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This Rabbi and 2 Priests Walk into a Bar

It sounds like the start of a good joke, except it really happened. Well, sort of.

I’m the rabbi. There were really two priests. Of course, we were sitting in a Cathoic church, not a bar. Oh, and instead of drinking, We were church hopping. It was all part of my education on interfaith relations and community organizing. (No joke.)

Slowly but surely, under the tutelage of of Congregation Or Ami’s second rabbi, Rabbi Julia Weisz, I am moving beyond my comfort zone to build relationships with communities outside our own. A generation ago, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in Washington DC, taught a group of young rabbinic students – of which I was one – that as leaders in our communities, we needed to build coalitions of conscience. Later the Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations project, teamed up with the Community Organizing organization OneLA (1LA), to urge rabbis and congregations to develop interfaith relationships, slowly but intentionally, which eventually could become the foundation of such coalitions of conscience.

Commonalities across Faiths
I am new to interfaith work. In previous pulpits, my senior colleagues had a lock on the interfaith dialogue; at Congregation Or Ami the early years dedicated to responding to the needs of our growing community kept my attention focused elsewhere. But now the time had come.

My guide for the day was Tom Holler, lead organizer in the Valleys for OneLA. Responding to my request for introductions and guidance, he drove me down to the area around USC for meetings at two different Catholic churches.

Seeking Social Change amidst the Challenges of Daily Toil
Most poignantly, we sat in conversation with Pastor Arturo. Mexican by birth, a missionary by training, he had become a pastor by design. Now responsible for a parish of 9000, he was spoke about balancing the challenges of administrivia with the sacredness of ritual with the desire to bring about social change. Although our worlds are separated by three freeways and a host of socioeconomic distinctions, I immediately felt a kinship with him.

We chatted about the challenges our flocks faced. We commiserated about the overritualization of our faiths. We struggled with our interests and concerns regarding the need for faith to transform life and living conditions for all. I wondered, if we two clergymen from different worlds can find the beginnings of a connection, then imagine what could happen for our congregations. Could this relationship building, called “one to ones” in the jargon of community organizing, really lead to lasting, transformative social justice and change?

Interfaith work is sometimes about theology and sometimes about finding common heritage or shared values. Sometimes focuses on reaching understandings that address the attitudes which can lead people to hate or harm one another. And sometimes, as OneLA community organizer Rachel Gold taught me on the ride home, it is about having unfettered curiosity which breaks down walls, builds relationships, and uncovers invisible lines of connection.

Next week I sit with the local Muslim Imam. Later this week I gather with 500 rabbinic colleagues at a CCAR Rabbinic convention. For now, though, I just reflect upon this amazing opportunity to build bridges and thus heal our world.

What about You?
Have you had positive interfaith interactions? Does the possibility of participating in interfaith gatherings or community organizing excite you? Let me know about it.

One comment

  1. Rabbi Rick says:

    I agree completely… interfaith work brings people together and breaks down barriers. The rabbi from my home congregation modeled this beautifully and I couldn't wait to have the opportunity to participate in this sacred work as well. When interfaith leaders forge strong relationships, we show our congregations how gratifying it is and when we work side by side, we bring healing to our world.
    I know you'll enjoy this holy work.

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