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					NOAH SILVERMAN
BACKGROUND

I was born in Washington D. C. and moved to Chicago when I was six. I grew up on the South side of
Chicago. There were two institutions that shaped me. Number one: I went to a private K-12 grade school that
was run by the University of Chicago. Both of my parents were affiliated with the University while I was
growing up. Number two: We also belonged to a fairly large Reformed Jewish Synagogue in High Park…where
the University is too.

Every week I went to religious school, and continued through High School. In the Jewish tradition, a child
tends to go to religious school up until his/her bar mitzvah- this is especially true in Reformed/Progressive
Judaism. At the time of your bar mitzvah which is usually around age 13 or 7 th/8th grade, you have this option
like ‗do you really care about this or not.‘ If you do care, you keep going on for a few more years until
sophomore year/10th grade, in what is called confirmation (different that Catholicism). I did that.

If you continue beyond confirmation you are really a dork. I went on to teaching religious school my junior and
senior year. I was there in Chicago the whole time I was in grade through high school. During middle and high
school I was also involved in the youth group at my synagogue- first as a member, then as an officer. There
were eight people on the board every year, and as far as a total number of youth it depended on the event.
Technically if your family belonged to the synagogue you were part of the youth group, but some never had any
part of us. I think in total the number of youth in the synagogue (8-12th grader) was fifty of so with a regular
crown of 20-30 kids at any given event. I‘m sort of making this up.

We did all kinds of events: from paint balling to skiing occasionally to volunteering at a local soup kitchen
weekly. We did a food drive every fall. We have a Jewish holiday in the spring called Passover. There is a
prohibition against eating leavened foods; anything that has yeast in it or has the opportunity to rise- such as
bread. You spend most of the week eating fruits and vegetables and meat. At the end of that week, we would
have a spaghetti dinner for the entire synagogue as a fundraiser for the youth group. We would make this huge
spaghetti dinner and have people donate desert (especially cakes, because we can‘t eat cake for the Passover).
We would auction off the cakes in a live auction and donate that money to a scholarship that would send
members of the youth group to Israel for a summer program. That was my synagogue experience in a nutshell.

At school, I was really involved in the community service program. It was during the time when community
service was becoming a bigger and bigger part of high school education. My sophomore year we were required
to do a certain number of hours of community service. We were on the quarter system, which was like the
trimester system, summer was the 4th. I think we were required to do two quarters, but I ended up doing all
three. Again if you are really dorky about it, you can go on to be a peer leader, which were like student leaders
in the community learning program. I did that my junior and senior year. We advised the sophomore
advisories (liaisons) and helped them find their service sites, get them excited about doing service, and talk to
them about their experience. We did all sorts of crazy things such as organizing school wide events. I was also
really involved in theater and model United Nations. Those were my big three things in high school.

ENCOUNTERS WITH OTHER RELIGIONS

I definitely did have encounters with people of other religions. I had a number of good friends who were not
Jewish, some of who definitely identified with their faith identity. But I don‘t think I had that many friends that
identified as strongly with their faith tradition as I did with mine. Probably even within the Jewish tradition. I
did have friends at the youth group who felt as strongly about it, but with a number of my Jewish friends at high
school, they were like ‗eh.‘

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My best friend in high school had a father who was Greek orthodox and a mother who was Catholic. They were
both constantly dragging him to different churches, and he was celebrating both Easters and everything. He
definitely identified with and would talk about it, but it wasn‘t something you got the sense that he felt very
passionately about himself. It was more something he did to honor his parents. It was more of a family/
cultural thing. I don‘t know that I was any different from that.

It‘s funny when I think back to it now. I know there were Muslims in my high school, but I don‘t think I really
thought about it at the time. I remember there was this girl in my freshman World History class; her name was
Eva Alsheik, a completely Arab name. I don‘t think it even crossed my name that she was Arab until many
years later when I started learning Arabic.

My school was one of those schools where many students had parents associated with the University. You
didn‘t have to be connected with the University, but you got ½ tuition if your parents taught at the university.
Since it was a private school you had to pass some sort of admission test. As a result, it was sort of elite and
hoity-toity.

POST HIGH SCHOOL

When I graduated from high school, I had had enough of this whole being a student thing. I didn‘t want to go to
college because I didn‘t know what I wanted to study. I definitely wanted to take a year off, and my parents
were all right with that in so far as I had something constructive to do with my life.

I ended up falling into a youth Zionist program: a nine-month live/study work program in Israel. The thing is,
I had been to Israel once before with my family. My grandfather took my whole extended family there for my
bar mitzvah year, but personally it wasn‘t a particularly transforming experience. I wasn‘t really dying to get
back there, but I had heard about this program through some friends of the family. It was organized and most
the time I wasn‘t studying, but it was enough to meet my parent‘s standards.

The other weird thing about it, is if you grew up Jewish in the US, there is this weird phenomenon in that you
can end up having a lot of money put aside marked only for programs in Israel. There is this program called
Send a Kid to Israel Program-SKIP which your synagogue has to participate in. What happens is that your
parents contribute x amount of money every year, and your synagogue matches however much you contributed,
and then the program matches that as well. If you give $100, your synagogue gives $100, and the program chips
in $100. All this money gets set aside and can only be spent on a trip to Israel. Then there is this weird thing
with your bar mitzvah. For all your relatives that don‘t really know you well enough to buy you a gift cause
and don‘t just want to give you money because that‘s tacky, they can donate money to a special account that is
designated for Israel. The long of the short is that I had $7,000-8,000 that I could only spend on an Israel trip
anyway, so I might as well go. I didn‘t really have a particular desire to be in Israel, but that‘s what I did. So I
went to Israel and Palestine the year between high school and college.

That year was a hugely transformative experience and kind of just serendipitous. There is no doubt that had that
not happened, I probably would not be sitting here talking to you today. In the fall I was living in Northern
Israel and had an amazing experience. I fell in love with Israeli culture. The program I was on was very Zionist,
so there was a fair amount of indoctrination that was going on, but I really fell in love with the Israeli culture
and Judaism as a live culture. I had a great experience there. I was working in a factory three days a week,
studying Hebrew three days a week, playing frisbee everyday, reading books, and hanging out. It was great. I
was with a whole group of Americans Jewish teenagers.

Then we moved to Jerusalem to start taking classes at Hebrew University. While we were there, the dorm they
housed us in was on this hill in East Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is the Jewish side of the city and East Jerusalem
is the Arab side of the city. But there is this one hill in East Jerusalem that‘s considered part of West Jerusalem
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because of the way the fighting took place in ‗48 and ‘67- the Jews were able to hold onto this one hill. We
were on that particular hill, so Arab East Jerusalem surrounded us on all sides except for this one road that led
to West Jerusalem.

It only seemed natural for me to go exploring and meet my neighbors, but apparently my program did not smile
upon that- basically because they were Arabs. It really was an eye opening experience. I ended up meeting and
developing friendships with Muslim and Christian Palestinians or Palestinian Israeli‘s (however you want or
they want to be called). I started getting really interested in Palestinian culture. Here was a whole other people,
history, and culture that you could go about completely ignoring. But I wasn‘t doing that. I was really falling
in love with Palestinian culture. Having feelings of warmth and interest and whatever else about the Palestinian
culture in the same way as I had about Israeli culture.

I came to this crossroads when other American Jewish and Israeli friends of mine started saying ‗why are you
spending so much time hanging out with the Arabs? Aren‘t you on our side?‘ The Palestinian Arabs were
saying ‗why are you here on the Zionist program? And why do you spend all your time taking classes with these
Israelis and Zionists? Why aren‘t you on our side.‘ I was forced to make a false choice; I either had to be on
one side or the other. That struck me as unnecessary and profoundly wrong.

That experience inspired me to get involved with an organization called Seeds of Peace. They have been for a
while now. At that point they brought young teenage Israeli and Arabs to a camp in Maine. Basically from all
those countries that had peace with Israel: Palestine (still not a country) Jordan, Egypt, Morocco. Half the time
they would hang out and do camp things and half the time they would be involved in heavily facilitated
intercultural conflict resolution and intercultural dialogue. The motto of the program was ‗the enemy has a
face,‘ so they realized that these people that they have hated all their life were actually people. They couldn‘t
just go kill them.

What happened was all these kids had this transformative experience, but when they would go back to their
societies it was a real jarring experience. Their societies were still the same, and for the teenagers to come back
and feel like they saw things completely different from the way their parents, siblings, and community did was
really a hard transition. The Seeds of Peace responded by building a center in Jerusalem to help the Israeli and
Palestinian kids with their transition back to their home society. I started working with them at that center. I
was working with the teenagers that had already been through the transformative camp experience.

A lot of what we were doing was facilitating the different Israeli and Palestinian friends in seeing each other.
Part of the problem was that they had made these friendships and even though they only lived 20 minutes away
from each other, they couldn‘t get to each other. Israeli parents would be darned if their kids were going to go
hang out at the West Bank and vice versa. So, a lot of what we did was picking up the kids at the West Bank
cities or the Israeli cities and bring them to the center. We created a safe neutral space for both groups to get
together.

We also worked with them to do some sort of education outreach and presentations at Israeli and Palestinian
high schools on what they had been through. That got me interested and directly involved in youth peace work.
It was not interreligious necessarily- rather it was intercultural. Obviously religion plays a huge place into the
role of the conflict there, but Seeds of Peace did not and does not intentionally engage the faith identity. The
terminology and the methodology they use works with national identity and not with faith identity.

After that I then went back to the States. I left Israel/Palestine in June of 2000 and this was back when the
original peace process was still going and as a matter of fact everyone thought it was going incredibly
swimmingly. I was in refugee camp interviewing former generals in the PLO who were like ‗hey I spent my
whole life fighting Israel but I now realize that is not the road anymore and we see peace at the end of the

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tunnel.‘ There really was this air in both communities, that things were actually about to be resolved and that
the war was almost over.

All fell apart that September when the second intifada started. Looking back you can see all the things that
were there, but at the time no one was noticing/paying attention to. That ended up being a very difficult
experience. I came back to Connecticut College. I got to campus and was all interested in studying international
relations and conflict resolution, continuing to study Hebrew and Arabic…Then the situation deteriorated and I
felt like I didn‘t know what to do. I had all these friends over there, and it was a really difficult time. I ended up
falling in with a professor at Connecticut College who had spent a lot of time living in the Middle East himself.

MENTOR

His name is Patrice Brodeur and he is a French Canadian Catholic. He has lived all over the world and speaks
many different languages. He has been one of the big movers and shakers on the academic side of the interfaith
movement over the past 20 years. He‘s an academic activist type, but he hasn‘t published much work. He has
yet to come out with a big book, but if you talk to anybody who is involved in interfaith work, I‘m almost
positive they will know him.

We developed a really strong mentor/mentee relationship- and he introduced me into interfaith dialogue. I had
already been thinking there was something missing from secular approaches to conflict resolution, so it just
intuitively made sense to me. I pursued a double major in International Relations and Religious Studies in
college. I spent a lot of time studying and talking and working with Patrice. That first summer I wanted to
work for a Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, but at that point their organization was going through this problem.
The intifada was going on, so a bunch of Arab countries were backing out of the program. To make it worse,
60-70% of their staff was American Jews, so the Arab countries were criticizing the program for being biased.
Thus, as a young American Jew applying for the program, my chances were not so hot. I didn‘t get the
position, which ended up being great because I came back to Chicago and studied Arabic.

The end of that summer was September 11th, so the whole conflict exploded. Suddenly (and I don‘t mean to
gloat about this) the world took notice to a number of things that others and I had been thinking and writing
about for a while. In the spring of 2000, I had written my final paper on Osama bin Laden. No one had heard
of him, and six months later, he was the most well known person in the world. Also, I had taken Arabic that
summer, when everybody was like ‗who‘s taking Arabic?‘ The other people in my class were these Middle
Eastern study geeks; they were taking Arabic because they already knew how to speak ancient Canaanite and
Assyrian and other random dead Middle Eastern languages. There were a lot of bible scholars, both New
Testament and Old Testament. I was one of the few people in the class that wanted to learn Arabic so I could
go talk to Arabs.‘ Immediately after September 11th, everyone who knew Arabic had the State Department and
CIA calling them. That was another very transformative experience in my development, and of course when
what I was independently interested in became popular I got defensive about it- ‗hey this is my thing you are all
late comers!‘

While I was on campus I did get involved with and did a lot of work with a multi-faith group. I had taken a
course on Islam my freshman year and through the course had met most of the Muslim students on campus.
Amongst the Muslim students on campus were a very few Arabs, most were South Asians (Pakistani kids) so I
became good friends with them and spent a lot of time hanging out with them. We spent much time talking
about faith, religion and all that kind of stuff.

I was also involved in the Hillel a Jewish association on campus. My sophomore year I was the Hillel
president, which created all sorts of issues. The Hillel was strongly funded by the Jewish federation of South
Eastern Connecticut, which like most church organizations then and now, was pretty middle line Zionist. They
have their stance on the Middle East and other things and don‘t waver from it very much. It is pretty much my
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country -my country being Israel. I butted heads with the advisors of the program a number of times. I didn‘t
want to do any Israel programming through Hillel and got accused of all sorts of nasty things. That was another
difficult experience in terms of feeling ostracized in my own faith community.

CRITICISM

I have had to deal with a lot of criticism; it was a big theme in college. I cannot count the number of times that
I have been told that I am not Jewish, I am a trader, or I‘ve sold my people out.

REACTION TO CRITICISM?

Initially the criticism hurt and I would get really defensive. Before I figured out how to deal with it, I would get
into this ‗prove my merit type funk‘. My defense: ‗no, I really am Jewish. I went to synagogue I spent time
living in Israel.‘ I found myself exaggerating my Jewish credentials in order to increase my legitimacy as
someone who could criticize the community. It is extremely difficult to come out of a formed tradition because
theologically conservative Jews have problems with theologically liberal Jews. Being so far out of the
mainstream in terms of my political viewpoint made it really hard.

It was difficult in Israel too but to a lesser degree. The intifada had not yet started, so people could still argue or
disagree about the Palestinians or about whether peace process was a good idea. There was this huge
momentum behind the attitude of: this is where things are going and you can say this is not a good idea. A
number of people said that violently. The overwhelming majority were more like: ‗yeah-this is where it‘s
going, let‘s see if it works.‖ There wasn‘t as much urgency behind the conversations at that point. The big
thing while I was there were the negotiations with Syria. A number of the kids on my program were really
anti-negotiating with Syria about the Golan Heights, so I got into a number of arguments with people while I
was there. The Palestinians were like: ‗yeah, there is peace-processing going on, and in the next year or so they
will get a state. Hopefully it will all work out.‘

It all fell apart in September. People were dying all the time and it became more urgent. With any community,
when you are at war or in conflict, there is a tendency to circle the bandwagons. What the community does not
want to hear it‘s own members saying ‗we are handling this wrong.‘ It was really difficult. Because I was the
president of Hillel, I was involved in all sorts of national debates. I would foolishly chime in with ‗I think you
are all wrong…I think we should do whatever whatever.‘ The next day I would get 20 hate emails.

Criticism came with those debates and fighting with the Jewish Federation. One particular incident was with
the husband of the advisor to the program. He just loved to goat me about politics, and I would always take the
bait. One time he actually brought me to tears. He told me that I was a lamb in sheep clothing, and that I was
brain washing and diluting the Jewish community on campus.

DEALING WITH CONFLICT

I think I eventually learned, and it took a while, that you don‘t need the lip service of saying stuff that is just
going to disagree with everything that people are thinking. During my senior year, Eboo Patel, who is the
director of Interfaith Youth Corps, came and gave a talk on my campus (but not about interfaith issues). One of
the things he said in the talk was that he has never convinced anyone anything in an argument. It was one of
those things that was obvious yet at the same time completely profound. I had spent most of my college career
arguing with people about the Middle East and had never convinced a single person to change his/her view.
Why am I wasting my time? It‘s not doing anything. It just gets me angry; it gets them angry. It is not an
affective way of transforming people‘s viewpoint, and if that‘s ultimately what we‘re about, we need to find a
more pragmatic approach toward it.

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It was hard being Jewish in college. I didn‘t feel there was a community that I identified with. On the one hand
my Judaism was a huge part of my experience: I was the president of Hillel and taught religious school at a
local synagogue. Especially during my freshman and sophomore year, I was that that guy who was ‗all bent out
of shape about the Middle East, always talking about it, writing letters to the paper about it, and putting on
events about it.‖ The funny thing is, unlike Columbia or other campuses where the Palestinian and Jewish
students were throwing stones on campus, there weren‘t any Arabs on my campus. The Muslims that were there
were Pakistani, sort of interested but far from passionate about Israel and Palestine. As a result, it was basically
me fighting with the other Jews.

The summer after my sophomore year, Patrice helped me get hooked up with a bigger, older, and more
established interfaith organization called the World Conference of Religions for Peace based out of the United
Nations in New York. I did a three-month internship with them working in their conflict transformation
department.

MOROCCO
After that summer, I went to Morocco for four months. I had started taking Arabic but my college didn‘t offer
Arabic- there weren‘t any Arabic language instructors there. I was trying to keep it up on my own with some
Arabs in the community- paying one of them to tutor me. It was a bad situation because although he spoke
fluently he had no experience teaching. It wasn‘t really working out, and I wanted to continue studying my
Arabic. I knew French as well and wanted to spend more time living in the Arab world. At that point I didn‘t
want to go back to Israel, Palestine was a mess, and I was a little concerned going to more conservative Arab
countries; Morocco seemed like a perfect fit.

I went to Morocco for four months and had a great experience there. It was actually quite interesting in the
interreligious aspect of it because there were two Jewish kids on my program. This was fall of 2002, so not only
is the intifada still raging, but this is right during the buildup to the war in Iraq. I lived with a home stay with a
Moroccan family. We would watch ‗al jazera‘ every day. Literally the only two stories on al jazera were: Jews
killing Muslims in Palestine and Bush threatening to invade Iraq. That was it. Every day! So it was an
interesting time to be a Jewish American in a Muslim-Arab country.

CRITICISM (ANTI-SEMITISM)
I did have one anti-Semitism experience. I told my host family when I got there that I was Jewish because the
high holidays were coming up and I had to go to synagogue all day. Their response was casual/ok/whatever,
and we never talked about it. There were two other Jewish kids on the program. One of them had a host family
that was much more secular and modern. They were incredibly fascinated by him being Jewish, so they were
talking to him about it all the time (his host father also spoke English which helped the conversation).

I had a host cousin who was about my age and spoke English, so we became friends. At some point I told her
that I was Jewish. At first she didn‘t believe me and told me that it wasn‘t funny to joke about stuff like that.
Once I finally convinced her that I was Jewish, she told me that she hated all Jews and she wanted them all to
die. I was like ―woah…uh…ok.‘ It was just so clear that this was something she‘d learned- ‗Jews are evil, I
hate them, I want them all to die, yet I‘ve never met a Jewish person.‘ It was this really weird thing because we
had become good friends by that point, and to see her trying to figure out how to reconcile this truth that she
knew with this actual Jewish person that she liked.

I had never having experienced that blatant hatred before; I had only experienced it peripherally.
         I lived down the street from Lewis Fericon; his house was on the way from to the synagogue. When we
        would walk down the street to synagogue, we would pass right by his house. He always had the nation
        of Islam police guarding his house. This one time in particular, my younger brother was playing with
        some of the stones in his garden, and one of the bodyguards told us to ‗get our dirty white tike hands off

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        Mr. Fericon‘s property. But in that situation we just moved on- this man is a bigot and all his followers
        can be bigoted.
But this experience in Morocco was much different because this was someone I knew and was friends with. It
was interesting because she couldn‘t figure out why I was so hurt, offended, and upset by what she said. She
finally sort of saw that I really was hurt, offended and upset she apologized and said that she didn‘t think it
about me. I said, ‗well what about my family, what about my friends?‘ It was like watching the little wheels in
her head turning to figure out how to process this. In retrospect I wish I could have spent more time just
focusing or thinking about that, but really I was just angry, hurt, and offended.

I saw her and we talked about it a few times. Basically it was: ‗this is what she has been taught to believe her
whole life and it was now being challenged for the first time.‘ It was ultimately going to change, but that sort of
transformation doesn‘t happen over night. It doesn‘t work like that. She had to sort through the thoughts that
‗my whole life I have been taught to hate Jews. Now I‘ve met one that I really like I‘m really confused- I think
both things now.‘ That was an interesting experience.

INTERNSHIPS
The summer after my junior year I had two internships with other interfaith youth organizations. I worked with
the Council for Parliament of the World Religions based out of Chicago, another major national interfaith
organization. I worked with them in Chicago for five weeks getting ready for a conference they were planning.

The 2nd half of the summer I went back to Jerusalem and worked with a different interfaith organization. The
organization was working on the ground in Jerusalem doing interfaith dialogue between Jews, Christians,
Muslims, and Ba hai. It was a great experience as well. At this same time, I was doing research for my
undergraduate thesis, so I was able to collect information from other organizations as well. I was able to
explore the real power of interfaith dialogue as conflict transformation in an actual conflict zone. It was great.

I got to go to a number of dialogues and a big conference while I was there. There was a Palestinian at that
conference who couldn‘t figure out the difference between Jews and Israelis. I spent a lot of time trying to
explain to him that I was Jewish but not an Israeli, but in his head the two had always been melded as one.
Trying to disentangle that was challenging. I suppose these are stories of perception, identity, and how people
understand this. I had this long conversation with him and felt that he finally understood: there are Jews, some
of them are Israeli, but some of them belong to other national groups. At the end everyone went up to give their
closing thoughts and he said ‗you know my whole life I‘ve really hated and been afraid of the Israelis and
soldiers at the checkpoints, but now the next time I‘m at a checkpoint I realize that Israeli soldier could be
Noah. I really like Noah, so I won‘t be afraid of him.‘ On the one hand, it was a very powerful and well-
intended sentiment. On the other hand he still didn‘t get it- that couldn‘t be me because I‘m not an Israeli.
There was also a Palestinian woman there that just couldn‘t believe that Jesus was Jewish. She just knew that
Jesus was Christian. It didn‘t matter how much time people spent trying to explain that Jesus was actually
Jewish. No!-- Jesus was Christian. That‘s what she knew to be true.

I spent time talking to a group of Palestinians who were convinced with all this weird/backward logic that the
CIA was responsible for September 11th. I have heard the argument many times in the Muslims/Arab world. A
self-deprivating rationale for why Osama bin Laden didn‘t do September 11th. ‗Muslims couldn‘t figure out
how to do that. No Muslim could figure out how to do that. We‘re not that smart.‘

BARCELONA CONFERENCE
The fall of senior year, I got to go to the conference I helped to plan in Chicago that previous summer. It was in
Catalonia Spain, and it had people from all of over the world: East Asian, South Asian, African, European,
North Americans, and South American. All of them were involved in interfaith work. It was a really cool
experience. As you may know, Spain is going through all sorts of challenges concerning immigration and
identity. Identity is being challenged by a large number of Moroccan immigrants and others.
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In Catalonia specifically, they have an entire history of feeling oppressed. Now, for the first time, they are able
to assert their Castilian identity. You go anywhere in Barcelona or Catalonia and see signs that say ―free
Catalonia from the Spanish.‖

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on interfaith peace making in Israel/ Palestine. After I graduated, I got to go to
the Parliament of the World Religions for two weeks. There were 8,000 religious people from all over the
world getting together to dialogue with each other! While I was there, I bumped into Eboo Patel, a good friend
of Patrice‘s with whom he is co-editing a book right now. Eboo had given a talk on my campus (not even about
interfaith work), but I remember walking out of the talk and thinking ‗this is the most inspirational talk I have
ever heard.‘ Eboo is one of those people that when he talks you listen! It was charisma.

After the conference, I moved to Chicago and worked at a bookstore. I was invited to a World Council of
Churches conference in Switzerland, so I went to that and ran into April again which is when I got a job at
Interfaith Youth Corps.

TERM USAGE: INTERFAITH VS INTERRELIIOUS?
SECULAR/RELIGIOUS DEBATE
I was actually on the interreligious side for years, and only came to use interfaith this summer, when I had to
tow the company line. What do I see as the difference? Nothing really, it‘s just semantics to the extent that you
want to make an argument. Interfaith is a more open of a term. I think there are a lot of people who have faith
but don‘t necessarily organize it or think of it in religious terms. I think people more or less have a similar
sense of what they mean by faith/religion, but it depends on who you talk to. There are many people that would
want to put the big group as spirituality and religion as a subset of that. Those are the people that are like ‗I‘m
spiritual, but I‘m not religious.‖

I have lots of secular friends, and I chuckle to myself because I still think they are very religious.
My academic training in religion suggests the exact opposite. Religion is the big category and under that you
can put organized religion, spirituality, and a number of other things. The way I was taught to look at and study
religion includes communism and neo-conservatism. I think that religions are the ways that humanity organizes
itself and imbues itself and it‘s existence with meaning. It‘s how you structure the universe. How you explain
why thing have gone to where they are. How they should work the way they are. And, where or what we are
trying to get them toward. This all counts as religion to me.

This secular/religious tension is something we struggle a lot with here at Interfaith Youth Core. We are trying
to figure out how to engage secular kids more in our programming. My answer is– ‗there is nothing in our
methodology that doesn‘t or couldn‘t already include secular kids.‘ Being an atheist is still a faith identity; you
still have your sense of identity. I have yet to meet a single person whose understanding of the universe and
their existence and purpose is not tied to some other people who organize such thoughts in a similar way. That
to me is a religious community. I think most people, when they think of religion, they think Judaism,
Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism since that‘s the way most people think of religion, to use the term interfaith
makes it seem broader. My advisor Patrice thinks we should move toward inter-world view because that
appears to be the most open category. Everyone has their own worldview, and we need to learn how to bring
people of different worldviews in dialogue together. My response to that is ‗technically you‘re right, but that is
such a weird term no one will be on board.‘


CHALLENGES?

SECULAR/RELIGIOUS
One challenge is the secular/religious divide. One of the big things that I didn‘t like about the conference is that
it tended to be a bunch of big religious people basically saying that we need to get together to fight the secular.
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That‘s not what I believe in doing. I think that is a theme thought with in some interfaith circles. Part of the
rationale is ‗us uniting against the common enemy‘ which historically has been those godless secular people.
Trying to figure out how to bridge the secular/religious divide is a huge challenge in the interfaith movement.
The success of the movement will depend on we deal with both those with or without explicit faith identities. I
think it is a huge challenge, yet I think it is rewording much of the work that is already circulating.

Another challenge is that not everyone values interreligious work. There is this great book: The Perfect
Society: Why Canada is as Close to Utopia as it Gets. The author argues that every society has values, and
every society tends to value one thing above all others. If you look closely, you can see how the society is
organized around that value. He argues that the highest value in the United States is individualism. I agree
with him. Americans believe, above all else, that the most important thing for any individual is to be is/her own
individual. You can look at all sorts of crazy things that Americans do that make no sense, but are in the name
of individualism.

PLURALISM
I think the highest value that the interfaith movement believes in is pluralism, which is different than
individualism. This came up in the recent Muhammad cartoon controversy. Part of what the West is saying is,
‗we value freedom of speech and that is more important than not offending your symbols. We have the right to
print these cartoons.‘ The response of Interfaith Youth Core is ‗yeah, you do have the right, but there is a
difference between can and should. Just because you can do something doesn‘t mean you should do it.‘ The
reason why you shouldn‘t do it is because there is something else you should value: pluralism. You should
value the idea of people with different worldviews, different value systems, and different understanding of the
universe living together peacefully in cooperation and constructive engagement.

I think we‘re right, but I also think we need to acknowledge that not everyone believes in pluralism. Therefore,
as much as we want to make our mission universal, it‘s not. The Amish are never going to get involved in
interfaith dialogue. They just don‘t care; it‘s not what they believe in. Their identity is one that is internal. They
are a society that organizes itself on looking inward and rejecting the majority of the world. They are never
going to be interesting in coming to interfaith dialogue. You can make a similar argument about some ultra-
orthodox Jewish communities that have held themselves up in modern ghettos in Jerusalem and in the Bronx.
They don‘t want to deal with the rest of Judaism let alone the rest of the world; they don‘t want to come to
interfaith dialogue.
The goal is not actually to convert bin Laden to our way of thinking. He‘s just outside the tent/camp; he is not
going to come to interfaith dialogue. You sit bin Laden down in an interfaith group; it‘s not going to work.
That‘s not just in the Muslim side. There are parallels in all faith communities. There are peoples whose
worldviews are such that they can‘t be brought in with what we are talking about. I think there are a lot of
people right now being brought over to the bin Laden way of thinking that could be brought over to the
Interfaith Youth Core way of thinking. That is what I‘m working to do everyday. The challenge is recognizing
that as much as we strive for universality, we need to recognize that we‘re not completely universal. And that is
ok. We just need to be aware of that. We can still think this is the best way, but just know that not everyone is
going to agree with us.

The last challenge is how do you achieve universality without triumphalism. What I mean by that is, if you take
your faith seriously, which we encourage people to do, you do that because you think that is the best way of
understanding the universe, your place in it, and your communion with God. How do you think that for yourself
and not think that it necessarily has to be the way for everyone. That‘s a real tough issue right? If I‘m going to
be serious about being a Jew it‘s because I think that is what is ultimately right, but how do I hold that belief
and not think that everyone else has to be Jewish. In Judaism it is actually a bit different because the Jews have
always had this attitude of— ‗well this is what is right and what we need to do, but everyone else doesn‘t need
to do it.‘ For this reason, Judaism has never been a proselytizing religion. It‘s a different situation for many

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other faith traditions. If you think that ultimate salvation can only come through Jesus, why should you let
people who you really care about, not find Jesus? That‘s a tough question.

I actually think we have a pretty good answer to it, but it‘s still a tough question. The answer we give is, it
nicely articulated by Rick Warren- an Evangelical Christian author of A Purpose Driven Life. Rick Warren was
asked by a Jewish woman ‗at the end of the day you think I am going to hell don‘t you?‖ Rick‘s reply was ‗look
I think ultimate salvation is through Jesus Christ; I‘m betting my life on it. You are free to bet your life on
whatever you want.‖

You and I might disagree about where we are going when we die, but we can agree that what we have 65 years
between now and then to live together. There is a heck of a lot of good that we can accomplish in that amount
of time. Plus, we probably do agree what that good is. We both want to feed people who are hungry, we both
want to clothe people who are naked, we both want to build a more just society, we both want to build a more
equitable society, and we can work together toward that for 65 years. Then when I die and you die, you can
think I am going to hell, and I can think you are going to hell. We‘ll never know, but it‘s a very pragmatic
answer. You just agree to disagree. You focus on what you do agree on. Rick Warren is free to try to convert
me to be an Evangelical, and I‘m free to say no. We‘re still free to work together on fighting racism.

RELATIVISM
It‘s tough. It‘s the first stumbling block that everyone gets to when they get to interfaith work. I don‘t want to
do this. I don‘t want to say this is all relative. I don‘t want to say that my Islam is no better than your
Buddhism. I think it is. We need to get better and better at our response being ‗yeah you can think it is, but that
doesn‘t mean that you can‘t work with a Buddhist to build a school for the kids that need a better school.‘
There is an answer that we are still figuring out how to articulate; otherwise Interfaith Youth Core would have
shut down years ago.

ANCEDOTE
There is a woman named Cassie that works at the Interfaith Youth Corps. She is an Evangelical Christian. Her
friend, who is also Evangelical, came to visit. Cassie had her friend read some of Eboo‘s articles, and then
when they went out to lunch and the friend asked— ‗doesn‘t it make you sad that Eboo (who is Muslim) hasn‘t
found Jesus?‘ Cassie didn‘t know how to respond. Cassie told this story to Eboo at a staff meeting, and Eboo‘s
response was ‗why didn‘t you say yea it does. It can make you sad that I haven‘t found Jesus, but that doesn‘t
mean that you can‘t work for me to build a better world. You can try to convert me and I can say—ok I hear
what you are saying, but I am sticking to Muhammad‖

I think it gets to a number of things. One is this paranoia. I think many progressives in this country feel that it
would be wrong for someone to want to convert someone else. Well, if that‘s a real part of your faith identity
then maybe it‘s not wrong. If you‘re Muslim, Evangelical, or belong to another faith tradition, for which
spreading the Gospel or spreading the true faith is important to you, then try and spread it. Just realize that
doesn‘t mean you can‘t work for someone who hasn‘t ‗bought in yet.‘

I think the good news is that for the most part, the 19th century notion that religion was dead or dying is being
disavowed. We have all these great thinkers from the 19th century, like Freud and Marx, who were completely
anti-religious. They thought religion is an illusion. Religion is the opiate of the masses. In the 1960‘s there
was a group of academics who talked about how religion is in its death throws. I think those people are finally
dying or acknowledging that they are wrong. Religion is not going anywhere, and that‘s not a bad thing. The
second part some people are having some trouble with is recognizing that religion isn‘t going anywhere, but still
wishing it would.



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RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
The United States is the most religiously diverse society in human history. That is pretty phenomenal when you
take the time to think about it. In all of human history there has never been such diversity living in such close
proximity as we have right now in this country. We are the most religiously devout country in the West; our
European friends are much more secular than we are. There is a real opportunity to make America a model for
the world in a good way. There is a real opportunity to build a genuine pluralist society in this country and to
export that. I think if we are able to do that, it would be phenomenal. In Judaism there is this notion that the
Israelites are supposed to be the light of the nations. Today, many people feel that light should be Israel. More
progressive Jews are very discouraged by the fact that Israel is anything but a light unto the nations.

Well, why can‘t that be America? Why can‘t we be the light unto the nations? How do we do it right? How
can we be in a real pluralist society? There are all these really progressive, yet very traditional Muslim scholars
who share this idea that there is dar al harib and dar al Islam-a the house of war and the house of Islam.
Traditionally the house of Islam is the Muslim world and the house of war is everything outside the Muslim
world and the US is Satan! There are Muslim scholars that think the US is the house of Islam, the Muslim
world is the house of war. Where else in the world besides the US are you free to be a Muslim in whatever way
you want? There is no other place in the world. The Muslim Brotherhood is being cracked down on in Egypt,
Jordan, and Morocco. In the more conservative countries (Saudi Arabia and Iran) progressive Islam is being
outlawed. The U.S. is the only place you can be a Muslim however you want to be; that makes this the house of
Islam.

We might really get it right here. We might really make a model for the world. And if you don‘t believe that,
what are you doing? If you‘re going to be cynical about it, why are you bothering? It‘s about faith. If you
don‘t believe that it‘s possible, then you are missing out!

Have you read Life of Pi? That book gave me permission to believe in God. So… Imsh allah-God willing—the
world we all envision in our prayers might come into reality.




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