CCJU's Annual Conference Promotes Inter-Religious Respect and Harmony

News Story: August 1, 2010
From right, Brigitte Kahl, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, spoke with Rabbi Susan Cowchock, M.D. and Rabbi Reba Carmel during the CCJU's "Colleagues in Dialogue" conference in May.  They were discussing Kahl’s book, "Galatians Re-Imagined."

The work of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University is much more subtle than the handshake that took place in 1978 between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a Muslim, and Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkranz, the inaugural, and now emeritus, executive director of the CCJU.

Though less obvious, the efforts of the CCJU are no less symbolic or important. Since its founding in 1992, the Center has worked to create the underpinnings of a more tolerant and understanding society, one in which such a symbolic gesture as the handshake between people of disparate religions becomes routine, literally and metaphorically.

Through the programs of the CCJU, including its annual conferences, the Institute for Seminarians and Rabbinical Students and Colleagues in Dialogue, there are about 350 people who have extended their hands across the divide, and often their hearts, says David L. Coppola, Ph.D., executive director of the CCJU. Both programs aim to be intellectually stimulating, spiritually inspiring and personally fulfilling while promoting the mission of the CCJU, which works to advance greater knowledge, understanding and harmony among religions. Further, it encourages the faithful to remain rooted in one’s own beliefs while being open to those of others.

“The Institute is hugely responsible for giving me the insight to know just how powerful and meaningful this kind of conversation could be,” said Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, of New London Synagogue in England.

The CCJU began the Institute 12 years ago, bringing seminarians and rabbinical students to the Sacred Heart University campus where they visit each other’s houses of worship, listen to national and international speakers all of whom are experts in the field of inter-religious dialogue, and they engage in joint text study. They talk about prayer and liturgy, they talk about history.

“At the end of the experience I hope they will be empowered to be involved in inter-religious dialogue in their communities,” Coppola said.

Many of them are. Past participants are working in their own communities as pastors and rabbis and academics; they are spreading the good word and making a difference, Coppola said. “That’s the power of education. We’re in it for the long vision, planting seeds of peace, building bridges of hope, promoting paths to understanding,” Coppola said.

The success of the Institute led in 2006 to the creation of an annual professional development program, called Colleagues in Dialogue, a three-day program held in New York City. The Colleagues in Dialogue program builds off the work of the Institute for Seminarians and Rabbinical Students, with one major difference. They are not seminarians and rabbinical students anymore. “They are all in ministry now so they bring real life experience and greater depth to the conversation,” Coppola said.

Colleagues in Dialogue participants share text study or scripture study, they engage in cultural events or activities from walking through a Jewish neighborhood in the city or going to an art museum or taking in a Broadway play. “There is always something going on in New York City that is of inter-religious interest,” he said.

“Coming to the Seminarians conference in 2009 and the follow up clergy conference in 2010 has had a profound impact upon my rabbinate. These conferences have shown me other faith traditions in an open, trusting, non-judgmental manner. They have been run with grace, warmth, respect and good humor. I have met remarkable people who are ever mindful of serving their communities with integrity. The honest exchanges, learning, personal and professional warmth that was evident in the community was inspiring,” said Rabbi Reba Carmel, who engages in volunteer work with the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia.

Lauren Kurland; education director at Congregation Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, said she was struck by the depth and breadth of the material participants studied in the 2004 Institute. “We could openly discuss topics as serious as Israel and the Holocaust without fearing judgment. We asked difficult questions of one another,” she said.

Kurland has also attended the Colleagues in Dialogue program and said of it, “The material continues to be engaging and thought-provoking. I am able to bring back to my community a better understanding of the complexities of religion in America.”

“I am active in inter-faith efforts, but nowhere have I been able to be as frank and as curious about aspects of our varied faiths and beliefs as I am at Colleagues in Dialogue. The unique aspect of this program is that we learn from invited lecturers and study each other’s texts together. Our study supports personal and reflective dialogue that would otherwise be very difficult to initiate,” said Rabbi F Susan Cowchock, M.D., who serves at Duke University Medical Center as a multi-faith chaplain in the Emergency Department and in the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Clinic.

Christian-Jewish relations have changed dramatically in the past 40 years due to the efforts of people of faith and good will, Coppola said. “We believe that the 350 seminarians and rabbinical students who have benefited from the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding’s programs will help to ensure respectful, cooperative and peaceful relations for generations to come.”