The Belmont University Initiative for Jewish Engagement program continues to develop relationships between Nashville’s Jewish and Christian communities. The initiative, now heading into its second year, is offering a full slate of lectures, workshops, book groups, and hands on travel experiences. According to Rabbi Mark Schiftan, who has been a leader in the effort, “When it comes to fostering a deeper understanding of Jewish tradition in the Christian community, there has been a vacuum, and Belmont wants to fill that space with ongoing engagement. This is my passion, and I can think of no higher academic offering from our Jewish community.”
Belmont’s history as a Baptist college makes it an unlikely partner for the Jewish community. In late 2007, it effectively cut ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and solidified its identity as a non-denominational Christian university. And while the school admits interfaith students, currently all faculty must adhere to its Christian beliefs, and the current employment application requires potential faculty to affirm and describe their Christian faith. But there are those at the university and in the Jewish community who want to see a more open approach to the educational offerings. Dr. Jon Roebuck, Executive Director of the Reverend Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership, is another of the Belmont University Initiative for Jewish Engagement leaders. He says, “We want Belmont to be a university for all of Nashville, and to engage different communities. Our goal is to foster dialogue, to explore the intersection of different faith traditions.”
The past several years have seen much growth at Belmont, notably the establishment of a Law School, and soon to come, a Medical School. The ground for a more inclusive culture was laid by former university President, Bob Fisher. According to Steve Riven, who is another leader in the Initiative stated, “Rabbi Schiftan worked with Dr. Fisher for 20 years to develop the relationship we see today.” And, says Riven, the arrival of Dr. Fisher’s successor, Dr. Greg Jones, will continue to build on that groundwork. “Dr. Fisher was a great visionary and Dr. Jones is cut from the same cloth. He is very experienced and very focused.” All of this begs the question: when will Belmont University begin hiring Jewish faculty? According to Dr. Roebuck, “The accreditation process for professional schools typically requires diversity of faculty, so that may come first.” But Rabbi Schiftan says at a recent fundraising dinner, “Dr. Jones gave an impassioned speech outlining his priority to hire tenured Jewish faculty and said he shared that with a very receptive Executive Board at a recent meeting.” The current goal is to hire tenured Jewish faculty members by summer 2023.
Despite the challenges, Dr. Jones is committed to following through on his promise to open Belmont to Jewish faculty. “It’s important because of our deepening relationships, especially during this time of rising antisemitism. Relationships like this help to reweave the social fabric.” He says programs like this one that include travel opportunities can cultivate strong bonds among unlikely groups of people. And he points to the relationship between Schiftan and Roebuck as providing a model for the deep ties that can be created. Jones is also hopeful
programs like this are just the beginning of broader dialogue. “This can be an incubator for much larger conversations that should happen around the world.”
Meanwhile, the 2022/23 academic year is underway, and among the program highlights is a text study of the book, Children Under Fire: An American Crisis, written by Washington Post reporter, John Woodrow Cox. The program was conceived by an interfaith spiritual study group which is a part of the Initiative, called Spiritus. Lynn Heady is a member of the group, and says the idea sprang out of discussions in the group around gun violence, and a desire to engage different faith traditions around the topic. “Our overall mission is to talk about the intersection of events and faith traditions,” she says, “We used the book to guide our discussions, and it grew from there.” The book is a compilation of stories of trauma around gun violence, as experienced by today’s youth. Both Rabbi Schiftan and Dr. Roebuck lead the members of Spiritus, and they agreed an event centered around the book would be a valuable addition to the The Belmont University Initiative for Jewish Engagement. According to Heady, the planning of the event is indicative of the value of interfaith study and conversation around a particular topic. “This has grown beyond our wildest dreams,” she says. There will be a series of events that will include a clergy breakfast, a student-only discussion, and an evening event open to the public, and the author will also be present. Ron Heady created a discussion guide, and there will be pilot discussions in advance of the event. Lynn Heady says, “What is going to make this so special is the act of bringing a diverse group of people together to learn together.”
The Belmont University Initiative for Jewish Engagement is being funded by donors who share Schiftan and Roebuck’s vision. Outreach began with the Jewish community, and according to Schiftan, the initial $1 million goal is within reach. “It was important to us to first engage the Jewish community, and then go to our Christian partners.” And Steve Riven says he is pleased with the support of Belmont, too. “The development office is very focused on making sure this program continues as long as they need it to,” he says. And, according to everyone involved, the hope is for this program to be an important vehicle for creating a more open, inclusive culture in Nashville. Riven says, “This will change the face of the school. It will change the face of Nashville.”