Interfaith programs -- a concept which up until recently provoked a ho-hum attitude at best -- are suddenly sweeping the country as people of all faiths struggle to come to terms with events of the past five weeks.
To look at one example, Valley Beth Shalom's lecture series "One God: Many Faces," beginning this week, had already been a year in the making before the recent tragedies, but it could not have come at a more significant time, according to the synagogue's Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis.
"The history of religion recognizes that there is a tremendous interdependence between cultures," Schulweis said. "We must understand that while we have different liturgies and different theologies, [what] we have in common [are] tears and fears and hopes. That commonality has to be built upon, especially in this atmosphere in which there is so much toxicity of hate, suspicion and divisiveness."
Schulweis said that it was very clearly stipulated to all the speakers in the series that their purpose was not to discuss politics or the current military actions overseas, but to share the spiritual and moral character of their tradition.
Although they begin with good intentions, not every interfaith program comes together seamlessly. That is because in order to work, such programs must comprise a two-way street, said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, an active member of several interfaith groups including the Valley Interfaith Council and California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty.
"In past years, we've had difficulties getting Muslims to engage in interfaith dialogues. They were happy to have us come visit them but they were reluctant to come visit us -- us meaning Jews, Christians, Buddhists et cetera," Goldstein said. "I think American Muslims have had a wake-up call since Sept. 11 that we have to know what their variety of Islam is about. Otherwise they will be trapped by a stereotype, and we will be crippled by our misunderstanding."
"Outreach is a part of our lives, part of the biblical message of reaching out to our neighbors," points out Rabbi Steven Jacobs, leader of Kol Tikvah. "Our prayers are always about the welfare of the country and the government; and for me, and so many others, prayers is also about action. This is nothing new, it's just more intense since Sept. 11."
Jacobs said that the need for religious dialogue has become crucial to understanding what's taking place here and abroad.
"We have a new language we have to learn to appreciate. Most Jews have never been inside a mosque, and most Muslims have never been in a synagogue. We have a lot to learn about Islam, and they have a lot to learn about Jews," he said.
"I think we need to grow up and realize that God did not create the world so everybody would be Jewish; He created it so everyone could find his or her own way toward godliness."
"One God: Many Faces" at Valley Beth Shalom, will run Wednesday evenings through Nov. 28 (except for Nov. 21). For more information, call (818) 530-4098.