Lending an interfaith hand: Jewish efforts on display at national conference in S.F.

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Brenda Rosenberg had one of the most sought-after jobs in the fashion industry.

But after the 9/11 attacks, being the head of fashion merchandising and marketing for the likes of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s felt empty. So she quit.

Rosenberg instead dedicated herself to bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims with an initiative called the Children of Abraham Project, which she and an imam co-founded in 2002. It has since received global acclaim.

“Every day since then, I’ve asked myself: What more can I do? What more can we do?” she said.

Rosenberg was one of eight individuals recognized for successful interfaith efforts during the recent national convention for the North American Interfaith Network, held late last month in San Francisco. The conference drew nearly 200 religious leaders from across the United States and Canada.

“We’re sharing what we do and how we can do it better,” said the Rev. Paul Chaffee, director of the San Francisco Interfaith Center and host of the conference.

Two of the eight highlighted initiatives are led by Jews: Rosenberg, of the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Rachel Andres, a Southern California woman who works for Jewish World Watch.

Here is a profile of each program:

Children of Abraham Project

Rosenberg started the Children of Abraham Project with her friend Imam Abdullah El Amin, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan.

They met each other at an interfaith dialogue Rosenberg helped put together after 9/11. Later, while the two were eating lunch at a deli, El Amin pointed out that before Abraham’s sons — Ishmael and Isaac — went on to become the early leaders of Islam and Judaism, respectively, they had the same father, Abraham.

“He said it like he had been thinking about this his whole life,” Rosenberg recalled. “He said to me, ‘Well, you know Brenda, if everyone knew we had same father, it could go a long way to bring the family back together.'”

Rosenberg, El Amin and a Baptist minister recruited 18 teenagers willing to spend four hours every Sunday talking about estranged brothers Isaac and Ishmael and the differences and similarities of their faiths. Toward the end of the three-month program, the students wrote and performed a play about what it was like to come together.

It was a wild success in the Detroit area, which is home to about 300,000 Arabs and 95,000 Jews.

To bring their project to a wider audience, Rosenberg and her colleagues made a documentary of the teens engaging in dialogue and performing the play. It has since been shown in schools, churches and community centers across the United States.

It was also shown recently with Arabic subtitles in Jordan, where “they were so touched that a Jewish woman presented it in Arabic,” Rosenberg said.

The Children of Abraham Project created a domino effect in the Detroit area: Jews and Muslims there are planning an interfaith trip to Israel. Also this year, mini-Jewish libraries were set up in four mosques.

Additionally, one of the Jewish students in the original CAP group started a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group at the University of Michigan. There, college students studied each other’s religions and did a joint project (rebuilding homes in New Orleans). And one of CAP’s original Muslim students started a nonprofit to rebuild a synagogue in Beirut.

“If you’re willing to sit down and make connections,” Rosenberg said, “everything is possible.”

The Solar Cooker Project

Thousands of women have survived the genocide in Darfur only to be attacked or raped when they get to a refugee camp in Chad.

The women are at risk when they leave the camp to search for firewood — required to cook the food given to them by aid workers.

Rachel Andres heard this and asked: What can we do?

She and her colleagues at Jewish World Watch, a nonprofit based in Encino that combats genocide in Darfur, started looking for a solution.

They heard about a Dutch nongovernmental organization, KoZon, that manufactured a low-tech, solar-powered cooking device to about 500 refugees in a camp in Chad. And they joined forces.

For the past two years, Andres has led the four-year-old JWW in a partnership with KoZon, working primarily with faith-based organizations to raise

necessary funds.

Nearly 40,000 women and children refugees have since received the cookers. JWW has measured an 86 percent reduction in the number of trips women take outside the camps.

How does it work? Simple, Andres said. The cooker is made of only cardboard and aluminum foil. It cooks food (usually in two to three hours) by converting sunlight into heat.

JWW has built a manufacturing plant and hired women in the refugee camp to make the cookers, which also provides them with an income. The organization also teaches how to use the cookers.

It’s simple and inexpensive technology, she said. A $30 donation pays for two cookers, two pots and two potholders per family. The organization has successfully outfitted two refugee camps (Iridimi and Touloum) with cookers, and it is about to start on a third.

At the interfaith conference, Andres gave a demonstration by making brownies and pumpkin bread with the cookers.

The conference “was a big mixture of people, all are working together for the same goal — to help humanity,” Andres said. “It was really very moving.”

More information: North American Interfaith Network (www.nain.org),

The Children of Abraham Project (www.thechildrenofabraham.org) and the Solar Cooker Project (www.jewishworldwatch.org).

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.