The Importance of Multifaith Cooperation and Dialogue

Saundra Sterling Epstein

By Saundra Sterling Epstein

For many years, I have been honored to be involved in the extremely important work of building relationships among different faith communities, as well as within the different strands of our Jewish community in its largess.

At this point in our lives — individually and collectively — it appears to me that all of us who are knowledgeable and comfortable in engaging in these efforts should reach out and do so, especially those who are on the more-halachically observant side of the spectrum, which is too often poorly represented. (I have been the only one in the room too many times!).

To do so is healing, serves as important advocacy and is validating to all of us who are people of faith. Moreover, it makes a powerful and necessary statement in our fractured world at this time when the strength and ethical pitch of our religious teachings are more necessary than ever.

Pew Research Center findings indicate that in our general population we have approximately 30% religious “nones” — that is, people who do not identify with any faith tradition or community. This percentage is higher for those who are not involved in ongoing religious life involvements on any level, with the numbers of unconnected individuals increasing in the younger age brackets.

This problem of continuity of our religious traditions and way of life is a challenge shared by all of our faith communities, as indicated in my conversations with my Muslim, Christian and Catholic colleagues, specifically. Concerns about human rights issues and religious teachings that, in their eyes at least, contradict their social values are often causes for which our young people do not feel that their respective religious heritages are responsive.

Also, members of all of our respective communities are suffering from food insecurity, threatened loss of homes, social isolation, work insecurity, sexual abuse and violence, the opioid crisis and other ailments that are pervasive at this time and desperately need access to services. We are all aware of this, as well as the drain on our service organizations in trying to continue to meet mounting, seemingly infinite, needs with finite resources. Additionally, we need to remind each other the power of our faith in supporting us spiritually while we tend to the needs of our physical realities.

To address these shared challenges, there is an ongoing effort to streamline our area’s multifaith work, bringing together the 20-year-old Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council founded as a response to 9/11 by Rabbi Lance Sussman and a group of Christian clergy members and lay leaders; a newly formed consortium of Muslim, Christian and Jewish community leaders; and the developing Montgomery County Multi-Faith Coalition in a newly branded cooperative where we crowdsource our services and provide opportunities for shared learning and interaction with each other.

These collective efforts are already yielding important results, such as ensuring there are food pantries that provide food for people in need who have religious dietary restrictions, offering resources for women and men from different faith communities who are victims of domestic violence, accessing counseling services sensitive to different faith communities’ sensibilities and so on.

Additionally, we are committed to sitting together to learn more about our respective faiths and foundational texts, marveling at how much we share as well as becoming more sensitive to, and respectful of, our differences. As my treasured colleague and friend, Aziz Nathoo, a Muslim community leader and Sheikh, often reminds us, “We are here to converse, not to convert.”

Saundra Sterling Epstein is the director of BeYachad: Bringing Jewish Living and Learning Together. Upcoming events include an Oct. 5 program entitled “GRASP: Gathering Resources Addressing Suicide Prevention” and another on Nov. 15, “Thanks-Grieving.” For more information, contact Epstein at [email protected].


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