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A matter of faith: Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs


Several of my most recent posts, including this one, emphasize a social justice theme. Beth Katz and her Project Interfaith bridge the divide that often separates different faith communities.  It is just the kind of effort there needs to be more of in a society that preaches tolerance but that often doesn’t practice it.  Katz and Project Interfaith bring people from different traditions together at the table in an attempt to better understand and appreciate each other and their differences.  In the divisiveness of the immigration debate and in a climate when negative attitudes still persist about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Fundamentalists, right on down the line, anything that people can do to promote harmony and unity is to be applauded.  My story about Katz and her project originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), which recently stopped publishing. Katz is active in an initiative here gaining national attention called Project Interfaith, a coalition of Jews, Episcopalians, and Muslims attempting to build consensus for an envisioned tri-faith campus.

 

A matter of faith, Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

 

 

Growing up in predominantly Catholic and WASP Omaha, Beth Katz was often the lone Jew in the room. That meant fielding questions about her faith. This sense of Otherness, combined with her natural curiosity, led the Central High grad to ask Christians about their traditions.

It all came to a head at Jesuit Creighton University in the early 2000s. She assumed living among Christians her whole life told her all she needed to know about Christianity. Then she found out different. “I might know something about Christianity in a cultural sense,” she said, “but I have a very shallow understanding of what it means in a spiritual sense. Don’t confuse familiarity with knowledge — they’re not the same thing.” When she had no answers to several questions friends asked about Judaism, she said, “I realized just how shallow my own knowledge of my faith was and it made me go back and investigate some of these issues. That was a very spiritual experience for me.”

When a required theology class glossed over Judaism and other non-Christian world religions, she raised the issue about inclusion.

“I got active on campus to try and change some of the curriculum requirements,” she said. That effort led her to CU’s Campus Ministry, whose then-director, Father Bert Thelen, “really wanted to create an environment where all students felt welcomed and felt their spiritual needs were met,” she said. “He encouraged us to become involved. The Muslim Student Association had just formed and we were just forming a Jewish Student Association. We created a multi-faith student group and started holding dialogues and different programs on campus that would engage students about issues of faith and identity.”

Fast forward to 2005. Katz, fresh from graduate studies in social work, public policy and community organizing at the University of Michigan, came home to do “something I felt called to do.” That was founding Project Interfaith, a resource and facilitator for interfaith and religious diversity issues. The nonprofit, which she directs with the aid of a part-time paid assistant and volunteers, is an extension of the mission she began at Creighton. More deeply, it’s an expression of her faith.

“I am such a product of Judaism. It’s really shaped who I am,” she said. “Community has always been so important to me. It’s not just about you, you have to think of yourself in the context of others.”

She felt so strongly about community she passed on a federal fellowship in the executive branch to, instead, create “a sustainable interfaith program for Omaha. I felt like the time was right and this was something that was needed,” she said. She laid the groundwork by talking to a cross-section of folks. Finding only “scattered, sporadic, grassroots interfaith initiatives, she saw an opportunity for “a formal, multi-pronged, comprehensive approach to engaging people on these issues.”

“I saw a hunger in our community to have these sorts of interactions, conversations, resources,” she said. “I think part of it is people don’t know where to go, and we can help connect people…I feel like we’re really doing something that’s meaningful, that’s making the community better.”

Project Interfaith is an affiliate of the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Regional Office. Reflecting the diversity Katz espouses she’s formed an advisory council and board of directors made up of representatives from 13 different religious communities and two universities. Religious tensions would have made such cooperation difficult in the not so distant past. The modern interfaith movement, Katz said, began in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, a document reconciling strained Catholic-Jewish relations, affirming shared values-histories and encouraging outreach and dialogue between faith groups.

Katz, who by virtue of not being a religious studies scholar and not aligning her organization with any one group avoids even the hint of favoritism, diplomatically brings parties to the table for discussion.

“We want to broker relationships. We like to partner with a lot of different organizations so that we can bring as many people into the conversation as possible,” she said. “I just want to…get people learning and talking and ultimately creating relationships. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

She also works to include “people across the ideological spectrum.” Said Katz, “I am so sick of how polarized things are. We want to offer an opportunity to transcend all that.”

An array of Project Interfaith programs and activities promote understanding and reflect her belief “interfaith work is multidimensional — it’s not just about sitting in a circle talking about your faith. We want to give people a lot of different ways to be involved…”

 

 

 

 

Community Conversations bring nationally known speakers to discuss interfaith issues. Vanderbilt University-based author and scholar Amy-Jill Levine presented a January 8 address entitled, “From the Academy to the Pews: What Clergy, Lay Leaders, Scholars and Community Members Need to Know About the Origins, Evolutions and Future of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Coming up on April 3 is a presentation by Krista Tippett, host of National Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith.

Perodic Jewish-Christian-Muslim Study Circles aim to foster an appreciation and respect for both the commonalities and differences of these faith traditions.

The annual Interfaith Architectural Tour on March 9 visits the Hindu Temple and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. The theme is the role icons and imagery play in shaping art and architecture in religious communities.

She organized a conference on interfaith dialogue in a post-9/11 world.

Katz plans reprising the Interfaith Storytelling Festival co-sponsored with the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Rose Theatre and the Omaha Children’s Museum in 2006. The event featured Jewish, Christian and Muslim storytellers and various art activities for youths and families. She’d like to expand the number of storytellers and faith traditions represented. An interfaith film festival is a possibility.

“I love to use the arts as a way to teach about religious diversity, as a vehicle for people to express and explore their faith,” said Katz.

In collaboration with the Cathedral Arts Project, a fall exhibition called Images of Faith: Private and Public Rituals is planned around the five major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. A collection of sacred objects from each will be displayed. Photo essays will examine the role ritual plays in these communities. A Web-based component will invite the public to submit images for posting online. A curriculum is being formulated with lesson plans built around the exhibit that teachers can implement in schools.

Project Interfaith’s formal educational side offers religious diversity trainings to educators, health care providers and nonprofit agency workers. The goal of these workshops is to help participants be sensitive to the religious orientations of the constituencies they serve. She said professionals want this training because “they recognize how religiously diverse our population is and they’re struggling to make sure they’re meeting the needs” of everyone.

“We do identity exercises where people look at their own attitudes about religion,” Katz said. “We develop a common language for talking about religious diversity issues. We bring in a legal expert to look at the legal parameters of dealing with religion in public schools.”

She said schools find the trainings useful because educators are given “concrete ways to teach about religion in public schools that are academic, neutral, constitutional and totally appropriate. We also give some guidance on what sort of accommodations are appropriate for students that do not impinge on their First Amendment right for religious freedom.”

The same considerations, she said, apply to students who do not affiliate themselves with any religion or who identify as atheist.

Katz, who hopes Project Interfaith can have an impact beyond Omaha, said schools in Wichita, Kan. and Lincoln, Neb. “have invited us to offer our religious diversity training for educators.” She added that an interfaith alliance in Des Moines, Iowa “wants to meet with us and learn more about what we do.”

She said Project Interfaith is doing “ground breaking work” that “can translate to other communities — locally, nationally, even potentially beyond that. We try to think outside the box. We deconstruct the box. Anybody, really, is a potential partner. I know a lot of businesses pilot products in Omaha — it’s a great test market — and I think we can be a test market for innovative interfaith work.”

Amy-Jill Levine has high praise for what Project Interfaith does. She said the January program she spoke at “demonstrated Omaha’s triumph over the religious and cultural battles that beset American society.”

Katz said Omaha’s well-suited for interfaith action because its individual faith communities don’t split “along ideological and ethnic lines” as they do elsewhere.

All Project Interfaith programs, she said, invite discussion. “It’s in a safe environment where people can be honest and we can get to the heart of some of the stereotypes and myths that are out there and break those down. I really feel honored at the amount of trust people give me and Project Interfaith because it takes a lot of guts to be honest and open. Faith is so personal, you know, and so fundamental to how people understand themselves in the world.”

One myth she said Project Interfaith tries overturning “is that we all have to agree or that at the end of the day we’re all the same. We don’t have to agree on everything but in order to get along we have to learn something about each other. Hopefully that understanding will evolve into respect. It’s important people appreciate their commonalities and recognize their similar values, but also explore and understand the differences that are so interesting and that create such rich and fertile conversations.”

She said another myth is that interfaith work weakens one’s own faith identity.

“My own personal experience is that it only tends to strengthen your identity,” she said, “because it’s provocative. As you’re asking questions of the other you’re beginning to reflect and understand and explore your own faith. I think it makes you want to go deeper and learn more about your own faith tradition.”

Two trips in 2007 affirmed this for her. Apropos for someone dedicated to interfaith exchanges, she made her first trip to Israel with a group of Christians. Then she went to the Vatican with a Catholic priest, a brother and a theology teacher as Omaha’s representatives at a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations.

She said each experience reinforced for her the importance of interfaith action. She came away with a better sense for the progress that’s been made, the challenges that persist and the path to take from this point forward.

“I love what I do. I feel inspired by the work and by the people I meet doing it.”

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