By Helene H. Waranch
Do not separate yourself from the community… Pirke Avot 4.5
…help me understand those about me and fill me with the desire to serve them. Let me not forget that I depend on others as they depend on me… Gates of Prayer p. 188
As a child, I grew up with sisterhood and interfaith understanding as a regular part of my family life. We shared many experiences with people of different faiths.
During my mother’s term as president of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Sisterhood when I was a teenager, she began the Interfaith Institute which is now in its 53rd year. It is an all day program open to people of all faiths and citywide clergy. Each year a specific topic is selected by an interfaith planning committee. A keynote speaker and three responders are invited to present. During lunch, 200-400 participants in small groups have the opportunity to discuss their views on the year’s topic.
So as a young bride when I moved to Gastonia, NC and quickly became involved in sisterhood, I helped to create The Teacher’s Institute to introduce Judaism to local public school teachers. I also worked within the community to build understanding with dialogue groups, friends and the Junior League of Gastonia.
When I became involved in the National Federation of Temples Sisterhoods (now Women of Reform Judaism) on the district and then national levels, I learned that sisterhoods were encouraged to develop and implement such interfaith programs as:
- Ongoing dialogue with Christian or Muslim groups to share holiday celebrations and to discuss specific religious concepts
- Annual communitywide programs open to the public to explore a particular issue pertinent to all
- Teacher training and informational programs to educate the community about Judaism
- Panel discussions by clergy of different faiths to present their viewpoints on a particular topic
- An interfaith Seder to explore its relevance for Christianity and Judaism
- Joint community service projects within the local community, such as: feeding the hungry, advocating for a critical issue, or providing for the needs of disaster victims
Many materials were produced by NFTS/WRJ and UAHC, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as by interfaith organizations and were recommended for use or as a guide for sisterhoods. Workshops on interfaith programs were often held at Biennial Assemblies and outstanding interfaith programs were recognized as models.
My participation in interfaith activities through sisterhood and NFTS/WRJ led me to become actively involved within the Baltimore community. I chaired several Interfaith Institutes for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Sisterhood. I joined and subsequently served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Christian Jewish Studies for many years. I am a founding member of a women’s interfaith dialogue group that has continued to study together for over 25 years on a biweekly basis.
Through these experiences, I have learned a great deal about Christianity as well as about the many components of Judaism. I have gained a stronger commitment to my faith and to determining my own personal beliefs. My horizons have been widened and I have created lifelong friendships.
As WRJ celebrates its centennial year, we should encourage and assist our sisterhoods and all communities in reaching out to other faiths for learning and sharing. Through education and open discussions about our political, religious and cultural differences and similarities, we can be exemplars of mutual respect and caring for the sacredness of all human beings.
Helene H. Waranch is a WRJ past president (2001-2005) and past chair of the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. She is a lifelong member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and continues to be active there as well as her in local community, including the first Jewish president of the Junior League of Baltimore.
The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund and by Sandi and Michael Firsel and Temple Chai Sisterhood.