From July 10 to 13, the ICCJ will bring its annual conference, titled The Dynamics of Religious Pluralism in a Changing World, to Saint Joseph’s University.
The Holocaust’s anguish was still fresh in their minds and souls when a group of concerned Jewish and Christian religious leaders convened an emergency conference to discuss the world going forward.
That conference, held in Seelisberg, Switzerland in 1947, led to the founding of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) shortly thereafter.
Nearly 70 years later, from July 10 to 13, the ICCJ will bring its annual conference, titled The Dynamics of Religious Pluralism in a Changing World, to Saint Joseph’s University.
For ICCJ President Phillip A. Cunningham, who’s been involved in Jewish-Christian relations for 40 years, it’s a fitting place to discuss such weighty issues.
“What it means being in Philadelphia is focusing on how the American experiment has played out in terms of diversity of religions,” said Cunningham, a professor of theology and religious studies at SJU, as well as director of SJU’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR) “William Penn invited folks from all the colonies’ religious background. That openness influenced the Constitution.”
Cunningham expects some 150 guests from 20 countries to attend the conference.
The event will consist of a number of workshops and panel discussions, along with an assortment of speakers and presenters from all religious persuasions.
Among them is Rabbi David N. Saperstein, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and the former director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
In its mission statement, the ICCJ lists among its goals: “Promoting understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews based on respect for each other’s identity and dignity … addressing issues of human rights and human dignity deeply enshrined in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity … to counter all forms of prejudice, intolerance, discrimination, racism and misuse of religion for national and political domination … and affirming in honest dialogue each person remains loyal to his or her own essential faith commitment …”
According to guest speaker Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University who was born in Philadelphia, having such dialogue is invaluable.
“First of all, it seems to me any gathering of leaders of different faiths — be they Muslims, Christian and Jews — helps to bring down prejudice and promote better understanding, especially in the current climate,” said Sarna, who’s also the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
In conjunction with the ICCJ conference, the Council on Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR) also will hold its annual meeting. According to Adam Gregerman, assistant professor of Jewish studies at SJU and co-director of the IJCR, it puts more focus on these issues from a national rather than global perspective.
“The CCJR is the American branch of the ICCJ,” Gregerman said. “There’s some crossover.
“There’s been a dramatic change in the relationship between two traditions that have been hostile to each in the past. There’s been a shift to much greater respect for each other and rejection of religious hatred in a solid effort to build a new relationship.”
According to the conference program, the existence of the council itself is largely attributable to what took place in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania long before the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
“The Council can be seen as the direct outgrowth of the principles of religious tolerance upon which Pennsylvania was first founded in 1681,” wrote Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple, co-convener of the Religious Leaders Council of Philadelphia. “How fitting that this year’s ICCJ meeting occurs here in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy, and most especially of freedom of religion!”
While it’s one thing for scholars, historians and various representatives of the different faiths to talk about these issues and get a better understanding of each other’s way of thinking, how does any of that get passed down to the common man?
It’s a dilemma that Sarna concedes won’t be resolved anytime soon.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it now.
“My hope is people will gain information, and it will trickle down,” Sarna said. “Remember what makes the story significant. Go back to early days of interfaith discussions between Jew and Christians — they were condemned by some rabbis who said, ‘All they’re trying to do is convert us.’
“Now we have to do the same things concerning Jews and Muslims. It won’t be easy, and we’ll probably not live to see the results. But if we want our children to co-exist with those Muslims, we’ve got to start having these kinds of meetings and learn from one another.”
Frank interactions are just part of what will be on the agenda starting July 10.
There also will be field trips to the NMAJH, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center, along with historic walking tours of the city’s Jewish and Christian centers.
Cunningham admitted it will be tough to top 2015’s conference in Rome, where the ICCJ was granted a papal audience.
Speaking of Pope Francis, one highlight for visitors will be seeing Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time, the statute on cam-pus blessed with holy water during his visit to Philadelphia.
Still, Cunningham expects a fascinating four days.
“To get firsthand accounts of what’s happening on the ground in this country is a valuable experience,” said Cunningham, “because the world’s largest Jewish diaspora, by far, lives in the United States and, since we have this constitutional encouragement of free expression of religion, the depth of the dialogue is quite striking. Jews and Christians rub shoulders on a regular basis. We should be able to talk more easily because of our environment.”
That’s what the ICCJ is all about: Talking. Listening. Trying to iron out our differences so that men and women of all religions are able to practice freely throughout the world.
What started out in the wake of horror and cruelty 69 years ago in Switzerland has evolved into something truly meaningful today, promoting brotherhood throughout the world.