When does Ignorance become Insensitivity?

Author:Grace K

When I woke up today, on Ash Wednesday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, I certainly was not expecting to find a celebration of Mardi Gras, which was yesterday, outside Usdan Student Center. I suppose first must come the delineation of the two holidays. First of all, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance for many Christians. It is the first day of Lent, the season of repentance, sacrifice, and holiness in preparation for Easter Sunday. Many Christians give up something or take on a new spiritual practice for the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is traditionally celebrated by attending services to receive ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead as a sign of remorse for sins and by fasting. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, therefore, is the day prior to Ash Wednesday where you take advantage of still whatever you are giving up for Lent. Traditionally, it is the day that you must get rid of all the fat in your house in preparation for Lent. Hence the name Fat Tuesday.

Therefore, I’m sure you understand my surprise at seeing Student Events celebrating Mardi Gras with coffee, donuts, masks, balloons and Mardi Gras beads. It is a celebration of not only a holiday that was yesterday but a celebration of a holiday associated with binging on food and other things being celebrated on a day of fasting and repentance. At first I just thought it was absurd until a friend asked me if I was offended. Offended? Not really. I highly doubt that Student Events decided to celebrate Mardi Gras today to spite all those celebrating Ash Wednesday. But I would be lying if I said that I did not feel a slight twinge at realizing how little people know of what I believe, at how little people understand what is such an integral part of who I am.

I think this therefore brings up a good question to consider. When does ignorance become insensitivity? When does limited knowledge of faith and beliefs cross the line into being offensive? I obviously cannot claim in any way that this situation is unique to me. If anything, I have been fairly spared such instances for most of my life. But I would venture that most of us have felt this way at some point. What we believe is important to us and we wish that people would be knowledgeable about it or seek to understand it.

So when does ignorance become insensitivity? I definitely do not have the answer. I am interested to hear what everyone has to say in the comments. In the meantime, I think the best thing we can do is educate ourselves about what others believe. I know that it means so much to people when you are knowledgeable about their beliefs and it means even more when you seek to truly understand their beliefs and their experience.


My Story and My Hope

Author: Grace K.

As you may know through this blog or through interfaith work, storytelling is a large part of the interfaith movement. Our stories show how our faith and belief systems have impacted our lives and reveal to others our true selves. This is my story, the story of my call to peace and justice, and therefore my story of why I am involved in interfaith work.

As I sat there under a palm tree at the Bay of Pigs, I could not help but notice the pristine beauty of this place. The sand was an untainted white and the water was a perfectly clear blue. In this splendor, however, was great irony. Though the scene was tranquil now, in 1961, it certainly was not. I felt a warm tropical breeze and the brilliance of the sun but years ago the beach was cold with the harsh winds of war. This beach was stunning yet it was the site of countless deaths. It was as flawless as if God had just created it and still it marked the place of the height of human failure to carry out God’s plan. There, I realized my great responsibility and understood why God had sent me.

Three winters ago I traveled to Cuba on the 2008 Mission of Peace, with twenty-five other Americans, twenty-one youth and four adults. Mission of Peace is an annual “Journey to Shalom” for youth sponsored by the Northeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. The goal was not to convert but to learn what it means to be a Christian in another country. We sought to tear down walls of hatred and stereotypes while building bridges of peace and understanding.

From Varadero, to the Bay of Pigs, to Havana, we learned that God loves all and that love has no boundaries, no limits. From the rising of the sun to its setting on the beach right across the street, we witnessed God’s love for us through their gracious hospitality and sensed God working in us as He showed us the full and complete glory of God’s kingdom. The night after we went to Bay of Pigs I shared what I had experienced at the beach. We discussed that every human being is like that beach. We are entirely beautiful when God creates us, but then the world gets to us, people get to us and we become almost a battle site as well. This journey was showing us that it is our duty to stop the hatred. Alone, we cannot stop nations from warring but within our own personal sphere of influence, we have the power to stop the destruction and to share the amazing love that we are shown. We can view every person as beautiful as God views them and show them that we love as God loves. Together we can bring about shalom.

As our time was drawing to a close, I sensed more and more that this amazing trip had been a training session. God had brought all of us together to show us what needed to be done and to teach us how to love and act justly. Our closing worship service became a commissioning service as God was sending us back into the world to work for peace in every heart and around the world. This was when the real Mission of Peace began.

Interfaith work is just one of many ways that we can work to tear down these walls that divide us, these walls that are built by hatred and misunderstanding. We often misunderstand others’ beliefs and build barriers to keep out what we do not understand. While religion is often a force that divides us, it has an amazing power to unite us. So much of what we believe is often similar and even in our differences, faith is beautiful. Furthermore, what we believe is intrinsic to who we are and when we take the time to learn what others believe not only do we realize how similar we are, but we also grow to see the beauty in each other’s beliefs and traditions and therefore, the value of the person. Once we see these things, how can we intentionally harm these people?

For each Mission of Peace, a commemorative song is written. The closing verse for this Cuban sojourn embodies my hope for the future of this world. They are words of change and peace and they move me to pray that every person will realize their immense responsibility to work for justice and peace for all.

“God’s plan is revolution

God’s hope is our rebirth

Our creating God is bringing

Shalom to all the earth.”


Sarah Palin’s “Blood Libel”: What’s the Bigger Issue?

Author: Erica

Over the last few days, I have been thinking about the tragedy in Arizona with a heavy heart.  My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, in particular, Brandeis IBS student Ben Zimmerman.

We have heard amazing stories of heroism and unity  out of this terrible event. It has also produced a new national consciousness on violent political rhetoric and its impact. Whether the heightened incendiary language impacted the shooter Jared Lee Loughner is debatable; regardless, I think our increased attention to the vitriol rhetoric is a positive result from this misfortune.

Therefore, I was even more disappointed to hear Sarah Palin released a video statement stating:

“Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

Commentators, analysts, bloggers and non-profit organizations immediately, and in my opinion justifiably, jumped on Palin for the use of the word “blood libel” in her statement.

For me, the term blood libel conjures up images of Jews, my ancestors, being killed due to baseless claims that they murdered Christian children for ritual use of their blood. While this falsehood began in the dark ages, it has permeated throughout history. The word carries a deep history of anti-Semitism and creates lingering pain among Jewish communities.

Palin, however, uses the term to assert that those who attempt to tie her past statements and a climate of violent language to the Tucson murders are baselessly attacking her.  I believe that Palin’s rebranding of the term is inappropriate and damaging. However, it has also garnered too much media attention and claims that she was intentionally anti-Semitic are unwarranted.   I agree with a caveat that David Harris included in the National Jewish Democratic Council’s statement addressing the issue:

“Perhaps Sarah Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is, or does not know of their horrific history; that is perhaps the most charitable explanation we can arrive at in explaining her rhetoric today,”

Palin’s remarks were ignorant and insensitive, not intentionally hurtful towards Jews.  However, I think this presents an even larger issue.

Based on the video, it seems clear that Palin’s marks were prepared in advanced. This means that in addition to Palin, a speechwriter and multiple staffers were probably involved.  I am deeply disappointed that these many educated and politically active people are apparently unaware, or indifferent, to the centuries of baggage carried by the term blood libel.  If a politician made this comment in an incredibly public setting, what are we not hearing in common discourse? My friend from Oklahoma tells me that at home she hears people use the verb “jewing”- mean to bargain with or be frugal. Until she explained it to them, they were completely unaware of its massive anti-Semitic connotations.  Clearly, something is lacking from both our formal and experiential education.

I am not arguing that we do not learn about religion in school. However, I do think we study it selectively and in isolation from reality. We do not understand the  intricacies and sensitivities of faiths or their histories in an increasingly globalized and pluralistic world.  Sarah Palin’s poor choice of words displayed this truth in a painfully obvious and public way.

I do not advocate complete political correctness; however, I am encouraging increased awareness, knowledge and mindfulness.  Lets start by being cognizant of our own conversations and by fostering informal and formal education regarding religious literacy and sensitivity in addition to wider attentiveness to diversity.

As President Obama said at tonight’s memorial in Tuscon: “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.”

I make a commitment to be more mindful of my word choice when I discuss and debate with others. Can you do the same?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please leave comments!

Look At All We Accomplished!

As this year comes to a close, it is time to look back at the last semester. Although it sometimes was hard to tell with all the stress and the craziness, in retrospect, we did some pretty amazing work promoting religious pluralism at Brandeis and beyond:

  • BIG- the Brandeis Interfaith Group was created and chartered.
  • BIG had regularly  well attended weekly meetings that were  filled with meaningful discussions  and thought-provoking activities (and had good snacks of course).
  • We launched the Better Together Campaign!
  • We organized the What IF? Speak-In as part of the beginning of the Better Together Campaign. The event was attended by 60+ people
  • Celebrate Brandeis was an amazingly meaningful response to WBC’s “visit” to campus. It included a day of great activities celebrating Brandeis values and an incredibly successful fundraiser. The day highlighted Brandeis’ commitment to religious pluralism in a very public and tangible way.
  • Interfaith work and religious pluralism at Brandeis received notable on campus and off- campus media attention.
  • We created this blog!

Phew. That was exhausting.

Thanks to everyone for making this semester more meaningful and productive than any one could have imagined. We could not have accomplished everything without your time and commitment to religious pluralism.

There are lots of other great projects planned for the interfaith movement next semester, including the next steps in the Better Together Campaign. We hope you will continue your participation and support. If you were not involved with BIG or the other interfaith projects, now would be a fantastic time to start!

Follow BIG on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=139181632783965&v=info

Join the BIG list serv: big@lists.brandeis.edu

Join the Better Together list serv: bettertogether@lists.brandeis.edu

and of course, subscribe to this blog!

Happy  and healthy New Year everyone! Get psyched for next year!

Orthodoxy, Relativism, and Religious Pluralism

Author: Erica

One of the reasons I fell in love with interfaith work is because it expands my exposure to diverse perspectives and learning experiences. Therefore, I was happy to read a very well written and thought-provoking blog post from a high school friend: http://curiousjew.blogspot.com/2010/12/interfaith-movement.html

She brings up many important questions about interfaith work that I have also encountered in conversations with others. I thought this blog would be an appropriate place to address them. The following is based on my personal life experiences and the opinions voiced are mine alone:

Relativism vs. Pluralism:

Chana brings up the concern that interfaith work leads to relativism and forces participants to compromise on tenets on their faiths and values. While I understand this hesitation and its origins, from my experiences, I have found that nothing is further from the truth.

In her widely used definition of religious pluralism, Diana Eck writes, “pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another”.

For me, Judaism is, and will always be, my absolute truth. My involvement with IFYC has NEVER compromised this. I have participated in stirring conversations with people who believe in many gods, no gods, and everything in between. These conversations have never shaken my belief in Judaism or the Torah; however, they have opened my eyes to the splendor of humanity and faith. I enhance my understanding, without “modifying” my tradition of Judaism, through the values we share: Service, forgiveness, love, justice, etc… I can also expand my worldview through exploring the tapestry of our differences. Although some participants may believe in some form of relativism or universalism, this is by no means an expectation or requirement.

Religious Orthodoxy and Interfaith:

Another point addressed is the perceived lack of observant or traditional faiths represented by the IFYC Fellows and in interfaith work in general. I have a couple of thoughts:

1. I agree that to a degree, there is a lack of self-described observant IFYC Fellows. However, there is nothing logistically stopping them being involved with IFYC or similar programs. Theological obstacles are a different issue. The IFYC Fellows Alliance application is on its website, college students from all backgrounds are encouraged to apply.  I think we have both stumbled upon a larger systemic issue that may be present in some religious communities and the perception of interfaith work. I would love to work on addressing this.

2. I know many self -identifying “orthodox” or “very observant”  people who are involved with interfaith dialogue. For example two of the most involved members in the BIG- the Brandeis Interfaith Group – are orthodox Jews, one is on our executive board.

3. I highly reject the concept that one needs to be the most traditional in their faith to represent it. I also highly reject the idea that only Orthodox Jews are learned and observant.

In the case of IFYC, this issue is actually irrelevant: As a fellow, I do not represent Judaism, but Judaism as it means to Erica. I have never tried to do anything different and was never asked. This is actually one of the reasons why I love IFYC and its methods.

However, I still think the issue needs to be addressed.

I consider myself a progressive, observant, egalitarian Jew – this identity is ever-changing and far too complicated to explain in this post; nonetheless, it is something that I am proud of.  This is not my identity because I, “don’t understand many of the tenets of that faith”. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I am not a Conservative Jew because I do not understand Orthodoxy or because I have not studied Halakhah (Jewish Law). After experiencing many streams of Judaism and lots of introspection, I have decided that with respect to other practices,  for me, this is correct.   It is a conscious choice that I live every day. I am sure many “liberal” followers of other faiths feel the same way.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a Rabbi who expressed similar concerns to Chana’s blog post. He asked me why young Jews should engage in interfaith work when they are still struggling with their own religious identity and are not strongly learned in Judaism. I told him that I had learned as much about being a good Jew from my Christian roommate as I had from 11 years of Hebrew school.

It wasn’t until I participated in interfaith dialogue that I truly understood b’tzelem elohim – the concept that humans are created in the image of God.

Sorry for the lengthy post, there was just a lot to cover!

I look forward to reading everyones’ thoughts and continuing this important conversation.

Brandeis Religious Pluralism Media Recap

This semester was very productive and successful for the interfaith movement at Brandeis and the world noticed! The following is a recap of all of the on-campus and off-campus media mentioning work towards pluralism at Brandeis this semester.

The Hoot’s coverage of the What IF? Speak In!

Innermost Parts blog post on BIG this semester

Boston Globe Coverage of Celebrate Brandeis. Second Article. Third Article.

Highlights of Innermost Parts coverage of Celebrate Brandeis (there is much, much more): Second Post. Third Post. Fourth Post.

Brandeis Justice Coverage of Celebrate Brandeis. First Editorial. Second Editorial. Another Article.

Brandeis Hoot’s Coverage of Celebrate Brandeis. Second Article.

Brandeis Now Coverage of Celebrate Brandeis.

Lots of good stuff.

Something Worth Celebrating

Author: Erica

Yesterday, I woke up before 8:00 am for the first time in probably over a year to set up the Great Lawn for Celebrate Brandeis. I think the approximately 300 Brandeisians who attended Celebrate Brandeis would also attest that waking up early was well worth sacrificing some sleep.

On December 3rd at 8:45 am the Westboro Baptist Church arrived in Waltham with a message of religious intolerance and extremism. Instead of fueling the fire with more antagonism, we responded by celebrating our values: tolerance, pluralism, social justice and love.

We ate, sang songs of peace, painted and danced in what was probably Brandeis’ largest Hora. The lawn was filled with undergraduates as well as graduate students, faculty, administrators, staff and Waltham community members. President Reinharz and President-elect Lawrence were present to support this student-led initiative, as well as all four of the Chaplains.

Throughout the rest of the day, the events in the SCC and the success of Hillel’s Harry Potter Shabbat further displayed Brandeis’ diversity and overarching commitment to pursuing a better world.

More significantly, we raised almost 4,000 dollars for Keshet, a Boston based Jewish GLBTQ organization. Over 1,400 individuals signed our “Commitment to Celebrate” statement: http://bit.ly/CelebrateBrandeis

Although Celebrate Brandeis may have originated as a productive and meaningful response to the “visit” from Westboro Baptist Church, in my opinion, it took on a life of its own; Brandeis, like many places, is oversaturated with groups, activities, and service projects. Students at Brandeis come from across the globe, representing a wide spectrum of faiths and political perspectives. However, on December 3rd, we stood completely united in supporting Hillel and the wider Brandeis community not in spite of our differences, but because of them.

Personally, I felt very empowered, humbled and overwhelmed by this positive response. Celebrate Brandeis originated from the minds of a couple passionate students sitting in Hillel Lounge on a Saturday night. It grew to include the voices of over 100 concerned students joining together in the Castle Commons for a shared purpose. The culmination included a massive cross section of campus with the support of the administration, staff, alumni, family, friends and the wider Boston community.

December 3rd has come and passed; but this does not mean we should forget this experience or stop being united through our diversity and pursuing social justice. Because at Brandeis, we know that we are better together. Westboro Baptist Church members have climbed into their van and taken their tour of hate elsewhere. However, I am confident that Brandeisians will continue working to build a world where screams of hate are drowned out by songs of pluralism.

To me, this is something truly worth celebrating.

Links for more information on Celebrate Brandeis!

Facebook event: http://on.fb.me/celebratebrandeis

Commit to Celebrate statement to sign: http://bit.ly/CelebrateBrandeis

Celebrate, Don’t React!

Author: Erica

As I am sure everybody knows by this point, the Westboro Baptist Church is coming to Brandeis the morning of Friday, December 3rd , specifically targeting Hillel at Brandeis. As a Hillel member and Jewish Brandeisian who embraces diversity and pluralism, I feel personally hurt and violated. I know that I am not alone.

I also feel angry. There is a part of me who wants nothing more than to confront them, talk to them, do something ridiculous. WBC has the potential to bring out the worst in me, the worst in us.

When I really thought about both what they are out to accomplish, and our University’s values, I realized that direct, reactionary confrontation would not be the best response. WBC wants to prove that college students are irresponsible and immoral. They want us to cause a scene and get violent and react so they can sue us to further fuel their hatred. If we are not careful, we can easily end up being sued for assault and/ or indecent exposure. I am not saying that having fun or reacting is morally wrong- I am just saying that we would be giving them exactly what they want.

To be honest, even though Brandeis is a creative community, I do not think we could develop a response that they have not seen before. We would not be the first to start praying or kissing or drinking and we would not be more effective than anyone who has done this in the past. We are not going to be able to have a pleasant conversation with them, or make them change their minds. In my personal opinion, efforts to do so would be fruitless and counterproductive.

Instead, what if all of Brandeis united to create a response that was both meaningful and could work towards a larger goal?

It will be a much greater accomplishment if Brandeis took advantage of this moment and created a unified response, completely isolated from them, to support Hillel and our community by embracing and living our Brandeis values. We could also use this as a catalyst to fundraise for an organization that represents our concerns and interests.

If our responses are celebratory instead of reactionary, productive instead of abrasive, we can accomplish so much more. Lets love and respect each other instead of hating them.

Hillel, the Student Union and many other Student organizations are currently planning a festival to celebrate our diversity and campus culture of pluralism while showing support to our numerous friends who feel attacked and distressed. We are also going to be having a fundraiser over the course of the day for an organization working towards Brandeis ideals of social justice.

I am please to know that so many students have expressed the same sentiments and are energetic about developing a response for the morning that WBC is on campus. I look forward in working with all of you, sharing more details of our planned celebration, and showing ourselves and the world just how beautiful of a community we can be.

Brandeis Interfaith Group: What If Speak-In and Beyond!

Author: Rachel D.

For those of you who don’t know, Brandeis Interfaith Group is a newly formed club on campus, centered around interfaith dialogue and service. We meet in the Peace Room every Thursday at 9- check it out. I personally look forward to BIG every week, because we have collaboratively fostered some of the most meaningful dialogue I have taken part in thus far in my three semesters at Brandeis.

On Monday November 15th in the Rappaporte Treasure Hall, Brandeis Interfaith Group along with several other co-sponsors on campus had our first “big” event. The What-If Speak-In was a night of kosher dessert, meaningful stories, Q and A with President Elect Fred Lawrence, and interfaith dialogue with members of the Brandeis community. The goal of the event was to foster meaningful dialogue and expose ourselves to different ideas from faiths and belief systems, centered around fighting homelessness in Waltham, the greater Boston area, and the world.

Members of BIG (including yours truly) read stories and poems about our own faith journeys and how we apply our faith traditions and belief systems to serving others. President Elect Fred Lawrence honored us by offering his unique perspective about religious pluralism and its role at Brandeis. Students had the opportunity to ask the President Elect about his faith own faith journey, and how it applies to serving others. Following President Elect Lawrence, students, faculty, staff, and others from the community discussed in small groups their own personal experiences in faith and service.

The What-If Speak-In was the first of a series of events and projects as part of the larger Better Together Campaign. Over the rest of the academic year, BIG and the community will be working on projects to elevate local homelessness. We will (eventually) be looking for co-sponsors. If you think your club or organization is interested, or if you as an individual are interested in getting involved, join our listserve, facebook group, come to our Thursday meetings, or e-mail me, Rachel Downs at red1103@brandeis.edu.

Get ready for our next BIG (big) event coming in December! Monday December 6th from 8-9:30 around Massell pond and in the Shapiro Dorm Lounge, there will be hot cocoa, cookies, and conversation and lights and holidays, both physically and metaphorically. Hope to see you there!

love- Rachel and BIG

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