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Building bridges for tomorrow’s faith leaders: the Multifaith Future Leaders Program

October 13, 2009 – 7:39 pm14 Comments

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A leadership program is working to ensure tomorrow’s multicultural leaders will understand other faiths, writes Deborah Stone.

Heba Ibrahim is a young Muslim leader, who sits on the Islamic Council of Victoria. Amelia Tendler is a Jewish student with a passion for interfaith. Krista Celle is an involved Christian whose church is central to her life.

All three share many qualities: they are young, engaged with life and passionate about their own faith and culture. Perhaps they will grow to be leaders of their own communities, representing the particular needs and passions of their own minorities.

The leadership they will provide in their communities will include an understanding of other religions and ethnicities thanks to their involvement in an exciting new program to provide leadership training to future leaders of Victoria’s faith communities.

The Multifaith Future Leaders Program brings together young people identified as potential leaders of their own community and provides leadership training in a multifaith environment. Heba, Amelia and Krista are all part of the first Future Leaders group which began in February 2009.

The group came together with a three-day residential leadership seminar in Campaspe Downs, on the outskirts of Melbourne, supported by the Victorian Multicultural Commission. The seminar was a chance for young leaders to learn basic skills like public speaking, media and team-building. Puzzling over the shared challenges of writing a media release or giggling blindfolded over a team-building exercise the three young women were part of a group of thirty young leaders sharing the experiences of preparing for leadership in a unique environment.

They all say the skills they learned were valuable. But just as important was a chance for participants to share the experience of learning and get to know people from very different backgrounds. Studies of interfaith programs have shown working together on joint endeavors and understanding oneself as a similar to others are essential to overcoming a perception of difference.

For these young multicultural leaders, learning leadership is now something they have in common with people who may dress or celebrate or believe differently but are equally passionate about building community.

Heba Ibrahim says the networking opportunities of the program were important to her. “The most valuable asset that this leadership program left me with is a wide network of very intelligent people who come from a range of backgrounds, not only culturally and faith-wise but also academically and professionally. Hopefully they will be lifelong friends and people I can partner with in the future on projects that will benefit Australia as a society and maintain harmonious communities.”

Understanding others and being understood is essential to the program. Says Amelia: “I think this a fantastic opportunity to reduce ignorance and encourage tolerance and harmony among people from different religious backgrounds.”

Amelia hopes the next generation of leaders might be more tolerant than current faith leaders because they were more open to different ideas. “I’m a strong supporter of interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism. I really want to be part of promoting understanding.”

The young people involved in the program are aged 18- 26, most of them university students. Some have been involved in interfaith programs such as Building Bridges, a secondary school program, but many have no prior experience of other faiths. They are at the age where they are forming and solidifying their ideologies and understandings of the world.

The Multifaith Future Leaders Program was developed by a Jewish communal organisation, the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), to ensure young potential leaders in this age group have an opportunity to understand the pluralistic Australian society. The ADC’s mission is to counter antisemitism and other forms of racism and to promote justice and opportunity for all.

The program is funded by the Victorian Multicultural Commission, which enables the ADC to make the seminar free and draw in a good variety of participants. The first seminar had Jewish, Muslim and Christian participants but a second seminar will be held in February 2010 and will include representatives from other faiths including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Bahai.

The seminar, though, is only the beginning. Participants build networks and hopefully friendships which mean they keep in touch. Additional programs throughout the year provide opportunities to discuss issues, commonalities and differences and to do joint activities. This year’s participants are working on putting together a joint charity project, having recognized that charity is a value all their religions share.

Krista points out that the program enables friendships across barriers that often don’t happen when people are fully engaged with their own little worlds.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on the program is how unique this situation is, yet none of the participants live more than 30 minutes apart in Melbourne. How come this dialogue doesn’t happen in our homes and communities and how can 30 people who are so unique and different cohabit peacefully for three days without any prejudice-fuelled riots?

“I believe it is because we broke down a barrier of fear and misunderstanding when we gave each the right to ask, “Why are you different?” and found out that we had so much in common.”

Multiculturalism is by no means a value Australians can take for granted. As recent racially-motivated attacks have shown, there are still some Australians who are hostile to difference. The far right continues to have its attractions and particularly in times of economic challenge there is a tendency for people to retreat into the worlds they know and be frightened of those who look or act differently.

Young people who are passionate about their own culture need to have opportunities to celebrate their own beliefs in the context of Australian diversity and respect. This is particularly important when extremism and the rejection of all others are motivating terrorism and hate in other parts of the world.

When our future leaders have friends and contacts who will be leaders of other communities, we have an insurance policy that promotes diversity, tolerance and sustained cohesion in our multicultural society.

Plus, as the young participants say, it’s a lot of fun.

Deborah Stone is executive director of the Anti-Defamation Commission, which runs the Multifaith Future Leaders Program. If you would like to participate log on to www.antidef.org.au or call (03) 9572-5770

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14 Comments »

  • Chaim says:

    It sounds very nice and positive.

    What I did not see written is that Amelia has a passion or involvement in Judaism like Heba “who sits on the Islamic Council of Victoria” or Krista Celle who “is an involved Christian whose church is central to her life.”

  • Larry Stillman says:

    I’ve had my differences with the ADC, including the quality of various reports by Deborah Stone. Consequently I can’t help regarding this piece of writing as a professional press release, trying to hit all the right notes with funders and machers, rather than an authentic and thoughtful piece of community development reporting.

    Inter communal relations are incredibly important, but I would have much preferred that the young people gave an account of what they did, learned, and confronted rather than reading this sort of piece.

    But Deborah is right on one front, people live so near to each other, but know so little about each other.

  • The Hasid says:

    Chaim – I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make…?

  • Chaim says:

    It is just interesting the way they were represented. The non Jews as committed to religion and the Jew as committed to interfaith. I just hope she also has a passion and understanding of her OWN faith. Otherwise it is not really an interfaith dialogue. I have no criticism of her, her beliefs or practices – I have no idea what they are.

    Like Larry I would also like to see the three participants represent what they got out of it.

  • ariel says:

    I would make the same point as Chaim.

    I’ve often noticed with these youth activities that everybody there is frum – or at least religiously involved – except the Jewish representative.
    This can be problematic especially since Judaism is so misunderstood by the rest of the world.
    As an example, many people (including some uninformed Jews) have commented to me that “I can’t believe in such and such”. My response 99% of the time is “That’s a Christian idea. Jews don’t believe in that concept anyway.”
    I hope Amelia is knowledgeable enough of her own heritage to give informed, passionate answers to any questions she will inevitably receive.

    For the record, my idea of interfaith dialogue is Ashkenazim sharing a Pesach seder with Sephardim.

    I suppose that initiatives like the one above serve their purpose.

  • The Hasid says:

    “I’ve often noticed with these youth activities that everybody there is frum – or at least religiously involved – except the Jewish representative.”

    I haven’t observed that at all, but y’know, everyone has a different perspective on these things.

    Also: I’m assuming no-one commenting here is acquainted with Ms Tendler. So we have no idea what her personal convictions are.

    Secondly, “Amelia Tendler is a Jewish student with a passion for interfaith” – this statement doesn’t imply that that she isn’t religious; or that if she isn’t religious, she isn’t well informed and educated about Jewish stuff. That’s a big assumption to make. The two are not mutually exclusive, you know. It’s like saying, “John is a person with a passion for science fiction novels”, and therefore inferring that John doesn’t read literary fiction.

    Thirdly, you’re assuming that because someone “sits on the Islamic Council of Victoria” they are a frum Muslim. Again, though this is likely, they could be secular, no? Are there not secular or not-especially-frum Jews serving Jewish organisations all over the world?

    And finally – WHY DOES SOMEONE NEED TO BE RELIGIOUS TO BE A GOOD OR BETTER REPRESENTATIVE OF JUDAISM?!

    They don’t. There are plenty of secular Jews who are well informed about Judaism.

    On another note, unrelated to my above rant: I’m really saddened by people’s cynicism about events like this.

  • Chaim says:

    No one said she need to be religious just passionate and knowledgeable and I wrote a disclaimer above – “I have no criticism of her, her beliefs or practices – I have no idea what they are..”

    I did not see cynicism anywhere.. just questions.

  • ariel says:

    I clarify my comments in the same way as Chaim.

    A question remains to Ms Stone as to why she chose to phrase her description of Ms Tendler in one way and those of the other parties in another.

    The problem I see with interfaith dialogue when one or more parties are not involved in their religion (I use this word in distinguishment from “culture” or “heritage”) is this:
    If someone is secular, they can talk about the theory all they like, but what happens to their credibility when questioned as to why they don’t live by these beliefs.
    I emphasise that I am speaking specifically about INTERFAITH dialogue and not MULTICULTURALISM.

    There is no problem with two secular people from different cultures engaging when the issues are cuisine, music, etc.

    I feel that if the discussion is about G-d, then the interlocutors should be practicing what they preach.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Even if interfaith dialogue produces little results, it’s better than fighting. But my one concern is that the non-frum Jews who participate do not become apologists for the frumers. Yes, by all means, express opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and condemn the behaviour of those violent and deranged settlers, but when inviting people of different faiths to, say, a Sedar, don’t omit “Next Year in Jerusalem”, for that dream is part of our faith. As I said once before, to build a proper bridge, one needs strong foundations.

  • frosh says:

    Chaim and Ariel,

    As I understand it, the program is about fostering relationships between future community leaders etc.

    It certainly is not about program participants agreeing on religious/philosophical compromises in order to move toward a merged religion etc (which is another completely different type of interfaith dialogue that often occurs between different denominations of the same essential religion). Thus the frumness of the participants is not that important.

    Furthermore, since many of the Jewish community leaders are not that frum (many would be traditional, rather than shomer-shabbos, it is not important for the Jewish participants in this program to be that frum).

  • ariel says:

    frosh, I understand where you’re coming from. If this forum is for future communal leaders, then I don’t really have a problem.

    My own observations in life seem to be that people don’t take you seriously if you try to explain to them certain facets of your religion, but then announce that you don’t adhere to them and try to explain this paradox.

    I would also say that our frum community doesn’t seem to be interested in interfaith dialogue because they see it as a waste of time as a concilliation affair. I’m inclined to agree because from my perspective, I have no problem with people of other faiths to begin with (as long as they don’t try to force their beliefs on me).

    Having said that, I think it’s important that we understand what other religions believe and they understand us, if only to debunk stereotypes and misconceptions.

  • rachsd says:

    Ariel,

    You say: “our frum community doesn’t seem to be interested in interfaith dialogue because they see it as a waste of time as a concilliation affair.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by frum. If you just mean observant and Orthodox, I have come accross a number a observant Orthodox Jews (including at least one Orthodox rabbi) at interfaith events. If you mean something more specific than that, then you are probably right.

    I’m also not sure that the aim of interfaith dialogue is conciliation, but rather greater understanding of other faiths, and I don’t think there’s ever an assumption that participants begin with “a problem with people of other faiths.”

    Having said that, I understand that people might find these sorts of events to be artificial and prefer to talk to people of other faiths in more natural scenarios arising from their general participation in Australian society.

  • Beatle Juice says:

    The problem with these events is their framing as “Interfaith”. This is a clearly Christian perspective on what they understand Judaism to be. The conversations often revolve around Abraham as common ancestor and different relationships to the same text. What they ignore is that most of Judaism has never self-framed itself as a “Faith religion”. As Menahem Kelner so eloquently argues, we have been a tradition of action. Only Middle Ages polemics with the Church imposed faith notions as fundamental absolutes. The Saadia Gaon and then Rambam got swept up in this foreign way of thinking.

    Until we can represent Judaism on our terms, and find English words to accurately translate what we are, we are doomed to be misunderstood at these events. Yet, I agree, they are far better than fighting.

  • Chaim says:

    I agree with Henry Herzog about apologetics being a problem unless you clearly define what the context and goals here and the term “interfaith” is probably not appropriate.

    Having said that Jonathon Sacks books are very interesting here – Dignity of difference, Future Tense and A letter in the scroll. You should know he has philosophy degrees from Oxford and Cambridge so they are researched and intellectual.

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