For many years, Rabbi Amy Small of Morristown has devoted much of her time to interfaith dialogue, both as a congregational rabbi and past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
But when a Protestant minister from New York invited her to be one of only two Jewish leaders on a six-day mission to Pakistan, Small was understandably anxious.
“As a Jewish woman going into this environment, I was cautious; I didn’t know what to expect,” she told NJ Jewish News four days after returning from her trip.
Small and other religious leaders from the U.S. Pakistan Interreligious Consortium visited Islamabad from March 9 to 16. Led by the Rev. Robert Chase of Collegiate Church of New York, the multifaith organization is trying to reverse decades of mutual hostility and mistrust between mostly Muslim Pakistan and the West.
The only other Jewish participant in the group of 10 was Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at the Reform Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and a scholar fluent in Arabic.
For four days, Small, Firestone, several Christian clergy and lay professionals, and a Pakistani businessman who now resides in Texas met with Pakistani students and professors — sometimes face to face, other times via Skype.
“Many Pakistanis think Americans are all terrorists, and many Americans think Pakistanis are all terrorists. Neither is true, and both of those prejudices contribute to a growing cultural and political divide between two peoples who have helped to feed fundamentalist extremism,” said Small, who formerly led Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit.
Sometimes wearing a purple headscarf out of deference to the religious sensibilities of her hosts, Small joined the delegates for visits with students and professors from several universities, along with trips to the Faizal Mosque — Pakistan’s largest house of worship — and a Sufi Muslim shrine.
“I felt one important accomplishment was to be in dialogue with the women,” said Small, who is currently president of the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the educational arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “Some were students. Others were professors and academic administrators. They all wanted to talk with me, to understand about my life, what does it mean to be a rabbi, what does it mean to be a Jew.
“They had intense curiosity in a very open-minded, very positive way,” Small added. “Living in a society that is struggling with fundamentalism and extremist violence — they blow up people who don’t agree with them — these women are under siege from the extremists.”
For the first two days of the visit the subject of Israel was avoided. “It had to be on their minds, but everyone was being polite,” Small said.
But it did come up in a small gathering of women she had lunch with.
“They were so open and interested,” said the rabbi. “After an hour one woman said she wanted to understand the Israel-Palestine thing, and we had a conversation. They have a lot of preconceived notions that were not friendly toward Israel but they wanted to understand my perspective, so it wasn’t a hostile perspective at all.”
Small returned from Pakistan on March 16, saying she felt “very moved by the extreme friendship offered to us by our Pakistani partners. They were open, and they were anxious to take our relationships to a deeper level. They were anxious to understand us. Their openness for our friendship was really extraordinary. Where this will lead I don’t know, but I am happy to see where it takes me.”