Rabbi Daniel Lehmann was inaugurated last month as the first non-Christian president of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. (Courtesy GTU)
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann was inaugurated last month as the first non-Christian president of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. (Courtesy GTU)

GTU’s new Jewish president on spiritual care in a time of division

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Our society is plagued by increased polarization, distrust and animosity toward the “other.” Our body politic and our social fabric are being torn apart by a dysfunctional democratic discourse in desperate need of healing.

In fact, as a recent PRRI survey revealed and New York Times article discussed, “a striking 91 percent of people said … that the country is divided over politics.” Even among those who identify as religiously affiliated, according to the survey, wide disagreements emerge about which issues are “the most critical” in our current moment.

This reality plays into the perceptions of many who consider religion to be a cause of incivility and non-cooperation. Especially in the Bay Area, where a study conducted by the Pew Research Center listed San Francisco as the city with the second-highest number of individuals who self-reported no affiliation with any religion at all, religious traditions can sometimes be characterized a zero-sum game tearing at the fabric of social unity.

In many places around the world, including in our own country, religious exclusivists make theological claims and assertions that don’t make space for alternative perspectives and construct a public playing field in which there are only winners and losers.

But at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, we believe that religion can be a source of hope, and a way of fostering engagement across differences at a time when we are in desperate need of bridges, rather than walls.

I believe that our current moment calls on us to create a culture in which we can hold onto the unique identities and commitments that make each of us distinctive, and use the encounter of these profoundly held commitments to model truly fruitful dialogue.

The GTU has always fostered a culture in which deeply devoted scholars, practitioners and learners can engage one another with respect, compassion and curiosity despite significant differences in religious backgrounds.

For most of the nearly 60 years since the GTU’s founding, the GTU has been exclusively focused on academic scholarship with its highly regarded Ph.D. program as its signature offering, and graduating a robust roster of alumnae committed to furthering the values of interreligious dialogue through their work in our wider world.

But traditional graduate degree programs are not enough to address the present crisis, and to demonstrate the value that the voice of religion can bring to the conversation about “where we go from here.”

As one answer to this imperative, and through the generous support of a recent multi-million dollar grant from the S.F.-based Hellman Foundation, the GTU is launching a new program in interreligious spiritual care leadership that responds to this current crisis, which I might venture to describe as a crisis of faith in one another.

The interreligious nature of the chaplaincy program provides opportunities to model constructive ways of working with one another, build faith among one another, and nurture leaders who are generating trust and commitment and faith.

This program will bring together Jewish, Muslim and Hindu traditions in equipping spiritual caregivers and leaders to serve our increasingly heterogeneous religious landscape in hospitals, the military, prisons, campuses, corporations and nonprofit organizations.

It will feature tracks through which students can draw from the deep wells of their particular tradition while developing the skills and capacities to serve in multi-religious and secular settings.

Students will be able to study in our master’s degree program and affiliate with our Center for Jewish Studies, Center for Islamic Studies or Center for Dharma Studies.

In addition, a graduate certificate in chaplaincy will be offered that will cultivate interreligious pastoral and spiritual knowledge and skills to enable our graduates to meet the increasingly diverse religious and spiritual needs of our society. The program will draw on the insights we have gained through similar interreligious work with programs such as Madrasa-Midrasha, a collaborative GTU venture between our Centers for Jewish and Islamic Studies, which seeks to foster interreligious understanding between Jewish and Muslim communities.

When this program launches in fall 2020, not only will this be the first such program of its kind, but together with the Christian and Buddhist chaplaincy programs already available with GTU affiliated schools, the Bay Area will become the leader in interreligious chaplaincy education.

Our diverse Bay Area community needs spiritual-care practitioners, especially for underserved populations. According to the same Pew study mentioned earlier, San Francisco has the second largest percentage of people affiliated with non-Christian religions among major cities in the United States. Minority religious, racial and ethnic communities, in particular, need spiritual care, especially in settings outside of religious institutions.

Even leading corporations are beginning to understand the need for spiritual guidance to support the well-being of their employees and the diversity of religious and spiritual perspectives demand well-trained spiritual guides that are rooted in their own traditions while steeped in interreligious understanding.

The GTU is committed to this work because we know that despite the growing numbers of people who don’t identify with a particular religious tradition or denomination, and the increasing percentage of those who claim no religious affiliation, many people have a thirst for transcendent meaning and spiritual experience. Some will seek paths well worn by co-religionists while others will want to forge a more eclectic or even new spiritual path.

Rabbis, priests, ministers and imams play vitally important roles of spiritual leadership, but there is room and need for others to help people navigate life’s complex inner challenges.

In addition to the new interreligious chaplaincy program, the GTU plans to develop new online certificates in interreligious studies, sustainability studies and yoga studies. These are all part of a move toward applied interreligious education, sharing our unique model of interreligious knowledge, engagement and bridge-building with audiences in diverse professions, organizations and communities.

Faith in one another, in our common humanity and in our complex diversity, is at the core of what our society needs in this moment of increasing polarity. Interreligious education at its highest and broadest level is a key component of developing that faith.

The GTU is poised to bring new energy and vision so that sacred work, and drawing upon the talent and resources of the Bay Area, we can make a difference locally, nationally and globally.

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the first non-Christian to hold the position.