A local mosque is helping members of a synagogue and a church gain a deeper understanding of Islam.
In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., attacks by Islamist radicals, Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center in Princeton reached out to two colleagues, the Rev. David A. Davis, pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church, and Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey.
His goal was to create a program that would model multifaith learning for their congregants, and counter the vitriol being aimed at Muslims in general.
“Even before some of the anti-Muslim political statements, when things were going on in the world in the name of Muslims and fanaticism,” said Feldman, congregant Rob Goldston “came to me and said not only do we need to stand together, we need to understand each other.”
Feldman’s fellow clergy agreed, and on Jan. 26, 27, and 28, the three clerics will engage in public dialogue about their traditions at, respectively, the mosque, the synagogue, and the church.
Feldman and Davis have already taken a first step toward learning about Islam through continuing text study with Heba Elkhateeb, an expert in Arabic language and literature, using a “Scriptural Reasoning” curriculum developed by Peter W. Ochs, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Virginia.
Davis said that even before the current refugee crisis and anti-Muslim reaction to the terror attacks, he has felt “that the mainline Protestant church has underweighted the interfaith or multifaith conversation.”
“A more robust engagement is important in the world today,” he said. “When all of this anti-Muslim rhetoric started from elected officials and candidates, I was sitting here trying to figure out what should I do and what I should I tell my congregants when Rabbi Feldman called and said, ‘I have this idea.’”
For Chebli, the January program is another step in a process that began for him in 2009 when then-Rep. Rush Holt came to him and initiated what became a multifaith day of outreach in which participants walked from a church to a synagogue to a mosque.
“My goal of this is to keep the community knowing about each other,” said Chebli. “We are not here to convert people from religion to religion. We are here to say we are the children of Adam and Eve. We have to live together with understanding of each other.”
Knowing little about Islam and making generalizations about Muslims based on the ideas and actions of a minority is an indictment of all non-Muslims, Davis said.
“In America today, when there is a Christian voice, that tends to be a voice that doesn’t at all represent what I think theologically. One of the things I did when we sat down is I apologized to [Chebli] for what we had been reading and hearing in the days before our meeting,” said Davis.
The three clergy will share texts from their own traditions as well as basic information about their religions at the January programs. Feldman hopes the process will encourage a move from tolerance to acceptance — that participants will be able to embrace aspects of the other two religions while remaining faithful to their own.
He also hopes the program will overcome mutual fear. “Part of our fear of other religions is when we don’t know them and don’t understand them,” Feldman said.
Davis said his own tradition has sometimes hindered interfaith conversations with its attitude of “my way or the highway.” He described his personal faith as being based not only on what Jesus said, but what he did. “What he did was boundary breaking, a ministry of welcoming strangers, sitting with outcasts…, a role model for interfaith conversations,” Davis said.
The clerics see these multifaith conversations as essential for their congregants, and especially younger members.
Chebli said his congregation near Princeton includes 1,500 children.
“When these kids, in any level of school, see an imam, rabbi, pastor, deacons talking to each other, they will take that back to their families, and the families and neighbors will talk, and those kids tomorrow will be the leaders,” he said.
Feldman added another concern. “The fact that young people think religion divides, leads to loss of life — we need to counter that and show us being together with respect and tolerance and acceptance,” he said.
“We have a very basic goal: for our communities of faith to see the three of us together in all three places and engaging with respect, friendship, and talking about difficult things,” said Davis. “Even if we are only dipping our toe in, we will be talking in ways that we can stay in relationship.”