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Building Interfaith Bonds

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New seminary-based programs challenge Jews, Christians and Muslims to go beyond polite interfaith conversations to deal with prejudices and fears.

Barbara Marcus was at a function for a Jewish women’s organization recently when she heard someone say all Muslims are out to kill Jews.

Marcus, who attended an intensive weeklong course at Hartford Seminary called Building Abrahamic Partnerships , wasted little time.

“That’s not the case,” she quickly, but firmly, informed the woman who had made the statement.

A resident of Farmington, Conn., who along with her husband, Milton, took part in both the basic course and, a year later, an advanced course, Marcus added: “I never hesitate to speak up about how unfair it is to speak badly of all Muslims.”

The two courses, says Marcus, “changed how I deal with people. I’m so enriched because of this. We recommend it all the time.”

Begun in 2004, Building Abrahamic Partnerships is one of a number of seminary-based programs designed to go beyond the polite, but often anemic, interfaith conversation typical of first-time congregational encounters between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The program, which includes worship in church, synagogue and mosque, addresses much more than the tenets of each faith. It is intended as a kind of relational “boot camp” meant to challenge people’s prejudices and fears.

“The idea is to build mutual solidarity based on mutual appreciation, even affection,” says Yehezkel Landau, the program’s director. “We want the heart and spirit engaged. At some point along the way, people’s comfort zone will be challenged. It will hurt a little bit.”

Face to Face/Faith to Faith is a similar program for youth offered by Auburn Theological Seminary. This international interfaith experience is designed to help teenagers aged 16 to 18 develop leadership and conflict resolution skills through dialogue.

Now in its 10th year, Face to Face brings together Protestants and Roman Catholics from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Israelis and Palestinians from Jerusalem, blacks and whites from Cape Town, South Africa, and a cross-section of American teens for a series of yearlong exchanges.

In the spring, each group meets on its home turf and gets to know one another. In midsummer, the teens from all four groups gather for a two-week intensive at a campground in Holmes, N.Y. In the fall, the 70 teens work on individual or group projects back home.

“We want to enhance their leadership skills in their religious communities,” says Manar Fawakhry, the program’s director.

Fawakhry says the idea is for teens to take what they’ve learned and make incremental differences in the lives of their respective communities.

“It may not resolve the status quo on a political level, but on a relational level, youth who come from troubled environments across different religions and cultures are able to share their stories,” she says.

Ananas Mustafa, a 17-year-old high school student from Philadelphia, says the program changed her life and helped her shape an identity as a biracial U.S.-based Muslim.

“Face to Face is about breaking down the defensive walls we’ve built around ourselves,” she says. “We had the place to share our spiritual paths and explore who we are and how we can make a difference.”

While not everyone can participate in such intensive exchanges, congregations can move beyond the introductory but often unsatisfying interfaith get-togethers.

Landau says people wanting to engage in interfaith dialogue need to show a sincere interest, and be persistent. He recommends groups share a meal; a vegetarian pizza is a good way to start.

Underlying all discussions should be two common religious principles: the sanctity of human life and the belief that each person is made in the image of God.

The litmus test, Landau says, will come during a time of crisis. After the next bombing or bigoted extremist remark, it’s time to get back together.

“Let the community know you’re there for them in their time of need,” Landau says. “Join in solidarity with them and reconsecrate what’s been desecrated.”

For Marcus, a practicing Jew who has long been active in the greater Hartford Jewish community, the time to act is now.

“We’re going to destroy each other,” she says, “if we don’t learn to live with each other.”

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