When Rabbi Josh Stanton proposed traveling with a group of twenty-somethings to Pristina, Kosovo, for the fourth annual International Interfaith Conference, Stephanie Ball, 24, a graduate of Cornell University who works at a social media startup, recalled, with a tad of embarrassment, “I had to check a map.”
But after reading up on the history of the country, she decided to make the journey with Stanton and four of her peers. In May, they joined 200 participants from around the world and representing a wide range of religions for a spirited conversation about social media and its role in enabling interfaith understanding and countering extremism.
“It was a chance to be on the world stage in a different way, seeing the world through a Jewish lens, articulating what it means to be Jewish in a pluralistic atmosphere, and figuring out what it means to represent the Jewish people in an interfaith context,” said Stanton, 29.
The five Americans who attended are all part of the Helen Dunn Leadership Seminar of Tribe, a New York City-based initiative for 20-something Jews affiliated with Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, where Stanton is assistant rabbi, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Organized and run by its members, Tribe is facilitated by Stanton and his counterpart at Rodeph Sholom, Rabbi Ben Spratt. It has a roster of 1,200-plus members.
Ball, who grew up in Florham Park and whose parents and grandparents are members of B’nai Jeshurun, said the trip “opened my eyes to the benefits of visiting less well-known places” and helped her explore her own Jewish identity.
It was not Stanton’s first trip to the disputed Balkan territory, which has declared its independence from Serbia; he participated in the conference while in rabbinical school, and Kosovo’s foreign minister invited him to return this year. Stanton suggested he bring along a group, and the foreign minister agreed.
The conference, held May 28-30, was hosted by the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Institute for Interfaith Dialogue with support from the United Nations, Royal Norwegian Embassy, the U.S. Embassy, British Council, British Embassy, the European Union Office, and the German Embassy.
Kosovo’s president, Atifete Jahjaga, gave the opening remarks, and a variety of faith leaders from Kosovo and around the world — representing Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Sufi, Jewish, and Bektashi communities — addressed the conference.
Keynote speakers included Michael Melchior, chief rabbi of Norway, and Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook.
Stanton himself sat on a panel addressing cutting-edge on-line tools and door-to-door activism.
Ball was impressed “by the mix of religions and people wearing the formal dress of their religions,” as well as the powerful women who were included among the first speakers and throughout the conference.
“Overall, there was a tone of hopefulness — to see people of all religions together, as a symbol that they want to work together,” she said.
She added, “We tend to hear a lot about conflict between religions in the news. But there are places, conferences, and organizations trying to find peace between religions and find a way to move forward together.
The conference “was not about one religion being on top,” said Ball, “but about all being able to practice what they believe, what they were raised on — and create friendships too. The idea is that there is room for that, but it’s hard. We have to work toward that — it won’t just happen.”
She said she was amazed at how the people of Kosovo, whose population is 95 percent Muslim, were respectful and accepting of Americans and Jews. She said she found it useful “to see how Judaism fits into the global view of religions, how religions connect.”
Stanton was surprised at the reception Tribe received and the impact it had. “By the end of the conference, everyone knew what Tribe was,” he said. “Going as a group really changed the experience.”
The other Tribe participants included Jason Bruck, Blair Albom, Emily Spiegel, and Michael Sherman. All live in Manhattan and are recent college graduates. Ball is the only participant originally from New Jersey.
Now that they have returned, Stanton said, part of the follow-up is to figure out how the trip can create “an enduring legacy for Tribe. Do we need to do an annual trip — say, a service trip to Cuba or to Israel? What is there that we perceived, learned, experienced, and are ready to teach others?”
He added, “There are spiritual implications to living in a global world; we’re not in a bubble.”