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A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Pastor Walked into a Moroccan Bazaar

My experience in Morocco opened my eyes to significant efforts in the Muslim world to combat religious extremism, intolerance and violence.
Rabbi Lauren Berkun is a Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, where she directs Rabbinic Initiatives and is a member of the senior executive team. She also oversees staff education, training and curriculum development for Hartman’s iEngage project. She is a summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, graduate of Princeton University with a BA in Religion and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Lauren was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, a

A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Pastor Walked into a Moroccan Bazaar

A rabbi, an imam, and a pastor walked into a Moroccan bazaar….That is how my whirlwind three-day adventure in Rabat, Morocco, began a few weeks ago on the American Peace Caravan interfaith mission.

What started as an informal saunter through the Old City marketplace, breaking the ice between a small group of American evangelical pastors, imams and rabbis over Moroccan rug bartering, turned into an intensive and focused interfaith retreat to build personal relationships, professional bridges, and concrete programmatic plans in twenty cities across America.

At the same time, my experience in Morocco surprised me. It opened my eyes to significant efforts in the Muslim world to combat religious extremism, intolerance and violence. It opened my eyes to genuine efforts in the Evangelical Christian community to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

And it also opened my eyes to the real challenges and obstacles we face as Jewish leaders in fostering honest mutual dialogue with Muslims and Christians that can include the Israel conversation.

The program was hosted by the Forum for Peace, under the leadership of Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah and the patronage of the United Arab Emirates. The forum was created to promote religious tolerance and coexistence in majority Muslim countries, and it celebrated a milestone in 2016 with the publication of the Marrakesh Declaration. This declaration calls on all Muslim countries to recognize the traditional Quranic teachings on the protection of minorities, and the imperative to fight against oppression, bigotry, and violence of all forms.

It also calls upon leaders of all religions to join forces in a shared campaign to build bridges of trust, pluralism and peace.

To achieve its goals, the Forum for Peace partnered with influential American faith leaders – Pastor Bob Roberts of Texas, Imam Mohamed Magid of Washington, DC, and our own Rabbi Bruce Lustig (RLI VI) of Washington – to bring a pastor, an imam, and a rabbi from cities across America to the Muslim world to learn more about the Muslim efforts to promote peace, and to work together to bring interfaith cooperation and peace back to our communities in America.

After an initial retreat in Abu Dhabi last spring with representatives from 10 American cities, this fall’s retreat in Rabat added an additional 10 cities. Among the 10 new rabbis recruited by Bruce Lustig for this year’s retreat, there were many Hartman RLI fellows:

I joined to represent Miami (and the Shalom Hartman Institute); Rabbi Jim Bennett (RLI V) joined from St. Louis, Rabbi Bruce Dollin (RLI VI) joined from Denver, Rabbi Michael Weinberg (RLI VI) joined from Chicago, and Rabbi Elie Weinstock (RLI VI) joined from Manhattan.

It was encouraging to see the ways in which the RLI curriculum, particularly on themes of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish identity, and Israel engagement, equipped us to facilitate high-level conversations with other faith leaders about the Jewish narrative in the modern world.

I am taking away many things from my brief time in Morocco, but three main themes inspired me most.

It’s all about relationships

Five busy Hartman rabbis schlepped to Morocco for a three-day conference because of our relationship with a rabbi whom we respect and trust. Bruce Lustig’s vision and leadership are an ongoing source of inspiration for all of us who know him, and when he asked, we simply could not say “no.” Similarly, the interfaith relationships we formed through exercises of personal sharing and trust-building made an immediate impact on the ways in which we can now call upon one another for help, for joint communal projects, and for much-needed friendship during difficult times in our local communities.

Sharing a Journey Generates Hope

Our group was called the “American Peace Caravan” because of the recognition that we are often journeying alone as faith communities in a dangerous and dark world. Just as travelers in the ancient world joined in caravans for protection and security, we need to journey together in networks of support to find hope and light in this world. The multifaith clergy on our Morocco mission felt an immediate sense of partnership on this journey.

Traveling from America to Morocco and exploring a new country gave us the shared experience of a literal journey together. More importantly, the deliberate work of each city leadership team – to invest in our bourgeoning personal relationships, to plan and host multifaith gatherings and joint communal projects, and to organize local clergy retreats to build bridges of cooperation and understanding – gave us the energy and hope that we are on a shared mission to bring tolerance and peace to our communities.

Hartman’s Unique Contribution to Multifaith Relations is Crucial

Wearing my Hartman hat, I found myself constantly observing and analyzing the retreat through the lens of Jewish peoplehood and Israel. I was disheartened to see the ways in which “multifaith” encounters with Muslim and Christian clergy so often exclude a real discussion about Israel. We were asked to share our personal “faith narratives,” but with the unspoken understanding that anything related to Israel is “political.”

Furthermore, the ice breaker exercises often betrayed a misunderstanding of Jewish identity. “What is the state of your faith? How do other faiths view your faith?” When we broke into our clergy groups, the rabbis struggled to answer these questions. Instead, we spent much of the time trying to understand the assignment! “What is the state of Judaism?” seemed like a strange and uninteresting question to us.

We translated their questions into ones that felt natural and constructive: What is the state of the Jewish community; what is the state of the Jewish people? In this, and many other moments throughout the mission, I realized the critical contribution that Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) and Christian Leadership Initiative (CLI) bring to multifaith efforts of genuine relationship-building, mutual understanding, and mutual respect.

In MLI and CLI, Muslim and Christian leaders are invited into a multi-year immersive program of study and dialogue with diverse Jewish scholars and leaders. They are welcomed into our own internal, nuanced conversations and struggles with Jewish identity in the modern world, Jewish peoplehood, and Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. They listen and learn about Jewish narratives beyond the celebration of shared “faith” values, texts and rituals that feel so good and warm in interfaith settings.

The work of Hartman research teams on Jewish identity, Jewish peoplehood, ethical leadership, and iEngage are shaping the ways that our faculty and our rabbinic leaders can understand and articulate the “state of Judaism” today. This thought-leadership is essential, not only for the ways in which rabbinic leaders can engage Jews, but also for the ways in which we can build genuine relationships with the world.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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