The idea of cross training future religious leaders may be unorthodox, but the Claremont School of Theology, a Christian institution with long ties to the Methodist Church, is collaborating with the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR,CA) and the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC) to create just such a program.
The experimental approach was launched on June 9, 2010, when it was announced at a press conference at Claremont. The program is intended to create U.S. religious leaders who not only preach tolerance in an era of religious strife, but who experienced it themselves by studying with those in other Abrahamic faiths.
Traditionally, seminaries have not only focused on single faiths, but often to specific denominations with those faiths. While the idea has already met with resistance from the more conservative elements in some religious communities, its architects say that only underscores the need for such an approach.
“We want our future religious leaders to understand the landscape in which they will be leading,” said Jerry Campbell, Claremont president, “… and to be able to see ‘the other’ as neighbor, friend, and co-worker.”
The organizations partnering with Claremont are the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, a 10-year-old, nondenominational rabbinical school in Westwood, and The Islamic Center of Southern California, a well-established mosque in Koreatown. The collaborative effort among the seminary, Jewish academy and Islamic center is believed to be the first to integrate the three studies.
Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, said he is excited about the potential for students to learn about other faiths, and “to create lasting bonds with the future leaders of different faiths.” However he also said that it was paramount that students receive a solid grounding in their own religion. “In no way are we going to water that down,” he emphasized.
“This offering of new class opportunities, new learning options, and sharing learning opportunities with others has not changed the fundamental identity of AJRCA,” Rabbi Gottlieb said, adding that “we are AJRCA and are now contributing to a consortium (CUP) …where students will have the opportunity to learn about other world religions. We in no way are suggesting compromise of our own values and beliefs. We are merely reaching out to create an institution in addition to our own, where our students can learn to understand and thus respect the teachings of other religions, so that they as future religious leaders can be prepared to create a more harmonious and loving world through evolved education and understanding.” Rabbi Gottlieb added that the faculty will decide which classes will be appropriate ones for students from different schools to partake in, and that there will also be a cap limit to the amount of students from other schools who will be able to attend each class.
Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs for the Islamic Center of Southern California, expressed a similar sentiment: “We are very proud to be joining as partners in this important and exciting project. The Qur’an teaches ‘O mankind, We have created you from a single male and a single female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may get to know one another (not that you may despise one another). Truly the best of you in the sight of God is the one who is most in awe of God…’”
Iman Turk added that Islam, in its true form, is promoting a culture of life: “We promote a theology that is inclusive, that is cooperative, and that is pluralistic in its tone and tenor. Fanatics who are promoting a theology of death claim that ‘the whole world is against us.’ When places like Claremont and the University Project model a way that religions can cooperate and have respect for one another, it is the strongest counter-argument to those who are promoting fear and hatred and violence.”
Today when there is such a gap in relationships with people who come from different traditions, it is often difficult to bridge that gap and truly understand or know the other. “It is not enough to speak in G-d’s name while ignoring the fundamental teaching of our tradition to love our neighbor as ourselves, or to treat others as we would like to be treated,” said Rabbi Gottlieb. “That is the basic principle of all religions, instead of an entity that divides people and creates friction and acrimony.”
“We at the Academy for Jewish Religion–California,” Rabbi Gottlieb continued, “have already in our own curriculum attempted to create a pluralistic, spiritual, text-based curriculum that develops students who can reach out to the entire Jewish community, and thus we are thrilled to create a consortium with our like minded brothers and sisters who wish to learn from us as we wish to learn from them. We are confident with G-d’s blessings we will create an institution that will turn out a generation of students fully equipped to build bridges in this world that will expand love, tolerance, justice and peace in this trying time on our planet.”
Rabbi Gottlieb added that in a world that suffers from a lack of knowledge of each other and the traditions that rule us, “religious leaders must look ourselves in the mirror and begin to think much larger thoughts of love, rather than remain crippled by our fears. I believe that it is our responsibility as religious leaders to show that religion can be a powerful force for unity and love in the world instead of it being captured by a spirit of divisiveness, based on fear of the other and ignorance of the other.”
Starting this fall, rabbinical students enrolled at the Academy of Jewish Religion’s California chapter will be able to study at Claremont. And by next year, the project will include an Islamic by working with the LA-based Islamic Center of Southern California. Classes at the Islamic institute will be taught by Claremont professors and will also be open to seminarians and rabbinical students. Eventually, Claremont hopes to add clerical programs for Buddhists and Hindus.