold a key to understanding our present circumstances, i.e., what could have been done to create a situation of peaceful coexistence. It matters what people believe but let us not just speak of belief.

Dr. Scott Tenner presented a unique legal and historical perspective of the current crises in the Middle East. After his presentation, one was left to ask why longstanding international legal bodies have been underutilized and rendered futile during this extensive crisis. Continuing the legal discussion, Dr. Najam Haider of Barnard College spoke of the evolution of Islamic law from antiquity to the present. In contrast to what most people believe, it should be noted that Islamic law is inherently flexible and was therefore never codified.

Solutions remain elusive, but understanding the nature of conflicts will allow policymakers, academics and activists to respond in an appropriate, opportune and effective manner, which is what all those who work in the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding seek to accomplish!

Reflections on the People’s Pope by Tanenbaum CEO Joyce S. Dubensky

Dear Friends,

Joyce Dubensky with friends at the 9/11 Memorial

Joyce Dubensky with friends at the 9/11 Memorial

I was among the privileged to be at the 9/11 memorial site in New York City when Pope Francis made his way to the stage to give blessings and speak. People from different faiths and practices  gathered to share prayers for peace; it was an interfaith ceremony held in a place where so many are remembered and so much was lost.

I took away from the crowded room, filled with diverse holy people, some things the Pope said – or that I interpreted from his words.  They are meaningful for me, as a Jewish woman. And perhaps for you, as well.

Pope Francis remembered those who suffered on 9/11 at the hands of individuals who somehow believed inflicting harm was their duty. He linked the lives that we lost, and the pain of those who forever remember them, to people who suffer today amid violence and war – because others continue to impose undue harm.

He spoke of mourning and how peace is not just an abstraction. As I listened, I thought of the child crying, hungry and frightened in war-torn conflicts. I must hear her cries, as if she were my own.

The People’s Pope urged us to seek pathways to peace amid our differences. A peace that stops the fighting but, also, the poverty, destruction and hopelessness.

The People’s Pope sees all people. And he reminds us to join with him.

Join us by reading and sharing our Shared Visions, a project that reminds us how the world’s religions share many core values.

With great gratitude,

Joyce S. Dubensky
CEO

Tanenbaum Peacemaker Dr. Ephraim Isaac speaks at the United Nation’s Church Center Chapel

Tanenbaum was honored to be a part of the United Nation’s seminal event, Faith for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), held at the Church Center Chapel. Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Dr. Ephraim Isaac (Ethiopia) spoke eloquently to a diverse crowd; attendees from diverse religious backgrounds and beliefs gathered to discuss how religion can further the quest to eliminate poverty.

EphraimIsaac-UN-Chapel2015

TANENBAUM Peacemaker Dr. Ephraim Isaac (left) with Karin Achtelstetter – Credit: @KarinWaltraut

“I am here of behalf of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and as one of its Peacemakers in Action.

First let me congratulate you on your good efforts to deal with the critical question of poverty through the power of religion.

I used to be an incorrigible optimist. I am still, but a corrigible one. My remaining optimism is to see people like you here in this room that have the good will to do the good.

But, let us be realistic. In a greedy world where about 1% of the world’s population owns the wealth of the world and does not want to part with it, how do you propose to eliminate poverty in 15 years as you say? In a world where one American person would rather pay one million to travel to Africa to kill one elephant, or, where the King of Saudi Arabia would rent every room of the most expensive American hotel for several days and have a parade of over one hundred cars parked in a garage all of it decorated with red carpets…. especially at a time when thousands of Middle East refuges are seeking dire shelter, how do you convince the world to do what is right?

I am Jewish and yesterday, on Yom Kippur day, I chanted the Prophet Isaiah who said three thousand years ago (to paraphrase): You fast, you put ashes on yourselves, you exhibit your piety, and say to me “why do you not see our piety, how we humble ourselves with ashes on our heads?“  The Almighty responds, “Down with your piety, what I want is free the prisoners and those you oppress, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, help the poor…” If the great prophet has had so shouted about 3000 years ago, in other words, saying as we say today use your faith to help the poor, and that is what the Almighty G-d wants, and nothing has happened for 3000 years, how do you propose to abolish poverty in 15 years?

I know the World Bank has a lot of money, even if not as much as the 1% of the richest people in the world, and I know the religious people have all good intentions. Still how do we propose concretely to change the world?


Click here to learn more about Dr. Ephraim Isaac and Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action.

Tanenbaum Peacemakers Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye Prepare Nigerians for Upcoming Elections

On February 7, 2015, exactly one week before Nigerians were set to head to the polls, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission postponed the Presidential and legislative elections for seven weeks (until March 28th). Concerned that Boko Haram’s violent insurgency in the North would jeopardize the safety of voters around the country, the Commission’s Chairman, Attahiru Jega, heeded the advice of national security officials – delaying the election and announcing a “major” multinational military operation against the terrorist organization. This decision has been widely criticized both in Nigeria and abroad; some worry the postponement will delegitimize the elections and others fear an increased likelihood of election-related violence.

Despite the danger posed by Boko Haram and the challenges posed by this politically charged environment, Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers – Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, Co-Executive Directors of the Interfaith Mediation Center – remain undeterred in their work. Much like their efforts prior to the 2011 elections, these Nigerian Peacemakers are tirelessly preparing Nigerian communities around the country for the election and for conducting it in a peaceful manner.

Interviewed before the elections were postponed, Pastor James discussed the unique challenges posed by Boko Haram, as well as by national ethnic tensions.

Rather than targeting Christians and pitting Muslims against Christians, Boko Haram targets “everyone,” not a specific religious group. Also, many Nigerians are unwillingly being “conscripted, and some are abducted from their families” to become members of the group. As a result, Pastor James believes the insurgents have actually mitigated religious tensions in the country.

Pastor James says that if the opportunity arises he would sit down and talk with the insurgents about their demands. He noted that, prior to the recent offensive, the government’s response to Boko Haram included “soft diplomacy,” which involved an effort “to reintegrate the young men and women who are involved in this insurgency.”

As the elections approach, Pastor James is also concerned about ethnic tensions. Nigeria’s population of more than 149 million people is made up of over 250 ethnic groups. He and Imam Ashafa are urging their fellow Nigerians to respect the election results and refrain from violence as a means of voicing any displeasure. They are focused on the role of religious leaders in the country and believe it will be critical – and, indeed, many of them have been “calling on the populace not to make provocative statements and to play by the rules of the game.”

Pastor James is proud of his homeland and remains hopeful for its future. Yet he understands the challenges that lie ahead and the great need for Nigeria’s “religious leaders to come together as they have before.”

Women PeaceMakers Conference: Defying Extremism

Defying Extremism: Gendered Responses to Religious Violence

Reflecting on the 2014 WomenPeacemakers Conference, Defying Extremism: Gendered Responses to Religious Violence, hosted by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice

(November 19-21, 2014)

The Defying Extremism: Gendered Responses to Religious Violence Conference was a whirlwind. The three full days consisted of narratives, tools, ideas, questions, and some collaborative problem solving.

Situated overlooking San Diego’s sparkling waters, both the bay and the ocean, the Kroc School bustled with conference activities. The picturesque landscape would prove a stark contrast to the gritty realities of the conference content. However, the serious nature of the conference did not leave a gloomy shadow over the days or personal interactions of conference participants, including 49 speakers from over 27 countries.

Instead, the conference topic and subsequent testimonials, panels, and working sessions, all genuinely invigorated the participants. Testimonials, like that of Margaret Arach Orech, Vicky Ibrahim, Arno Michaelis, Maxensia Nakibuuka, and Mubin Shaikh set the scene each day for why we all gathered: to pick up broken pieces and re-build a society or life that was riddled with hate manifested through violent religious extremism. They did not only move forward from traumatic experiences, but had the incredible courage to look back in attempts to fix what is broken in society and garner lessons to share with others. Each testimonial shone as a beacon of hope for the day, as well as genuine and thoughtful reminders that participants had some serious work and thinking to do and share on how to effectively combat religious extremism.

Panels allowed various organizations and individuals to share valuable insights into issues such as “building effective policies,” “gender initiatives,” “analysis of realities behind the headlines,” and talking with extremists. Resounding messages included the integral need for gendered responses: the involvement of women’s voices at all levels of defying extremism, including at the policy level, organizational level, national, regional, and local levels, grassroots levels, etc. One panelist spoke of a humbling reminder: women are often the first targets of extremist violence, and should be, seemingly obviously, included in discussions and policies that counteract extremist violence. Additionally, women often see the first signs of extremist behavior, at home or stirring in society. Women are on the frontlines and have unique access and insight that should be heeded in order to defy extremism.

Another resounding message included social media. Over and over again, participants heard examples of religious extremists, particularly ISIS and Boko Haram, using social media to recruit for the respective “causes.” Potential recruits are lured in by multiple factors, one of which is money, which feeds into the next message, the need for economic opportunities and sources of income for people in conflict situations. Youth and the unemployed populations may join ISIS or Boko Haram for a source of income.

Defying violent religious extremism is multifaceted and multilayered and requires equally complex and individual responses. Overall, there is a need to understand the different dynamics involved in extremism and not place blame solely on one group or factor.

The panels were rich in content and context and sought to provide innovative ways of addressing violent religious extremism and how to robustly incorporate women’s voices into the common narrative of defying extremism. Workshops provided a unique opportunity to deeply discuss pointed issues and topics. Since participants came from diverse perspectives, a purposeful decision made by the Institute for Peace and Justice conference coordinators, workshop presentations and discussions for problem solving, or further nuance, brought varied approaches that allowed respectful debate and further probing of topics like LGBT and Gender Inequality: Developing Gay-Straight Alliances to Counter Extremism, Development of the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, and Fostering Synergies for Advancing Women’s Rights in Post-Conflict Islamic States.

Equally important were the conversations at breakfast, between conference sessions, and after the day. On the last morning of the conference, I shared breakfast with Maxensia from Uganda, Angeline from Jamaica, Margaret from Uganda, and a few other women. They work in different issues, different areas, and at varying levels of society. But, their shared outlook on always having hope truly humbled me. These three women working at different levels are peacemakers and embody all that I learn about in the classroom, including all of the horrifying realities, but they assured all of us at the table that if they wake up in the morning, there is always hope.

And, perhaps that was a takeaway from the conference: building networks of not just like-minded people doing similar work, but networks of diverse voices facing extremism, all of whom vigorously believe in and truly embody HOPE. And, amid all of the work that needs to be done to defy religious extremism, courageous men and women come together to thoughtfully and intensely work to find answers.

-Janie Dumbleton, Master’s Candidate in Peace and Justice Studies at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School for Peace Studies

Top five news stories you need to know.

Here are the top stories about religion that you need to know from May 17-May 23, 2014:

The Headwrap Expo: Shifting the Conversation • Orthodox Jewish woman says that school fired her for observing Sabbath • Vaccination exemption issues raising discrimination concerns • U.S. agency urges Myanmar to scrap proposed religion laws • Religious freedom linked to economic growth and innovation

The Headwrap Expo: Shifting the Conversation
On June 8  in Dearborn, Michigan, the 2014 Headwrap Expo celebrated interfaith dialog, fashion, and culture. Billed as “the art of headwrapping and scarf styling,” the Headwrap Expo was presented by the organization Beautifully Wrapped. The organization’s founder, Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, explained how the Expo is a celebration of “fusion — looking at how different cultural aspects, different things that people wear in different parts of the world are adopted across into other cultures.” Naeem explained how the Expo has broad cultural appeal and moves beyond fashion to address issues of unity. 

“It’s an intercultural, multi-faith event that brings together all these different groups…We have the Sikh Indians, we have Muslims, we have Christians, we have Jews, we have African Americans, African immigrants, everybody coming together. Once we’re there, we share, we talk about love, we have workshops, we have fashion stylings, fashion shows throughout the day. It’s a whole affair.”

Orthodox Jewish woman says that school fired her for observing Sabbath
Ellen Gastwirth, 41, was hired in 2005 as Director of Education at Temple Judea, a reformed  Jewish synagogue on Long Island. Gastwirth first encountered resistance to her Orthodox observance of the Sabbath when Rabbi Todd Chizner was hired the following year. Her requests for holiday time off were met with animosity. For example, in 2008, Rabbi Chizner questioned her observance by asking “What do you people do on that day that would prevent you from being here?” Harassment from the board of directors and the Rabbi led to the termination of her employment and a new Brooklyn Federal Court lawsuit.

Vaccination Exemption Issues Raising Discrimination Concerns
Two recent court cases address discrimination issues as they relate to objections to vaccination due to religious beliefs.

In Philips v. City of New York, parents argued that their children are unfairly discriminated against. While their children’s school district allows vaccination refusals based on religious beliefs, documentation is required that supports and explains the religious objection. Students that receive accommodation must stay home when another student at the school acquires an illness that is vaccine-protected. A federal judge rejected the parent’s claims, ruling that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause does not provide exemption from vaccination requirements.

In Valent v. Board of Review, Department of Labor, New Jersey Appeals Court ruled that a hospital employee who was fired for refusing vaccination is entitled to unemployment benefits. The hospital offers vaccine exemptions to employees for religious beliefs, however, they denied an exemption to the plaintiff because the employee did not object to vaccination due to religious reasons. The court ruled that this discrimination lacked justification and violates the First Amendment.

U.S. Agency Urges Myanmar to Scrap Proposed Religion Laws
In Myanmar, laws have been drafted that intend to protect Buddhists, the country’s majority, by regulating marriages and conversations between people of different faiths.

The U.S. State Department stated that the draft laws should be withdrawn and have “no place in the 21st century”. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom believes that these laws encourage violence against Muslims, Christians, and other religious minority groups. Additionally, the Commission stated that if these draft laws are passed, Washington “should factor these negative developments into its evolving relationship with Burma (Myanmar).”

Religious Freedom Linked to Economic Growth and Innovation
The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion recently published a study that reviewed GDP growth in 2011 across 173 countries. GDP growth was compared to additional data including religious restrictions and the levels of economic and business related freedoms for each country.

Authored by researchers at Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, the study concludes that countries that allow greater freedom of religion are more likely to have economic growth and innovation.

The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation commented on the report findings by stating, “As the world navigates away from years of poor economic performance, religious freedom may be an unrecognized asset to economic recovery and growth.” Additionally the foundation explained that hostility and restrictions based on religion can create “climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies”

Spreading the Word About Interfaith Harmony Week

Yesterday, the United States Mission to the United Nations rededicated a mosaic rendering of Norman Rockwell’s depiction of the Golden Rule. This rededication could not have occurred during a more appropriate week: this week is the annual World Interfaith Harmony Week. Four years ago, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to recognize the importance of interreligious respect by proclaiming the first week of February as World Interfaith Harmony Week.

During this week, clergy from all religions and from all regions are asked to address and reflect on the power of interfaith harmony.  As members of the human community, we are all called on to contribute to a global movement that puts interfaith respect into practice and turns a vision for peace into reality. One example of that contribution is New York City Mayor De Blasio announcing a plan to close schools for Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and for the Lunar New Year.

At Tanenbaum, our focus is on usable tools.  We therefore offer speaking points for clergy and other speakers who are ready to stand up and address the importance of World Interfaith Harmony Week. Drawing on the UN Resolution itself, the Golden Rule and Tanenbaum’s Shared Visions project, the speaking points provide a jumping-off point for important conversations about humanity’s interconnectivity.

Tanenbaum also offers Fact sheets, questions and guidelines for educators who want to bring World Interfaith Harmony Week into the classroom. These resources deal with issues of religion and religious diversity in an engaging and integrated way. Download Tanenbaum’s:

We hope you’ll take a moment to read these speaking points, download our education tools, and forward our resources to anyone who might find them useful.  You can also visit the official World Interfaith Harmony Week website and access a calendar of events going on around the world – there’s probably something happening near you!

A Sikh Captain America in Central Park: Top 5 news stories

Captain America in a turban • Poll: American Jews identifying as more cultural, less religious • Is Christian-owned Hobby Lobby boycotting Hanukkah? • The Religious Dorm at the Public University When Holidays Collide, You Get The 'Menurkey'

Last week's top news, from our perspective:

Captain America in a turban

An American Sikh man put on a Captain America costume and explored New York City. The piece he wrote about the experience is fun, funny, enlightening, hopeful, and more.
 

Poll: American Jews identifying as more cultural, less religious

The percentage of Jews who identify as Jewish solely by culture or ancestry rather than religion has jumped from 7 percent to 22 percent since 2000, according to the poll, the first comprehensive survey of American Jews in more than a decade.
 

Is Christian-owned Hobby Lobby boycotting Hanukkah?

The national craft store owned by conservative billionaire Steve Green seemingly refuses to carry merchandise related to Hanukkah because of Green’s “Christian values,” and some Jews are taking offense.
 

The Religious Dorm at the Public University

Kosher dorms, Christian fraternity houses and specialized housing based on values have become part of modern college life. But the dorm on Troy's campus of 7,000 students is among a new wave of religious-themed housing that constitutional scholars and others say is pushing the boundaries of how much a public university can back religion.
 

When Holidays Collide, You Get The 'Menurkey'

In a rare convergence of the calendar, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights that typically commences close to Christmas, fall on the same date in 2013: Nov. 28. And Thanksgivukkah has become a bold platform for expression, with creations ranging from sweet-potato latkes to the "Menurkey."

The reason for the fuss: It is a holiday mashup that has happened only once before—in 1888—according to those who track the Jewish calendar. And it is one that isn't set to happen again for potentially another 70,000-plus years.