The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Jewish Observer

A Rabbi and a Doctor discuss Belmont University Initiative for Jewish Engagement

Frank: Mark, over the past few years, you have been instrumental in working with Belmont University officials to bring Jewish history, culture, education, and faculty to the school which considers itself to be a Christ centered academic center. Can you explain how and why you have become such an ardent proponent in bringing about such a fundamental change at Belmont?  

 

Mark: Frank, I have always been a believer in the power of building bridges of understanding, appreciation, and respect between peoples of differing faith traditions. My work to increase the contact, communication and cooperation between the Jewish community and Belmont University has been an effort that has spanned the past two decades. Now, together, we have formed The Belmont Initiative for Jewish Engagement, demonstrating a shared commitment to the full embrace and inclusion of members of the Jewish community at an historic Christian University. It is a reality that many thought would never be possible and we are just beginning our successful efforts at accomplishing that goal. 

 

Frank: Mark, one issue that seems to be the most troubling for our Jewish community concerns the fact that the Belmont University By- Laws state that a faculty member at Belmont University must be a believer in Christ which, therefore, excludes those of the Jewish faith from becoming faculty at Belmont. We have been told that this policy is in the process of being changed and in fact, has been changed for the Medical, Law and Pharmacy Schools but not for the Undergraduate School. What seems to be the hold up for the Board of Directors and Faculty Senate from changing this policy for Undergraduate faculty? 

 

Mark: Look, I think a little bit of perspective would be extremely helpful here. We are asking a century and a half year old institution, originally affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and still a dedicated Christian University, to make a major change to their policies regarding faculty hiring and recruiting. Can we really and reasonably expect an evolution of such magnitude to occur over night? 

I tend to play the long game: Can you really expect to turn an ocean liner around on a dime? Simply put, it takes time. But there has already been significant progress towards a more inclusive embrace on several fronts at Belmont. Perhaps we can focus on those concrete steps instead. 

 

Frank: Mark, you make a very good point. Belmont University has made significant progress in how they are dealing with the issue of Jewish inclusion. First, they have formed a committee entitled Belmont Initiative for Jewish Engagement which consists of ten members, five Jews and five Christians. This committee, which we both serve on, has helped foster several important changes. The following are some, but not all, of these changes 

 

  • Formed an official Jewish Student group (there are currently approximately 90 Jewish students enrolled at Belmont), providing supper gatherings, hosting the first ever Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services on campus as well as honoring excused absences for High Holiday observance. 

 

  • Hosted a Rabbi-Reverend Conversation dialogue retreat with representatives of multiple Jewish and Christian communities as well as organizing a weekly one- hour Jewish/Christian Zoom dialogue on religious issues of both faiths. 

 

  • Raised significant financial support for The Jewish Christian Relations Initiative Fund, reflecting a spirit of unity and philanthropy within the community. This philanthropy will fund several lectures during each academic year on topics of Judaism and its history. 

 

  • Partner with The Temple to discuss societal issues. 

 

 

  • Foster the recruitment of Jewish faculty members to Belmont’s Colleges of Law, Pharmacy and Medicine.  

 

The Belmont Initiative for Jewish Engagement is dedicated to the creation of perspective, dialogue, support, and understanding between Christian and Jewish faith traditions. Through leadership development, curriculum creation, focused lectureships, Sacred Text studies, and travel opportunities, the Initiative will explore the intersection of these faith traditions and the ways in which they can foster inclusion of interfaith involvement.  

While I am impatient for the establishment of Jewish faculty and courses on Judaism at Belmont to begin sooner rather than later, I will continue to be supportive of this newly created Belmont’s Initiative for Jewish Engagement.  

 

Mark: Frank, you have done a remarkable job of listing some of the significant things that have already been accomplished and we are just getting started. So, what is the ultimate reason for supporting this program? In a time of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, especially on many college campuses, we have the ability, in our community, to expose nearly ten thousand Christian students and faculty to the richness of Jewish history, tradition and belief, while simultaneously creating a more welcoming environment for the Jewish students at Belmont as well as the future Jewish faculty. 

 

Rabbi Mark Schiftan can be reached at mschiftan@aol.com 

Dr. Frank Boehm can be reached at frank.boehm@vumc.org  

 

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