This month, students from five east coast campuses gathered for a conference at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, to celebrate two years of success in promoting interfaith understanding.
The event, titled, "Religious Pluralism in a Time of Extremism: The Campus Responds," brought together students and academics who have participated in a program funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Students meet at interfaith conference at Tufts University.
In 2006, Tufts University Hillel Director Rabbi Jeffrey Summit secured the government grant for Tufts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Wellesley College, Brandeis University and University of Maryland to design and implement pilot programs that support civil discourse between students of various faiths. The $1.6 million grant is being divided between the schools over a three-year period.
In his discussions with the Department of Homeland Security's Academic Affairs Office, Summit explained, "[Homeland Security is] protecting bridges, but we're building bridges. [Our proposal] stressed that developing security in our country meant really building strong, productive relations between different religions."
Summit also delivered the opening remarks at the March 1 conference.
For its part, Tufts created a program called Pathways which aims to "promote tolerance and understanding across religious and cultural group on campus." Focused on Christian, Jewish and Muslim beliefs, Pathways is a dialogue series that explores faith, understanding and leadership from varied religious perspectives.
As Najiba Akbar and Shai Fuxman, co-facilitators of the Pathways project explain in an op-ed piece published last April, recent controversies on college campuses are "prime example[s] of the necessity for interfaith and inter-group dialogue on campus. College campuses in America today are among the most diverse places on earth. However, that community often remains fragmented, as like-minded individuals band together, forming a cocoon of complacency in which ideas go unchallenged and identities are unconsciously reinforced rather than re-examined."
Tufts Hillel Director Jeffrey Summit talks with Nancy Khalil of Wellesley College at interfaith conference.
At MIT, the grant money was used to fund 30 fellowship positions. Named for the Sumerian word for bridge, the Addir Fellows, are students of varied faiths committed to encouraging interfaith dialogue on campus. A Sumerian word was picked because it was the first language spoken in Southern Mesopotamia and is not affiliated with any religion.
“The goal of the program is to build bridges and conversations between these young adults, who are from different religious backgrounds,” says Miriam Rosenblum, MIT’s Jewish chaplain and director of MIT Hillel.
Brett Shapiro, a Jewish student at MIT, told a student reporter that the program has helped him learn tolerance, " I’m able to put myself in someone’s else’s place now, where I wasn’t able to do that before.”
A similar fellowship program was established at Brandeis University, using its portion of the Homeland Security grant money. The predominantly Jewish institution of higher learning has seen increased numbers of Catholic and Muslim students in recent years.
The campus' Protestant Chaplain Rev. Alexander Kern is the director of the interfaith fellowship program known as BUILD (Brandeis University Interfaith Leadership Development Fellows Program). Rev. Kern, former Jewish chaplain Rabbi Allan Lehmann and Catholic Chaplain Walter Cuenin first discussed the BUILD program at an interfaith retreat in 2006.
Meanwhile, at University of Maryland, College Park, the Interfaith Dialogue Project (IDP) is focused on breaking down stereotypes through bi-weekly discussion groups with students practicing Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In total, 33 students comprise the group, 11 from each faith. Students filled out applications to be accepted into the project. Together they work with Maryland Hillel's Jewish Student Life Coordinator Julie Finkelstein to select discussion topics.
Earlier this year, the IDP students analyzed how Maryland students are conveying their faith and beliefs through their Facebook profiles. Finkelstein says her personal goal for the group is to see communities that would not otherwise interact, do so.
"I hope that down the line students will stand up and defy stereotypes," she said. "Because they know people of that religion that break the stereotype."
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