Interfaith study programs work for all kinds of reasons, according to Rabbi Neil Tow.
Rabbi Tow has participated in such an initiative for the last seven years. Motivated by the experience of his own mentor – Rabbi Leonard Cahan, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland – Rabbi Tow, religious leader of the Glen Rock Jewish Center, posed the idea for such a class to Pastor Roger Spencer of the town’s Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
“When I was relatively new [to Glen Rock], I asked Pastor Spencer, one of the senior ministers in town, if he had ever done an interfaith study program,” Rabbi Tow said. “He said no. I mentioned to him that Rabbi Cahan has been part of a very successful program for a decade or more, also with a Lutheran pastor. They’ve done classes and even taken a trip to Israel together.
“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to bring our communities together to study material we both consider to be holy and important to us.’ He was very open. We’re now into our seventh year of partnership, and it’s become something we look forward to.”
Rabbi Tow said that over the years, the class – generally ranging from five to 10 students – has attracted “an interesting mix of folks from a variety of Christian denominations and from my synagogue and other Jewish communities in the area. There has always been a group of people open to these kinds of discussions and interested in engaging in this material.”
“Some years it’s bigger, some smaller,” he added.
The group meets once a month, generally between January and June, to avoid both the High Holy Days and Christmas. Attendees are fairly evenly split between church and synagogue members.
Course offerings have focused mainly on biblical writings – including studies on Genesis, the life of Moses, prophets and prophecy, and King David – but this year the group tackled lifecycle symbols and ceremonies in both traditions.
“We covered birth through marriage, death, burial, baptism, and elements of religious thinking,” Rabbi Tow said. “This year we’ll be going back to the Bible, doing Psalms: Poetry of the Soul.” Classes switch locations from month to month, he said; the next class, set for January 30, will be held at Good Shepherd.
The Book of Psalms is particularly appropriate, Rabbi Tow said, because “both religions share it as holy, and it is an often-used text. And since most psalms happen to be shorter, it will allow for us to really get into it.
“Because they are so common in both liturgies, people can really connect with it.”
Rabbi Tow said that “part of the blessing” of this interfaith venture is the chance to sit together with the pastor and prepare material for their classes. “As satisfying and uplifting as the actual teaching of the class is, having some face time together to look at the text and talk about issues” is equally valuable, he said.
Pastor Spencer clearly agrees, noting that while he and his members have learned much from the class, “most often my learning has come when the rabbi and I sit down to plan out a session.
“He and I get to go deeper in sharing. It has been a blessing and a joy to learn and teach with Rabbi Tow. And that goes across the board in our working together in many areas in our town.”
Rabbi Tow noted that since the church vicar, or intern, often sits in on planning sessions and joins the discussion, the two religious leaders feel that they’re “paying it forward,” introducing the idea of interfaith study to the next generation.
“If I’m fortunate enough to bring an intern here to the synagogue, I hope to involve that person as well,” he said.
Rabbi Tow said that he and Pastor Spencer each bring something different to the table.
“Pastor Spencer is well-seasoned and thoughtful, a great reader of text for moral messages and relevance. I can root the discussion in the original Hebrew language and bring out things that English translations cannot. We hand it off to one another.”
Response from attendees has been positive, he said, noting that members of the class often suggest future topics.
Citing the value of the class, Pastor Spencer said that while it has introduced both synagogue and church members to different perspectives, “it has not been so much [about] seeing things in a different way as deepening our appreciation of one another’s traditions.
“Programs such as this are always a benefit, valuable to the individual faith communities and to the town as a whole – even for those who are not directly participating. It not only teaches but also makes a statement to the wider community about interfaith relationships.
“We share learning and time together because we accept and respect one another as people and as faiths.”