Heading north on Pacific Coast Highway one sunny Sunday afternoon, I turned to my colleague and asked, “Remind me why we’re doing this again?”
“This” was InterSem – a two day interfaith retreat at the beautiful Steve Breuer Conference Center on the Camp Hess Kramer campus in Malibu. We had both spent the weekend doing a considerable amount of studying (it was midterm season, after all) and that Sunday morning saw me sipping a strong double latte amongst sixth grade religious school students. Tired and spent, uncertain of what to expect, it was hard to remember what piqued our interest in InterSem in the first place.
But twenty-four hours after our arrival, we had our answer.
InterSem, founded in 1971 as an annual gathering of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant seminary students, was an opportunity to step outside the daily grind and taste a different form of interfaith dialogue. Its purpose is to foster authentic and meaningful interactions between its participants; for students of various religious backgrounds to learn and grow from each other while sharing common space.
The retreat was a chance to look more closely, and from varied angles, at different religious practices while articulating passions and struggles within one’s own faith. It espoused the virtues of tolerance and respect, and promoted the necessity for building bridges across the religious divide. Falling midway through my second year of rabbinical school, InterSem seemed like an appropriate respite from and continuation of my daily routine.
Organized by the American Jewish Committee, InterSem’s participants included students from Claremont School of Theology, St. John’s Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Academy for Jewish Religion, American Jewish University, and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Represented across the faith spectrum were men and women from all different backgrounds, each falling into the various subgroups of Christianity and Judaism.
Over those twenty four hours, we InterSem participants engaged in large communal discussions and smaller, intimate dialogue, student and clergy-led prayer services, elective activities, and just plain hanging out. One of the most meaningful parts of the weekend was breaking bread together. Every meal began with a prayer in one or more of the represented vernaculars. As we ate, the room hummed. The communal comfort of food eased words from our mouths that might not have been spoken in the facilitated discussion groups. Our interactions became more real, raw, and personal.
Over lunch, I sat with a young woman from a Baptist background. Her career goals included doing overseas advocacy work for impoverished women, and part of her training took her to Beirut and Israel for a summer. For about an hour, she and I talked openly and honestly about the Holy Land: our connections, disappointments, frustrations, and hopes. We spoke candidly with little to hold us back. There was a freedom in talking about the Middle East with someone outside the Jewish world; a woman whose passion for God matched my own and whose perspective was both inspiring and thought-provoking.
Our group prayed together as one community three times – first a Catholic Mass, then a Protestant service, and last for Shacharit led jointly by AJU, AJR, and HUC-JIR students early Monday morning. Following each service was an open discussion. Its purpose was to give further insight onto what goes on in the prayer realm of each religion.
Given that Sunday was the first of the Lenten Season, the Christian and Catholic services emulated a striking piety and pensiveness. I was taken by the beauty of the hymns, the frankness and relatable nature of the exhortations, and the blessings of peace and goodness offered to all. I was also struck by the comments, questions, and reactions from the greater group to all three prayer services. The genuine curiosity and openness of the larger community was truly inspirational, and represented a common thread of respect which ran through our weekend.
When InterSem drew to a close Monday afternoon, we hugged each other, promised to write emails, and headed off in our directions. As my colleague and I drove back to West Hollywood, we attempted to synthesize the weekend and sift through our thoughts. It wasn’t easy. Our retreat had been so rich; so full of significant moments and memories, unique people and perspectives. Now that we were official InterSem alumni, what did that mean? This was, after all, not one isolated interfaith weekend in the midst of one long rabbinical school education. The goal – our goal, at least – was to continue the dialogue.
Our Torah contains choice words about interacting with those outside our Tribe. Deuteronomy 10:19 reads “ואהבתם את הגר” – V’ahavtem et ha’ger – love the stranger.” Sarah Bassin, a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR Los Angeles writes: “Love them because they are different. God commands our community- ve’ahavtem. Youall should love the stranger. Allow oneself to be transformed by the encounter with the Other.”
Sharing a weekend with colleagues from seminaries across Southern California was indeed transformative. Learning alongside those whose dedication to God and community is in sync with my own was so profoundly inspiring because the nature of their prayer and ritual was different. It was foreign, unique, and challenging. It brought me – perhaps all of us – to a higher level of individual, communal, and global consciousness.
InterSem was a springboard: a jumping off point into a greater, massive pool of interfaith dialogue in which we future clergy have an obligation to swim. It is not enough to simply endorse interfaith relations for the sake of appearances; we must hold ourselves accountable for these continued transformative experiences. It is my hope that the HUC-JIR community continues to seize these opportunities, for there is no end to how much they can impact our education, careers, and our lives.
Jaclyn Fromer, Second Year Rabbinic Student, HUC-JIR