Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, discusses the challenges of interreligious community building, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, www.CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We are delighted to have Rori Picker Neiss with us today for a discussion on The Challenges of Interreligious Community Building. Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. Prior to her current role, she was the director of programming, education, and community engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation, a modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue in University City, Missouri. Maharat Neiss is one of the first graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic, or Jewish legal, authorities. She previously worked at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the American Jewish Committee as acting director for Religions for Peace USA, and secretariat for the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, the formal Jewish representative in international interreligious dialogue. She is also chair of the North American Interfaith Youth Network of Religions for Peace, a Rabbis Without Borders fellow, and co-editor of Interactive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook.
Rori, thanks very much for joining us today. I thought you could get us started by talking about the work that you do vis-à-vis interreligious community building, and what the main challenges are that you see, as well as why it is so important to do this work.
NEISS: Great. Well, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the Council on Foreign Relations for organizing this call and for all of you for taking some of your time out of your day to engage in this conversation. I feel really honored and privileged to take part in this.
When I think about interreligious community building, I think about really a broad spectrum of activities that are included within that. And all of these activities share the goal of trying to bring together communities of faith, particularly because we want people to learn about each other, but more so than ever I think in this political climate that we’re in, also to show support for one another. Where people feel like some communities of faith are isolated or that our faiths become tools to create divisions between people, the ability for groups to come together in very public ways and stand with one another has become a really profound image in our society.
Sometimes these community-building activities can be in the form of dialogue. And that’s probably the most common that people talk about, but not exclusively. And so when we think about interreligious community building at the Jewish Community Relations Council here in St. Louis, it does take the form of dialogue groups. But we also have—to just give two other examples of some of the programs that we run—we have a Jewish and Muslim day of community service on Christmas Day. We’ve been doing that for seven years.
We’re just starting to plan our eighth year now. Last year we had about a thousand volunteers come together to twenty different sites on Christmas, both to give back to the community in general, sometimes to free up Christian volunteers or Christian employees who otherwise want to be home with their families in industries where you can’t just take a day off easily. And, again, to have this very public show of the two communities that people sometimes see in conflict coming together.
Another program that we’ve had now for a great number of years is a program we call Arts & Faith St. Louis, where we bridge together the arts communities and faith communities to learn about each other through our music. And we have an annual concert around September 11 each year, where we have our different faith traditions bring—it could be a choir or some other kind of musical performance. And there’s something about sitting in the audience and hearing all of the different kinds of music just blend together, where the emphasis really is not that all of our music sounds the same, but that when we put it together the harmonies make something so much more beautiful than each of the individual voices.
So that’s some of what I think about when I think about interreligious community building. I do want to take some time to talk about some of the challenges that we face. But I don’t, in talking about the challenges, want to feel in any way overly negative about this work. I think this work is so necessary and the rewards are so vast. But I think we just need to be mindful of some of the pitfalls that we have to work around. The challenges that I want to share with you today are challenges that I have encountered in my own work, and mostly challenges that I’ve noticed in myself. The bad news, so to speak, is that I believe that these are pitfalls most of us fall into in some shape or form. But the upside is that for most of these challenges the most crucial element is really awareness. There’s no magic formula for eliminating these challenges other than sitting with them and being mindful of them as we navigate through this field.
The first challenge I want to offer—and the reason why I am actually really intimidated to be the one speaking to all of you right now—is the pitfall of thinking that we know what we’re doing. I say that somewhat flippantly, but I really mean it earnestly. Every relationship that we come into is unique. Being married to a person doesn’t make us an expert of everyone of that gender, everyone in their field, everyone of their ethnicity. Knowing one person doesn’t mean that we know groups of people. There are tools for interreligious dialogue, but there’s no formula for interreligious dialogue. And ultimately, we have to encounter each person anew.
When we build relationships with people, or with groups of people, and we feel that we know them, and we understand them, when we think that we know their community or their faith tradition, we become complacent. We don’t ask questions. We assume what we know about them, and about others like them. And ultimately, we find ourselves relying on stereotypes and misconceptions, just like the people that we denounce for not being open-minded enough to learn about others. So that’s the danger of us thinking that we know.
But even within the relationships we do have and that we do cultivate, and that we successfully cultivate, we also have a challenge of thinking that we understand. Because as one person speaks, and as another person listens, we think that we have understood the words that we’ve heard when, in fact, we’ve translated those words into concepts that we understand. And fundamentally, we have to remember that we speak different languages.
As a Jewish person, I can tell you that I believe in God, that I believe that God has a plan for all of humanity, that I believe that God is just and merciful. And you might hear that, and you might think that makes sense to you. You may even think that you believe the same thing. Yet, our understanding of God might be fundamentally different. Our understanding of the ultimate goals of humanity might be fundamentally different. Our understanding of justice might be fundamentally different. And our understanding of mercy might be fundamentally different.
And so we walk away from each other thinking we’ve had this wonderful exchange. And we might even think, you know what, we’re really alike. We think we know what the other person believes when, in fact, we actually have no idea. Now, let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing what another person believes. But I do believe there’s something wrong with thinking that we know what the other person believes, when we don’t. We forget sometimes that interfaith relationships are like every other relationship. I don’t claim to know what it was like for you to grow up in your country, or your city, or even your household. There are tens of thousands, if not more, of factors that contribute to what makes each of us the people that we are. And religion is one of them, not an insignificant one, but one of them.
And the words that we use try to paint a picture, but even the words that we use are based, at our core, on so many other facets of our lives. So we have to remember that we speak different languages in this process. And I want to emphasize here that very often minorities have to learn to speak majority languages, but majorities don’t always have to learn how to speak minority languages. As a Jewish person, I have never heard someone describe a minister as a Christian rabbi. I have never heard anyone call the Bible the Christian Torah. Yet, we learn to translate.
But, as we know, translations are always interpretations. I may not regard my Torah the same way a Christian might regard a Bible in terms of authority, in terms of sanctity, in terms of how I approach it to study. And if I translate the Torah as the Jewish Bible, I may be saying to someone that they should think that their relationship to Bible is my relationship to Torah. Which it fundamentally can never be, not only because the Bible’s different than the Torah, and not only because the traditions around each one are different, but because I am a different person than they are. And if they think they know me because they know themselves, then we haven’t gotten anywhere. And we no longer think we need to try, because we think we’ve finished our work.
So language is insufficient to overcome these obstacles alone. And more and more, we are exploring ways to add other ways to encounter one another—through shared action, shared advocacy, shared art like I referenced earlier. And I think these are wonderful. I believe that they often can do far more than sitting across the table listening to one another. At the same time, we have to caution ourselves not to use interreligious encounters to support our already-existing preconceived notions, of course about other people but more than that I mean about ourselves.
We like to enter these spaces to validate what we already think about ourselves. We tell ourselves that we’re tolerant, that we’re open, we’re not racist or anti-Semitic. And I hope that’s true about all of us. But we can often enter this realm looking to support that, rather than being open to what we might discover. And in that, we enter interreligious communities closed off to some of the painful realities that we might hear. We look and listen with an eye and an ear to what we like and what we dislike, what we want to tell people, how we want to react, instead of experiencing the other person in the totality of who they are.
And so this brings me to the final challenge that I want to highlight today, and perhaps the most important challenge that I see in interreligious community building. And that is the challenge of choosing our partners. Oftentimes we find ourselves in self-selecting spaces. Those who come to the interreligious program are inherently people open to talking about their religion and learning about others. Those who believe that everyone else is going to hell, that other religions are evil, that they have the only answers—well, they tend to stay home. And that’s hard. And there might not be a lot that we can do about that.
People who don’t want to join the conversation can’t be forced to join the conversation. There’s other avenues that we take in order to build relationships with them. But we can’t force them into an encounter that they don’t want. But we also have a process, whether it’s consciousness or subconsciously, of choosing our partners. Not just those who choose to enter, but we chose those with whom we wanted to work. And we often choose the people with whom we enjoy talking and working. There’s nothing wrong with liking the people with whom you work. It makes this endeavor a lot more fun and we can get a lot further. But in choosing the people that we like, we leave out the people we don’t like. And we cut off the ideas that we find challenging.
Our job, I believe, is not to only talk to those that we like, but to talk to the people we don’t like. It’s probably the biggest criticism that I face in my work, are the people who will come to me and say: Why are you talking to that person? They—fill in the blank—they don’t support our values enough. They don’t vote the way that we vote. They don’t align themselves with us on in every other space. They have spoken negatively about the Jewish community. They have stood with someone who has been openly anti-Semitic. Why would you talk to them?
And our instinct is to publicly denounce people and say: We will not work with you. And I have to tell people, my job is exactly to talk to those people. If I only talk to the people that I like talking to, my day would be so much more pleasant and my life would be far easier, but I couldn’t justify the job that I have. This work is hard to do, but it’s supposed to be hard. That’s the whole point. And it’s only when we really engage in the difficult work that the rewards that came come from it, the advancements that we could make, the obstacles we can overcome, the lessons we can learn, and the partnerships that we can form become so much more meaningful because we’ve actually changed lives in the process, instead of just going back to the pitfalls I named, of reaffirming what we always wanted to believe about ourselves by just picking the people who already affirm that for us.
So with that, I will pause and open it up for questions.
FASKIANOS: Rori, thank you so much for that—your reflection on this work. And we look forward to everybody’s questions and comments. So please line up so we can hear from you as well.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. Our first question will come from Ruth Messinger, American Jewish World Service.
MESSINGER: Rori, that was fantastic. Thank you very, very much. I am doing huge amounts of—or, making huge efforts at various kinds of international interfaith work and some local work. And I guess it would be wonderful if you would describe in a little bit of detail some of the programs you’ve set up, particularly ones, as you said, that go beyond just dialogue, and some of the challenges you face in getting groups together to do work together.
NEISS: Sure. I’m just taking some notes on that. First of all, it’s great to hear from you. Very often I think we think about the different kinds of programs—especially for the groups that are harder to engage—finding those backdoor entrances becomes really crucial. And so this is different, obviously, for every group. A lot of this is starting off with one-on-one conversations. So not necessarily the broader group dialogues but sitting down with one person and starting to brainstorm what the needs are of each community, and ways that the other communities could benefit those needs. And those needs sometimes could be very public needs. So it could be, you know, ways that they want to sort of see themselves differently. Or they could be very practical needs within the community.
And so right now, for example, this isn’t necessarily interreligious, but in the broader realm of intergroup, we’ve been doing a lot of work with the Latino community and bringing together. So we have a dialogue group we’ve had for many years with Latinos and Jews and Latino Jews. And we really tried to, though, step in—that was a self-selected group, people who wanted to come to the table. Fifteen or twenty people who consistently come. But what we were finding was that within the broader communities, there were not only resistances to participating, but a lot of misconceptions. And so as a Jewish community, we started to really step into the conversation about immigration, particular DACA, some refugee resettlement as well, which also brings in some of the—we do a lot of work with the Muslim community on that.
But we really started to engage in some of that political conversation. And so what we’ve now been doing has been—we’ve been bringing together faith leaders for joint press conferences, joint meetings with congressional leaders. We can elevate their conversations in ways that some of the other faith leaders have trouble with, because they are just not as organized as faith communities or they are not as connected with some of the interfaith community. This is just very much our particular experience here in St. Louis. And so that has been a path where it’s not necessarily a Jewish issue, in the sense that the DACA recipients we’re talking about or some of the immigration policies don’t tend to impact the Jewish community today in ways that they once did.
But because the Jewish community feels an obligation to talk about immigration because of our history, we’ve been able to bring the Jewish community into that dialogue, and then bring our partners in the broader Hispanic Latino community to work with us. And through that joint advocacy, have now started to really build some stronger relationships that have not really gotten to the level of dialogue. I don’t think dialogue is the end-goal with that. But they’ve gotten to that interreligious, intergroup community building. So that’s just one example that I can offer here.
I’m happy to talk about some others, but I think that the broader theme is really about how we go about engaging in the process of really identifying it with the partner community. It’s not something that any one of us can just create the program. It has to be a program that the partner communities are engaged in from the beginning, have identified as a need or as a desire that they have, and have recognized the benefits of the partnership. Anytime any one group steps in—and I’m not accusing anyone here of doing it, but just want to warn here as another potential challenge—whenever one group announces that they have an initiative to help another group, that immediately creates a power dynamic and a hierarchy that makes real community impossible. And so it’s about starting at the ground level.
MESSINGER: Got it. That makes a lot of a sense. Thanks.
FASKIANOS: Thanks, Ruth. Let’s take the next question or comment.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Bruce Knotts, Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office.
KNOTTS: Hello. This is Bruce.
Thank you so much for a really wonderful presentation. I try to do much of what you’re saying here at the United Nations and work on an interfaith basis on a number of issues. And there are some issues, like climate change for example, where there’s a lot of interfaith agreement on what we need to do. There are other issues. And you mentioned choosing your partner. We are one of the only, in some ways, faith-based organizations here working on LGBT issues. And that’s an area where there’s a lot of sort of interfaith discord on that, and an inability, I think, for different faith traditions to allow people to choose their own partners. So I’d like your comments on that. I do feel that sometimes if we can work together on one issue, that builds rapport and helps build bridges so that the more contentious issues might be dealt with in a friendlier, more helpful manner. But I’d be interested in your comments. Thank you.
NEISS: Thank you for the question. I agree with you. I do think that where we can find commonality then creates trust, where we can start to delve into some of the more challenging questions. But there’s a fear that people have around that. And I’m not certain if the fear that people have is where it is a personal fear, and where it’s a fear of others. What I’m trying to say is, so we have a group within St. Louis that brings together our interfaith communities. And historically, the group had agreed that they would not deal with certain issues that were understood to be very contentious. So, for example, Israel-Palestine. It was just sort of understood that the group would not debate this, that this would not a topic that came up.
And I recall being at a meeting a number of months ago where, however it was that it came up, somebody had asked a question about issuing a statement of whatever it was. And somebody in the group said: Oh, we don’t talk about that. And I remember, it was the Jewish representative and the Muslim representative said, well, why not? We want to talk about it. And it was those who—you know, there was sort of this perception that our two communities could not engage in this conversation. And so the others agreed that they would step out of it as well. And it was really our communities that said: No. Like, we have to talk about this. We’re still working on that process. We’re not really there yet.
But there is—we have to deal with this on two levels. There are the people who really are uncomfortable engaging in it. And then there’s the people who are scared of what will happen if they engage with it. Many of our communities have segments that are doing very active work on LGBTQ issues, right? The Jewish community certainly is not universal in their stance on it, but definitely has groups within it that are incredibly active on this. But if I were coming as a representative of the entire Jewish community, I might be afraid of who within my community will support me doing this work on it, or there might be others who just feel like this is going to be too hard.
And that’s where I come back to, this is hard. (Laughs.) Like, we have to just hold that. Nothing about the things that we do are easy. And I think all of us would know that nothing that has ever been worth doing was not hard to do. And so that’s a matter of really having some direct conversations with people, to really have them understand that we can’t be afraid of the consequences of having the conversation. We have to be more afraid of the consequences of not having these conversations. These issues are becoming bigger and bigger.
They are—they are profound issues for the people in the communities and for our entire society that is impacted by how those in our community are mistreated, whether LGBTQ individuals, racism, poverty—I mean, all of these issues where we have marginalized people. If we are not willing to engage with those people and about the issues that they’re facing, then we’ve created an interreligious community that feels good for us and where we get to pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we’ve done really great things, but we’ve actually had very little impact on the world.
So that’s really just emphasizing why it’s important. The process for how we get there is a process of that relationship building. So I think you’re on the right path in terms of highlighting the good you can do together, but I think it’s also sitting down with people and lobbying for it. You know, getting those people one-on-one to understand that if this is something real, then we can’t be afraid of what might come out from it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Soraya Deen, Muslim Women Speakers Movement.
DEEN: OK. Thank you. Rori, I got onto the call a little late, but, I mean, the words you said were like an oasis in the desert for me. I have had a lot of deep challenge where I feel—I feel that there is this tendency for people to determine that the liberty of one person to speak has to be decided by another group. In fact, I have been—a fellowship to me was rescinded on this ground because I was speaking to another group that the main group didn’t approve. So I was—I just wanted to ask you if and when you face such a challenge, how did you overcome it? And I can’t stress enough, as you did, it is so necessary that we go to the other side, befriend them, talk to them, and build that relationship. But how do you convince your side that this is necessary to be done?
NEISS: That is such a great question. And that’s probably my—(laughs)—that’s probably my greatest weakness. I have had to really learn the hard way that I really need to take a lot more time. I sometimes take for granted—you know, these needs come in, and I think: We have to show up. We have to just go and show up. And I believe that to be true. But I realize that I take for granted a lot of things that we’re discussing here. I live in a world of faith leaders and of interreligious leaders, who all take for granted that the work that we do is important. And then I encounter people who at their core just haven’t thought about it.
I get—you know, the Jewish Community Relations Council was founded about eighty years in St. Louis after Kristallnacht, after Nazis marched down Europe and we were having Nazi movements in the U.S. I always joke that we thought we were past that, but now we’re back to that again. But we were founded on the basis that the Jewish community was at its strongest when we were in partnership with others. And that’s really evolved for us, where the Jewish community is in a very different place than it was eighty years ago.
And so, I have—people will come to me in the Jewish community and they’ll say: You always tell us that we need to work on this issue for the African-American community, for the Muslim community, for the Catholic community—whatever the community. You’re telling me we need to do this for them. What do they do for us? And I turn to them—which is, first of all, I want to be clear, they do a lot for us. Don’t get me wrong. But I turn to these people and I say: What do you need? Like, really, right? Like, what is it—you know, we used to work together on neighborhoods that wouldn’t allow Jews and blacks to buy houses, right? That’s not the issue the Jewish community is facing right now. We used to work on country clubs that wouldn’t let Jews in. That’s not the issues that we’re facing, right? The country wouldn’t welcome Jewish refugees. The refugees are not Jewish. That’s just not—you know, that’s not the issues that we’re facing.
And so we are trying to really shift the conversation right now to talk about what is the role that we want to have as a Jewish community, that oftentimes, you know, we sort of take for granted that—and I’m speaking now, of course, from my perspective in the Jewish community—but we sort of take for granted—we’ll say, oh, the Jewish community has always worked on race relations. The Jewish community has always supported better immigration policies, right? We say these things, but the average person—historically, that’s true. Statistically, that’s true. The average person I encounter doesn’t really involve themselves in those.
And so we’ve had to stop and actually go back and do educational programs, meet with people, explain to people. We’ve had to justify things that we’ve always just said because we just believe them in our hearts. And now we have to find the language of why is this important, and to shift the language from I’m doing this because one day I’ll need them to this is who we want to be as a community, right? That’s really core for me, to say that this is who we want to be as Jews, not I’m going to do it because I might need their help one day. Because if it’s them, I might need their help one day, then why would I go to that group? That group’s never going to be the group that will ultimately help me. I go to that group because it’s who I want to be as a person, and who I want our faith community to be.
DEEN: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Carlyle Stewart, Empowerment Church.
STEWART: Good afternoon. Thank you so much for the presentation. It’s very enlightening. And I appreciate it very, very much. And I’m thankful to have the opportunity to be a part of this conversation today. As you were presenting your information today, I was thinking about my own experience here in Southfield, Michigan, when we organized an interfaith group of different religions that came together to have continuing conversation, first about who each person was as a representative of that particular religion, and that conversation continued for quite some time until people got a better understanding or a correct understanding of what those religions stood for. And then we began to co-intentionally participate in events together that—in which we shared common ground, and we talked about our experiences, and we began to see the common values that we had and did that in the context of community with a show of support at various times.
But I have a question regarding the culture that we currently live in, and the processes of dismemberment that I see going on, continuing in the larger culture where the media informs and helps to shape consciousness about religions and about people. And oftentimes, the media has a way of shaping those conversations in adversarial contexts. We see this whole issue playing out oftentimes with different groups and different religions. And I speak also of the Christian faith, where we have sometimes people speaking words that further alienate and further denigrate and devalue people with different points of view, rather than seeing and affirming the things that we have in common. And that concerns me in terms of the larger media, and the sweep of language that shapes consciousness in the context of the public sphere, and how that oftentimes, as people work individually to build common ground and to remove the walls, to lay them down, to make them into bridges. But then you have a larger culture that oftentimes foments those divisions and creates separation and alienation rather than helping us to understand what our common ground is as we share value systems that are similar, as we share faith traditions that are connected and have continuity.
One of the great paradoxes for me, as a Christian minister, is the disconnect that we often have with our Jewish parentage, in terms of the historical connections and antecedents of Judaism, and how Judaism informs the practice of Christianity, and how there’s a great disconnect because of the hermeneutical divisions that have occurred, and how we interpret texts and how texts are redacted, and how that carries forth into the building of separate enclaves of religious practice that don’t really value the historical commonality and common ground that we really have. And even with the Muslim faith, in terms of the values there, and all of the other religions that have core values that are very, very similar. How do we, in the context of the media conversation that is going on that keeps us suspicious and seeks to divide and to separate and to devalue and even demean our religious practice, how do we overcome that kind of propaganda that’s often put out?
Martin Marty has done an excellent study on fundamentalism. And he talks about basic aspects of that in terms of the different points of view, and the more progressive religions, and things of this nature. I guess my question is, is in our current culture, where there’s so much division and so much separation, how do we begin to—or continue the conversation in ways so that we can see what we have in common. How do we shape the discourse and the public dialogue? Why aren’t more of us on talk shows or in these media spaces, sharing information that will provide a kind of corrective understanding of who we are as people of faith and different religions? I think that’s the question that I have, because I see some work that’s doing on the—being done on the individual level, but then I look at the larger spaces in which the rhetoric flourishes about how this group is that way or that group is this way, or—which, to me, doesn’t really help to bring together us. I guess that’s basically the question I have.
NEISS: You touch on something that is really at the core of the world that we’re seeing today. And there’s a few things that I want to bring out in what you said. And I’m jotting down notes quickly, so I’ll try to do this in a coherent manner, but if I jump around just try to bear with me. One of the things that I think we have to think about in this work are our multiple audiences. There are going to be people who are just never going to be interested in interreligious community. That’s just not who they are. That’s not their priority. And much as I love it, and I think everyone should do it, and I think our world would be better for it, that’s just not—that’s not their focus. They might have other priorities. They might just be too busy with day-to-day life. And so, we often have to think about working on multiple levels.
I often think that—I work in both reality and perception. So, to go back to the example I started with, of our Jewish and Muslim day of community service. So St. Louis is not a huge city. Like I said, last year, this past Christmas, we had about a thousand volunteers, which was very significant for us. There are people who have never been to a day of service—Jewish or Muslim. They’ve never been because even though they don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s Christmas break. And their kids are off from school. And that’s when they go skiing, or they go to visit family, or they go to Europe, or whatever they might choose to do. They have never stepped foot in a Jewish and Muslim day of community service.
Maybe the Jewish person has never met a Muslim person and the Muslim person has never met a Jewish person. But if you asked them: Does the Jewish community and the Muslim community have a good relationship? They would say yes, because they know that that project happens. And that, to me, is success. Them knowing it—whether or not they participate in it, them knowing it, because so often the relationships we have are the relationships we think we have. If I think that we’re in a fight, then we’re in a fight. And if I think we’re good, then we’re good. And so when we think about our audiences, we’re thinking not just of who comes to the table, but who knows that this is happening. And this comes to, I think, the real core of your question, which is that many of us are very good at being faith leaders. We’re very good at running organizations. We’re not very good at media relations, or we’re not very good at self-promotion. You know, we do this work, but we don’t often do a good job of telling people about it.
And that’s a communications question. That’s really not, I think, a fundamental interreligious question. We actually invested—for our day of service this year, we invested a few thousand dollars in hiring a company that did media relations. And we made sure that we go on the cover of the local newspaper. We were certainly in the Jewish newspaper. We were on about four or five news channels a few times over the course of the day. And we paid for some of that. You know, that was—every year we do a press release, but there was someone who was calling up the stations, and pitching the stories, and helping us frame it. I even—I actually don’t even know what they did. I just know that we paid money and that we got what we wanted. You know, but we got our story out. And so I think we do need to really think about how we tell our story and where we bring in experts who help with that.
I also do—I do want to think about this—the dangers of the propaganda and the negative media, not only—it certainly is a negative, but it actually also becomes a tool that we have. The fact that the media likes to talk about the divisions between our faith communities, means that when I show up at a legislator’s office with a few rabbis, some priests, some imams, some—you know, representatives from all across the faith traditions. And we say, all of us agree, we need to talk to you about climate change, we need to talk to you about fair immigration policies, they actually seem to listen a little bit more because they actually don’t think that we talk to each other. Which I laugh at, because we talk to each other all the time. I know that, but they don’t know that. And so that becomes a weapon to—I don’t want to be so harsh on it—but it really is a tool that we use.
I’ve had legislators who have—who have come to me and thinking, like, we’re—they say, oh, you know, just Judeo-Christians. But not the Muslims. And we say, nope. Actually, those are our friends. Let me come and introduce you. And they stop, and they go: Oh. Wait, you talk to them? And we say, yeah, we do. Come to this next meeting. Come to this program we’re having. And so I certainly wish the media was doing it differently. I don’t want to say that is a good thing.
But I want to encourage you to think about how you could utilize that as a tool, how you can then say: If you think that this is the problem in our world, if you think that our Christian and Jewish communities are not working well together, then I’ve got a story for you. Because I’ve got two people who are working together. I’ve got this project that’s working between our communities. And you can pitch it like that, and sort of make it that sensationalist story. But you know what? Whatever gets you on their show.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question or comment.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Gregory Han, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.
HAN: Rori, thank you so much for your time. I’ve got kind of two questions, but I promise I will ask a question and it’ll be one question. The first is what I’m hearing is this tension, I think, between community building/support and advocacy. Because I think sometimes when we start going into the advocacy, I think that desire to be open sometimes can—the perception can be that it will shut down, because once you start making choices about certain causes, that can create the perception that you are a group that leans a certain way or a certain way. So that’s one tension.
The question I want to ask is very practical, about funding. And it’s about scaling. I totally agree that one of the tensions—or one of the issues we have is that it’s so contextual, our interfaith work. What I’m able to do here in Houston is very different than what you can do in St. Louis and what can be done in southern Michigan. How do you find that tension or that—between the particularity of what our work calls for, as well as—and then trying to figure out how to scale it? Because there aren’t a thousand of you on staff. And so you’ve got to figure out a way how to multiply yourself when potentially, you know, funding isn’t multiplying itself in reality.
NEISS: Yeah. Those are both tensions I sit with often. You know, to go to your comment just a moment in terms of when we shift over to advocacy. I agree with your point. I also think that there’s a role for faith leaders to play in recasting conversations. I don’t believe that the advocacy work that we do is saying, you know, we support the Democrats’ plan or we support the Republicans’ plan, or whatever it is. You know, I’m very much a believer in sort of looking at this debate—you know, pick whatever it is. I don’t want to presume anyone’s politics or start getting in the weeds of it.
But, you know, if we want to start to debate health care reform, it doesn’t have to be whose proposal we like better, but that we have faith voices to say we believe that every person has inherent dignity and right to treatment and care that best enables them to live their best lives, and that that’s—you know, whichever side we fall out on, right, how do we recast this conversation to say that we want to put people at the center? We want to put our values at the center? And that’s what religious voices can do.
So I don’t think that we step in to say, you know, who we’re voting for. But we like to remind people of the values that need to be at the core. And those values can drive you to very different conclusions, but the values are where we can come together. But to go back to your actual question in terms of funding, you know, why the world doesn’t just put billions of dollars into this, I have no idea. You know, this just seems like the most obvious thing to me. But you’re right, I mean, these are challenges. Part of this, I think, has been the more that we can engage individual people, the more people understand what we do, and that helps in terms of some of it.
But I think your question was less about how we get more money, which I’m open to suggestions, but really about some of the choices that we have to make. You know, we really do ultimately have to create priorities in which we are determining where our resources are best used. And for us, we have just started going through a process of really evaluating with our board and with other community leaders, to, first of all, look at the larger scale of what else is happening in the community. And so if there are places that others are doing the work, I step out of it because there’s not enough resources for us to fight over the same work. If someone else has the dialogue group, good. It’s happening. Like, I’m not in that. So that’s one big piece of it.
Another big piece is really thinking about where we see some of the biggest need. So either it could be a community that we think we don’t have a strong enough relationship or we think there’s growing tension or perception of tension where we need to focus more efforts, or it could be an issue where we think we need to bring our communities together on that issue. And a factor that we do also think about—we think about a number of factors in it, but we think about what we have the capacity to do, where we can actually move the needle. Not that we don’t all get involved in things where it feels like we’re banging our head against the wall, but—and we need those sometimes. But, you know, it’s where we actually think that our work will make the most difference.
And sometimes it’s also thinking about the most bang for our buck. You know, where do we—what’s the most public that we can do? Sometimes it’s also thinking about partner communities that we know can help with that. You know, who’s going to have some of the staff that can do the work? Who do we need to carry, and who can carry us? And so there’s a lot of navigating through that process as we determine how to move forward. There’s no magic formula for that, but I think we often need to balance little bits and pieces of each one. Sometimes the greatest need is not where the attention is. And sometimes we need to do the work where we get attention, because that’s then going to enable us to get the support to do the work where we need.
And going back to the previous comment, you know, sometimes in doing the work where we get the most attention, we build up goodwill and we build up credentials to then be able to say to people: I know you don’t think this is important, but I’m telling you this is going to be a big deal. And people sit up a little bit more. So that’s a constant navigation process that we’re going through.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Barbara McBee, Soka Gakkai International.
MCBEE: First of all, thank you so much for your insight. Before I ask my question, I wanted to say to all of you, in light of Carlyle’s question about how do we get back to all of our roots, Soka Gakkai is an Nichiren Buddhist tradition. And our roots are in Shakyamuni. So the work that I’ve been doing very personally for the last twenty years has been intra-faith, other Buddhisms, or interfaith, with other Christianities. And Dr. Monte Cox—I’m going to share this with all of you—from Harding University, has been bringing his students from Harding to Chicago, which is where I am, with the understanding and the realization that most of his students will likely become some form of missionary. But they needed to have a better understanding of where they might find themselves in the scheme of things after graduation. And Soka Gakkai became one of their sisters, if you will.
And so he has written a book called Significant Others, getting to know your neighbors of other faith traditions and why, especially now in this climate, this is important. I edited the chapter on Buddhism, but this would be perhaps a good talking piece for any Judeo-Christian folks. There’s Hinduism there. There’s Buddhism there. He really covers the gamut, and I’m quite proud.
But the question that I have is: Under the language of assumption, you walk into a room and people seem to believe they understand how you practice your Buddhist tradition, or they seem to believe that your root of Christianity is the same, or that you should have all the same understanding of Judaism. How do you overcome that language of assumption? And suppose—and it’s just an interfaith dialogue. You have not brought issues to the table or things that need to be handled. You’re simply going to dialogue, well, how do you get along as differing faiths? How are you supposed to function on this planet together? That’s my question.
NEISS: Sorry, I just want to clarify. Are you asking in terms of how we overcome the perception that people already understand what you do? Or how, by being different, do we just live together?
MCBEE: For example, every tradition of Buddhism practices a little bit differently. But at its root, we all have Shakyamuni. So when you enter a room, there are perhaps assumptions in your language as a Jewish person. And so how do you overcome, wherever you are, that language of assumption and that purported knowing?
NEISS: Great. So I think there’s a few different things that we can think about in terms of overcoming those assumptions. Part of it is, on some level, I think the challenge is to ourselves personally. So can we enter a room and make sure that we are remaining open to the people we are encountering, and not just assuming that we know because they might be of the same faith tradition, or of the same faith tradition of someone that we have met and encountered and built a relationship. I think trying as much as possible for us, in speaking about our traditions, to mention the range. And this might be—(laughs)—in some ways, we sort of joke about this. It’s a very Jewish concept, you know, to talk about the multitude of opinions.
But I think that in spaces where I’m the only Jewish person, I try to be very cognizant of making sure that people don’t think that I, therefore, am the Jewish person that they know. And as much as possible—it’s confusing and it’s hard, and I’m not sure if it’s very effective, but trying as much as possible to say: Here’s what I do. Here’s what other people do. Or here’s why I do it. Sometimes intentionally bringing things up that I know is going to throw people off, because I know that it’s just easy to settle in. And so I try to shake it up. But I would actually say, as much as possible, to not have just one person.
We have a program that we do that brings Jewish teens to area high schools to speak about their Judaism. As much as I think that I’m a fabulous speaker, in turns out sixteen-year-olds much prefer to hear from other sixteen-year-olds—which is shocking to me, but there we are. And so we bring these teens to high schools. And they just talk about their lives. And we always will have either three or four teens. And we try to make sure that they represent a wide array, because for a lot of the teens that they are visiting, this is the first Jewish people—these are the first Jewish people that they’ve encountered. And I don’t want them to leave thinking, OK, now I’ve met a Jewish person. And Jewish people dress like this, or look like this, or talk like this, or eat like this, or whatever they’ve heard.
And so we make sure that we have this spectrum. And so when they talk about—they’ll get asked—number-one question they’ll get asked is: Would you date someone non-Jewish? You know what? Every one of them has a different answer. And that’s crucial for me, that when they are presenting, that nobody leaves and says: Oh, Jews don’t date non-Jews. Or, Jews date non-Jews. Depends on who it is, right? I want them to leave knowing that there are some who do this and some who do this. And you know what? I just have to ask the next Jewish person I meet what their practice is.
So wherever possible, I try to make sure that I’m not the only Jewish person, and that we’re not just—you know, sometimes we try to create a universal language because it’s easier to explain things. I really try as much as possible to say: You know what? Here I am with this other person. And I’m going to tell you what I think. And they’re going to tell you something that might be the total opposite. And both of those are 100 percent Jewish.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Paul Waldau, Canisius College.
WALDAU: Rori, thank you very much for both the content and the tenor, the joy in your content and in your responses. It’s not unusual in interfaith dialogue to experience that, but I’m always thankful to be amidst it. Three quick questions. It struck me that there were several parallels to your insight that our job is to talk to the people we don’t like. The first one came early, with our job is obviously to listen to the people we don’t like as well, which is often a challenge. And secondly, our job sometimes will be to choose topics that potential conversation partners think valid, but with which we aren’t very familiar because back in our interfaith groups those are not topics engaged. So ecology sometimes is—has been raised here, but also local issues like animal protection of a particular non-human community. And then lastly, it may also be our job at times to engage non-religious people as community members. Just, can you comment on those? I know we’re late in the hour, but just as freely as you can?
NEISS: Sure. I think all of those—I’m so glad you brought all of those up. When I think about talking to those people we don’t like, I think fundamental to that has to be listening. And I’m so glad you highlighted that, because that cannot be emphasized enough. I think that oftentimes we’re very good at talking, and we’re not very good at listening. Or, we listen to hear the parts that we want to hear, and not to actually hear what the person is trying to say. And so I think our most important job anywhere is always to listen and to model that listening, and to be those that can be not just listeners, but active listeners. I mean, it really is not a passive stance. To really listen to another person is a very active, very engaged process. And that’s probably one of the most fundamental skills that we could build in this field.
I agree. You know, certainly for—to jump to the non-religious, you know, I’ve actually become more and more interested. Sometimes we talk about this as intergroup relations. You know, that what brings people together is not always about the faith that comes together. Sometimes there are those who are of no faith who still enter, or they might be coming with a different identity. Not as a negative identity, but they might be coming, you know, through their ethnic or political background, or whatever it might be. You know, certainly if we only—if we only engage the religious, then I think we contribute to the narrative that religions are the problem and therefore religions are trying to be the solution.
I don’t fundamentally believe that religions are the problem. I think that, to go back to what was said earlier, I think religions are at times manipulated. They can be corrupted. They can be misused and mischaracterized by media. I don’t think that inherently our religions are the problems in the world. And so if we only engage those who are of the faith, or of the faith communities we recognize, then we are engaging a limited pool of people under a certain assumption. And I think the goal that we have is to build relationships with all people, in whatever form that we can. You know, I think we talk about these as groups—and especially when we get to international and national levels, we have to think about them as groups. There’s just too many people.
But at the end of the day, it’s people. You know, it’s not that I’ve built a relationship with you as a representative of tens of thousands of people. I’ve built the relationship with you. And you, in turn, can bring people along. You might be able to mobilize people. You might be able to help me access people. But fundamentally, it’s people. And we need to get to people any way that we can. And so be mindful of that language of how we go about discussing these topics. And who is invited to the table I think is incredibly important. Because the work is ultimately about increasing understanding, combatting stereotypes, and working together so that we can better advance a better world for all of us. And that’s not the sole propriety of those in religious communities. That’s the responsibility of all people.
FASKIANOS: Well, Rori, what a wonderful note to end upon. Thank you very much for this terrific hour of dialogue. We really appreciate it. And I think we’re all leaving this call with greater insights. And we all have work to do in our own communities. So thank you very much.
NEISS: Thank you. I really appreciate the time you’ve all taken, and great questions.
FASKIANOS: Exactly. We encourage you to follow Rori Picker Neiss on Twitter at @RoriPN, and to consult her book, Interactive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook. And I also hope that you will follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. And again, if you have ideas of speakers, topics we should cover in this series, please email us at [email protected].
So thank you all again. Thank you to Rori. And we look forward to your continued participation in these discussions.