Bay Area leads interfaith efforts, but more needed

Religious differences, far from impeding interfaith bridges, often compel and propel these ties. The Bay Area has long been a leader in building such bridges. And we continue to be a leader today, with a number of groups involved in interfaith efforts. Groups include the San Francisco Interfaith Council and others in neighboring counties, the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, the United Religions Initiative and the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, to name just a few.

The goals and aims of each of these organizations vary. Some are bent on working together to solve local problems, such as hunger, homelessness and poverty. Others have national and international goals, working on the premise that as long as religions war with each other, the world cannot be at peace.

There is enough turf to support them all.

It is no longer a question of whether Jews should be part of these undertakings; they must. Sometimes we hear things we don't like to hear, including the willingness of some Christian groups to bash Israel. But if we believe that Israel's case is a good one, then we must be in the conversation to assert our position.

If we truly believe in tikkun olam, the repairing of the world, then we must be part of that world and play a role in its repair. Assuring Jewish continuity requires not only efforts in our homes but also in the neighborhood, the larger community, the nation and the world.

There are those who continue to maintain that Jewish organizations must serve Jews, that if we don't take care of our own, no one else will. But we do not live in isolation. Indeed, we are proud that we no longer live in a ghetto. If we live in a larger society, then we must be prepared to be part of that society, sharing responsibility for the greater community. Take care of our own, of course. But take care of others as well.

In a city like San Francisco, interfaith dialogue assumes many faces and offers as many opportunities. It goes well beyond "dialogue," which can be interesting as one explores the depths of one's own beliefs with others of different beliefs. But when that dialogue is over, the problems that plague modern society remain. Working together to solve common concerns can provide avenues for social change based on faith and moral values, enabling participants to discover their similarities and differences.

Let's not gloss over the differences. They are real and important, but it is possible — and desirable — to disagree without being disagreeable. And who knows, we might even learn something!

Just a few weeks ago, a group of board and staff members of Jewish Family and Children's Services and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco jotogether to Israel. Ten days were spent exploring the country, its religious sites, its politics, its social service agencies.

For the Catholics, it was an opportunity to visit places hallowed by their religion, to experience Yad Vashem and the Children's Memorial and to participate in a Kaddish service in the Hall of Remembrance.

For the Jews, it was a chance to show what a determined people can build in less than 50 years as well as to experience Israel as a land sacred to other faiths.

For both it was a time to share and to learn and to return with strengthened relationships and plans for joint projects here at home. A visit to Kiryat Shmona's domestic violence project gave both agencies an opportunity to provide expertise for that fledgling effort and to see the strong partnership between San Francisco's Jewish community and a town in Israel.

More than 70 members of the Jewish community journeyed a few weeks ago to Sacramento to lobby state officials and legislators on welfare concerns. How about extending those efforts in partnership with the welfare reform projects now being launched by the San Francisco Interfaith Council?

We also need to do our part to rebuild other communities. Thanks to the efforts of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council's associate director, Felice Sheramy, a group of Bay Area Jews with the JCRC and Anti-Defamation League went to the South to help rebuild a burned black church. They have given moving and important testimony about their experience. There are communities and churches right here at home that need rebuilding, not physically perhaps but certainly in other ways. Sukkot in April might be a way to start.

Locally, interfaith groups are involved in a number of collaborative efforts. The San Francisco Interfaith Council provides additional shelter beds during November through March for the city's homeless. Congregations and organizations provide the meals. Only two congregations and one Jewish organization participate. Can we expect more next year?

In addition, the Center for Jewish Studies has been building bridges to other faiths for years. It is affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union, where nine seminaries and many centers of different faiths and perspectives share knowledge and experience. The Jewish community needs to learn more about the center, a unique undertaking at a unique consortium of religious institutions.

The time is short, the problems are legion but so are the opportunities.