Claremont’s Interfaith Experiment
Tue, 08/17/2010
Staff Writer
Academy of Jewish Religion rabbinical student Claire Gorfinkel,
Academy of Jewish Religion rabbinical student Claire Gorfinkel,

 During her two years of rabbinical studies in Los Angeles, Claire Gorfinkel has sat in all-Jewish classrooms.

This year, some of her classmates will be Methodists.

Gorfinkel, a 65-year-old retiree from a job “in the world of social change” who is studying for the chaplaincy at the Los Angeles branch of the Academy for Jewish Religion, will be part of a historic program that starts in the fall semester.

The Academy will be part of an interfaith training program for religious leaders offered by the Claremont School of Theology, a Los Angeles institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Claremont’s University Project will allow that school and the Academy — and the Islamic Center of Southern California — to share curricula. All are located in the Los Angeles area. Students at each school will be able to attend classes at the other participating schools, but each school will continue to ordain students of its own faith.

This is, as far as is known, the first-such joint program for future rabbis, ministers and imams. Buddhists and Hindus are expected to join the program in future years.

“I’m really enthusiastic about doing this,” Gorfinkel tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. She hopes to take a course at Claremont on prophetic traditions or Christian perspectives on the Jewish scriptures this term; her academic exposure to the teachings of other faiths should enable her to work more comfortably with non-Jews, she says.

The University Project “honors the fact that we’re all God’s children with a universal strain in common, while safeguarding the unique beliefs and traditions of each religion,” the Academy says in a prepared statement.

The decade-old “transdenominational, pluralistic” Academy, a now-independent offshoot of the Bronx institution with the same name, agreed to take part in the Claremont project to broaden its students’ training, says the Academy’s president, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb. “How can you love the ‘other’ if you don’t know the ‘other’?

“I wanted to uplift the world. It is not enough to speak in God’s name while ignoring the fundamental teaching of our traditions to love our neighbor as ourselves, or to treat others as we would like to be treated,” Rabbi Gottlieb said. “How can this love develop if we have no relationship with our brothers and sisters in different religious traditions?”

His 65 students may be interested in Claremont offerings like “Spiritual Counseling,” the rabbi says, while Academy electives on medieval Jewish philosophy and the origins of Zionism may be a draw for Christian students.

The role of the Islamic Center was less clear before the start of the semester.

Claremont initiated the collaborative effort to improve relations among Christians, Jews and Muslims, says Rev. Jerry Campbell, Claremont’s president. “Dialogue takes place among friends” — people who know each other. “There will be peace in the world when religious leaders of the world decide to make peace.

“Our hope is that there will be less mistrust and conflict between the religions if their future leaders interact as they pursue their education,” Rev. Campbell said when he announced the project last month. “We want our students to learn how to cooperate across religious boundaries to diminish conflict.”

Claremont is starting the University Project with a $10 million grant from Claremont board member David Lincoln and his wife Joan, and despite the opposition of conservative members of the Methodist Church.

Rabbi Gottlieb says the Jewish community has largely supported the Academy’s new relationship with the Methodist school. “We had expected more negative reactions. I’ve been happily surprised.”

The “formal relationship” between the Academy and a Christian institution is “idiosyncratic — it reflects [the Academy’s] very open interfaith approach,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “I don’t think it’s a trend.”

Neither the contents of any courses nor academic requirements — a previous course or knowledge of a certain language, for example — for students enrolling from other schools will be changed as part of the new project.

“We’re not watering down our program at all,” Rabbi Gottlieb says.

The Academy is open to Jews from all denominations, and its faculty members, from local congregations, represent the major branches of Judaism. Its Orthodox graduates do not qualify for Orthodox ordination, the rabbi says, and its graduates rarely end up leading major congregations.

The Academy’s Sunday-Tuesday schedule draws a high percentage of second-career students.

Gorfinkel, who has served her chaplaincy internship at a Catholic hospital and has a long familiarity with the Quaker faith, has looked over the Claremont catalog; many of its courses are “incredibly interesting,” she says.

“It’s all connected with being a Jew in the world,” and with “not wanting to serve only the Jewish community,” she says. The cross-listed courses at non-Jewish theological schools create “an opportunity for dialogue.”

This term, she says, she will be able to learn from professors — and fellow students — from another faith. That “will make me a much better chaplain.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org