A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League shows that this year, hate crimes rose to the highest level in 12 years. The number reflects the rising number of assaults on Black and Asian Americans and coupled with the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, has US officials and law enforcement worried. That is in addition to the recent Pew study of American Jews’ finding that over half of those surveyed experienced antisemitic slurs, comments, or threats. And as high-level agency officials, lawmakers, and domestic terrorism experts grapple with next steps, those on the ground are left trying to figure out a way to both deal with the threats and to build bridges of understanding. In Nashville, a unique partnership is hoping to do the latter. The Jewish-Christian Studies Initiative is a partnership between The Temple and Belmont University’s Rev. Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership and seeks to engage college students in experiential learning about the power of interfaith understanding. The initiative is being led by Rabbi Mark Schiftan of The Temple, and Dr. Jon Roebuck of the Curb Center, and includes lectures and Bible study, and culminates in a two-week trip to Washington, DC to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The overall goal, says Rabbi Schiftan, is to explore common experiences. “We want to figure out the lessons that derive from hate and hateful acts and how we can develop tolerance, acceptance and make restitution.” Dr. Roebuck says the formative college years are an opportunity to reach young people. “How wonderful for students in their 20s to have exposure to these experiences and ideas and have time to make some positive change in the world.”
During the trip to Washington, DC, students will spend a week at each of the two museums. Dr. Roebuck says the goal is to provide a bigger lens through which to view the world. “It is important to become more aware of the worlds where we all walk, live and think. This trip will help students gain perspective on the African American experience and to have a greater understanding of the Jewish community, as well.” The themes of oppression and marginalization of both groups is the focus of the trip. Michelle Shaw, Faculty Fellow at Belmont University in the Department of Communication Studies, will be leading students through the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She says her focus is on how religion oppressed African Americans in similar ways that religion caused the Holocaust. “What does it mean when language cause action and activates certain behaviors?” she questions, “What caused the Black church to rise up when there were already institutions in place?” She says her goal is not to change minds, but rather to ask the big questions. “As students move forward in life, hopefully they will have information to help them make decisions about life and religion.”
The Jewish-Christian Studies Initiative is being funded by various endowments. Steve Riven is Chair of the overall fundraising campaign and his family endowment is helping to fund some of the study opportunities. He says programs like this one are crucial to strengthening the city of Nashville. “This program will further open up relationships between the Jewish community and the community at large,” he says, “It will also help attract more Jewish students from around the country to come to Nashville and to Belmont University.” He adds that it was the vision of Rabbi Schiftan, along with former Belmont President Bob Fisher and the new President, Greg Jones, that is making this dream a reality. “These leaders are so dynamic and so focused, they can see the long-term benefit this will have on the whole community,” he says. And Dr. Roebuck agrees and says there are even plans in the works to develop a similar program for adults beyond college. “That’s one of the dreams,” he says, “It’s important to think about doing these types of explorations for adults. It’s all part of figuring out how we can all work together and do common good.”
Those interested in learning more should contact Rabbi Mark Schiftan, 615-352-7620.