Religious dispute

As some interfaith initiatives struggle, others strive to mend the divide

'In the places where interfaith relationships were very strong and established, they've been able to maintain this,' one Jewish official said. 'In places where [interfaith relations were] already tenuous, it's been challenging'

The interfaith bridge, built over many years of tough dialogue by Jews, Christians and Muslims, is teetering.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 massacres in Israel and the country’s subsequent war with Hamas in Gaza, tensions have soared between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups and individuals, causing a schism in many interfaith communities even as others try to push forward, seeing a demand from individual Muslims and Jews yearning to mend the divide.

“In the places where interfaith relationships were very strong and established, they’ve been able to maintain this,” Adam Teitelbaum, vice president for public affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the executive director of the Israel Action Network, told eJP.

He saw great hope in the over 120 solidarity events hosted by Jewish federations the week after the attacks, which were filled with attendees of all backgrounds and faiths. Still, he said, “In places where [interfaith relations were] already tenuous, it’s been challenging.”

In Australia, two rabbis resigned from the Jewish Christian Muslim Association, an organization that “aims to reduce racism, intolerance, bigotry and violence,” after Muslim and Christian leaders failed to condemn Hamas for the Oct. 7 bloodbath. When contacted by eJewishPhilanthropy for updates on how interfaith work was proceeding, many American nonprofits refrained from responding, apparently due to the sensitivity of the issue. Yehuda Stolov, executive director of Interfaith Encounter Association, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that organizes interfaith gatherings around the world, wrote, “I checked with the group’s coordinators, and they think the time now is too sensitive for such [an] interview.”

In the past, when the American Jewish community has been attacked, the Muslim community was often the first to help, Teitelbaum said, giving the example of the Tree of Life shooting in Oct. 2018. But this time is different because it directly involves Israel.

“A lot of clergy and interfaith initiatives for a very long time have kept Israel off the table,” Isaiah Joseph Rothstein, rabbinic scholar and public affairs advisor at JFNA, told eJP. “Clergy have opted out of a discussion around Zionism, around Israel. And that has been intentional… Now that the bandage has been taken off and the wound is open, how can clergy actually step up to help not widen the gap and the divide but actually serve as a bridge across communities and ideologies?”

These are issues to think about for the future, Rothstein said, not when emotions are spiraling. “When you’re in a time of war, it’s not a time for peacemaking. When there’s a treaty or there’s some sort of leveling out, then you start trying to bridge understanding. That’s an investment that our communities need to make in the coming years.”

Even though the tension within the Jewish and Muslim communities may be palpable, the loudest voices are the most extreme ones, Amy Spitalnick, CEO at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs told eJP. “It’s important that we not lose sight of the fact that many people have stood up for us and recognize that we are not alone.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs organized a letter with over 150 Jewish organizations condemning Islamophobia after a 6-year-old Muslim boy was murdered in Chicago two weeks ago. “We want to make clear that at this moment of really profound pain for our own community, we are not allowing anyone to exploit that pain to spread hate or bigotry or violence,” she said, stating that Jews are safer in societies that are inclusive.

“Even if we disagree on the conflict, even if we disagree on a variety of issues, [we want to make it] clear that none of us accepts threats or hate or extremism or violence targeting any other community,” she said. “It’s important that we model what we hope folks will do for us as well.”

But for Wendy Golberg, executive director at The Tri-Faith Initiative, a community made up of a mosque, synagogue, church and interfaith center, housed together on a 38-acre property in Omaha, Neb., “public statements are hurtful and private conversations are hopeful,” she told eJP.

Her organization rejects the idea that anyone speaks on behalf of a community. Instead, Tri-Faith seeks to nourish conversations between and within communities, recognizing the differing views not just between faiths, but within faiths. “Now is the time to help people understand the complexity of the situation, the history and the systems that have led to this moment,” she said. “No one speaks in the voice of a monolith for any one of these communities.”

In the weeks following Oct. 7, the church, temple, and mosque that make up the Tri-Faith Initiative community each held their own prayer events. Then last Tuesday, the entire community held a group convening attended by over 40 people from all three faiths. It was a safe space. Some attendees discussed the conflict, some didn’t.

Even before the large event, members across the Tri-Faith communities have been convening in smaller groups, with the understanding that the rift would grow if too much time passed. “It’s hard to hate up close,” Goldberg said.

On college campuses, this rift seems larger than ever as politics are increasingly polarized on the issue of Israel and Palestine, yet students crave connection, Rabbi Ira J. Dounn, associate director at Princeton Hillel’s Center for Jewish Life, told eJP.

Last Wednesday, over 400 students participated in an hour-long walkout in solidarity with Palestine, with some protestors chanting “Intifada. Intifada. Long live the intifada.” Nearby, a group of students rallied for Israel. As the protests died down, Dounn watched as Israeli and Jewish students crossed over and spoke to those rallying for Palestine.

“They desire this dialogue and desire this peace,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see more and more of this in the weeks and months to come.”

In the end, the conversations between protestors turned tense. “[It] wasn’t the right time,” Dounn said. “It’s too difficult and too scary. There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of big emotions happening right now… In a climate of fear, it’s very hard to know who to trust, and so that’s what we’re trying to overcome.”

Dounn’s chaplain colleagues – Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu — reached out to him after the Oct. 7 tragedies, providing empathy. Everyone at Princeton is a big community, he said. Muslims and Jews attend classes together; they eat together; he often has Muslim students over for Shabbat dinner. But “everything has changed in that moment,” he said, acknowledging there are “forces” who aren’t interested in dialogue, who seek to divide the campus community and will go after students and staff who want to create unity. He and his peers across denominations are looking for the best way to move forward.

“Many of the most meaningful things that people have done have come in the aftermath of disaster,” he said. “So maybe the dialogue initiatives will be even more powerful than they’ve ever been in the aftermath.”

Conflicts of ideology are playing out within interfaith families, too.

“When a Jew is partnered with a person of another faith background, they may have come to that relationship or been in that relationship for many years without necessarily focusing on Israel. Then, during this current crisis, this war, their feelings about Israel would come to the surface,” Keren R. McGinity, an interfaith specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), told eJP.

The USCJ created a tip-sheet to help clergy moderate conversations with couples who may not see eye to eye. Engaging in these conversations is an opportunity: either it can push people away or draw people in.

“It’s an opportunity for Jewish communities to learn about their members of other faiths and cultural backgrounds,” she said. The goal should be to show empathy for differing views while making sure everyone has accurate facts, recognizing that both Jews and Muslims carry generational trauma that is being triggered.  

“We cannot allow the conflict to be imported into the American scene and contribute to antisemitism and other forms of hate in the American homeland,” Noam Marans, the director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, told eJP.  Since the massacres, antisemitism has skyrocketed 388%, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Islamophobia has also been on the rise.

“We are very concerned that is what is happening now,” he said. “It’s up to religious leaders of diverse denominations to call it out, and to do everything in their power to make sure that it doesn’t erupt further.”

Doing this work requires funding. “Organizations like ours can only stay afloat to nurture and feed healthy relationships in the United States if funders believe that it’s possible,” the Tri-Faith Inititative’s Goldberg said. “If in this moment, we’re going to prioritize only a response to Israel and the military, then I’m concerned about what will happen in the United States to our further polarization.”

Now, more than ever, this interfaith work is needed, in America and around the world, which is why the Elijah Interfaith Institute, a nonprofit that is registered in both Israel and America, increased the frequency of their Praying Together in Jerusalem prayer meetings, previously held in person and on Zoom, now just held on Zoom due to security, from every month to every week.

“When you pray next to somebody frequently, regardless of the differences… you have a human relation with those people,” Peta Pellach, director of educational activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, told eJP. “We build the human relationship, and in doing so, we also provide an avenue for people to hear and feel each other’s pain.”

Soon after the conflict began, at one of the Thursday prayer meetings, a Muslim attendee from Toronto spoke: “All the population here, the Muslims here, the Jewish population here, in our own ways, we feel very close to what is happening,” Fauzia Chanda said. “It’s just heartbreaking and very hard. It’s causing a lot of difficulties amongst people who have been living together for decades, with each other, whether it’s in schools, or in universities, or in workplaces. It’s brought out a lot of emotions in everybody everywhere.”

Over 45 people were in the Zoom – people around the world, from different cultures and religions. Men and women. Some wearing kippot, some wearing tichels, some wearing hijabs, some letting their hair flow free. They were zeroed in on Fauzia’s words. And together, they prayed.