Deep Ecumenism in Action by Rabbi Rain Zohav

When I took the ALEPH rabbinic class on “Deep Ecumenism”, I knew that this was why I had chosen this particular rabbinic program. Reb Zalman zl still remains our guiding light in his vision for partaking deeply and respectfully of others’ religious practices. He taught us that we can share how we practice and what that means to us, rather than getting bogged down in theology and dogma. This is what IFFP, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, D.C. does. Recently, I was hired as the Rabbi and Spiritual Adviser to IFFP. I will be working alongside Rev. Julia Jarvis, IFFP’s long-time Spiritual Director and Community Leader.

In their own words, The Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington is:

“an independent community of interfaith families and others committed to sharing, learning about, and celebrating our Jewish and Christian traditions. IFFP offers many programs to meet the varied needs of interfaith families. We have a weekly program on Sunday, which includes a gathering, our Interfaith Sunday School, and an adult group discussion. Now completing our second decade, we have grown to more than 100 families from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. IFFP is a place where both Jewish and Christian partners can feel like equal members of the community, where both can celebrate and learn about both faiths, and where we ‘teach, not preach.’”

But how does this work?
How can this work?
Aren’t these two religions mutually exclusive?

The key phrase is “we teach, not preach.” Because of this, we can all learn about each religion without dogma or coercion. To quote again from the website, “The core value of IFFP is respect – for each other, for Judaism and for Christianity. As a community, we celebrate, explore, question and enjoy both religious traditions equally.”

Although I don’t officially begin until July 1, I have visited IFFP and participated in the weekly intergenerational gathering. It regularly includes the Sh’mah and the Lord’s prayer, both central prayers of each religion. The Lord’s Prayer, from the Christian tradition, has roots in Judaism and is a perfectly acceptable prayer for any Jew to pray. In addition, a child at the gathering recites the “kindness prayer” (From the Episcopal prayer book):

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can
In all the ways you can, in all the places you can
To all the people you can, as long as you ever can

This prayer could fit into any religious service since it sums up one of the major goals of any religion. The gathering also includes elements that would make most Renewal Jews feel right at home: sharing of blessings and joys, sharing of concerns, including a time for people to file up and place small stones in a bowl along with their heartfelt wishes for healing, and communal singing. Rev. Julia touches the heart and soul, creating holy community in a way that many of us only wish we could. I look forward to co-creating many of these gatherings with her.

But don’t the children get confused?
Shouldn’t the parents pick one religion for them?

IFFP’s Sunday school runs from nursery school through Teen Group. Having attended the IFFP Coming of Age ceremony for 8th grade students, I was yet again impressed by the abilities of young people to learn and grow into deeply respectful interfaith people. That is a goal of IFFP. Here is an excerpt of a writing piece from one of this year’s graduates of the Coming of Age Program:

“What does it mean to live a meaningful life? …[It means] recognizing the uniqueness of my interfaith and interracial background, taking risks, being creative, helping out the community, doing something special with my life and above all celebrating the big and small things of life…. Being interfaith helps me live a meaningful life because I get the opportunity many other kids do not have. I celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, [go] to a Seder service and Easter dinner. I do not have to choose one religion over another. They are both important to me. Being interfaith teaches me how I can live and work with others even when there are differences of beliefs and ideas.”

As I also consult Rev. Beth McCracken-Harness, the Director of Religious Education at IFFP, reviewing curriculum for the Sunday School, I see that a great effort has been made to truly teach both religions from a place of deep respect. Jesus is taught from the historic perspective, as a Jewish teacher, healer, prophet and revolutionary. We in Renewal could learn from an educational method called “Godly play” that builds on Montessori methods for teaching sacred story. Every class begins and ends with a ritual designed to connect the students with that “mysterious source of life,” greater than themselves. I have invited some of the teachers from the IFFP Sunday School to attend Ruach Ha’Aretz to join the “Educating for Spirituality” track. I am excited about my work with IFFP and I believe we have much to learn from each other in the best sense of the phrase “Deep Ecumenism.”

Rain-ZohavRabbi Rain Zohav has twenty years of experience directing a variety of religious schools, creating curriculum and programming, and teaching teachers on such topics as “Heschel’s Challenge to Jewish Educators” and “Using Understanding by Design in Teaching Tefilah,” plus ten additional years of experience teaching in religious schools. Rabbi Rain earned a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies from Gratz College, where she earned awards in Biblical and Jewish Studies. Rabbi Rain worked with the Washington, D.C. area Board of Jewish Education to develop a regional curriculum on Israel.