Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer knew that she wanted to be an interfaith educator before such a role existed. She recalls that in the 1970s, “We didn’t have those words. That wasn’t a career path. But that was what I was imagining.” Now chair of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), Kreimer does not measure her success by coverage of her efforts in the New York Times, publishing academic papers and writing influential blogs, or participating in high-profile events. For Kreimer, success is when a former student joins a rally in support of a local mosque or helps plan an interfaith peace walk. While Kreimer is a pioneer in the interfaith movement, she could not have anticipated the ways in which the work would transform over four decades, or that — for a few years — she would walk away from it.
Kreimer vividly remembers the first interfaith event that would shape her professional path: a conference on Auschwitz held at St. John the Divine in New York in the spring of 1974. Although still a college student at the time, she recognized that the gathering of Christian and Jewish theologians represented “the beginning of a new era.” Kreimer was particularly struck by the ways in which Christians were “re-thinking their own identity, liturgy and theology,” as a result of exploring the possible complicity of Christian institutions in the Nazi Holocaust. A few years later, Kreimer enrolled in a doctoral program at Temple University to study Christian-Jewish relations. “It combined something intellectually exciting and spiritually enriching, and had an activism element that really engaged me.” She admired her Christian professors who, like the clergy at the first interfaith event, showed “a willingness to take on their own community.”
While Kreimer engaged in her doctoral studies, she also enrolled in rabbinical school. She did not plan to be a pulpit rabbi, but thought it was important for interfaith work: “I wanted to do this work as a religious leader. I was working with ministers and priests. That was how I wanted to show up for interfaith engagement. ” As she completed her Ph.D., she became the part-time Director of the newly-formed Religious Studies Department at the RRC. Kreimer emphasizes, “We were the first school in the history of Judaism to make the study of Christianity a requirement for the rabbinate.” She explains, “I was thinking as an educator, bringing interfaith into vocation as a rabbi. I was looking at our community of Jews, and wondering where we could reconstruct –so to speak–our understandings of the other.”
Kreimer found sustenance for her work in the practice Mussar, a Jewish spiritual discipline focused on character. She describes: “We’re here on earth to bear the burden of the other. In any setting, what you need to say is: ‘What is the burden of the other? And is there any way that I can bear that burden with her?’” She explains that this approach applies in any situation, even in the midst of an argument with a family member. Kreimer clarifies that this is not a matter of “saving” the other; but of trying to understand the burden and bearing it together. Kreimer adds, “This is why I’m here, that’s what I hope to be about.”
Yet by the 1990s, she recalls, “I became disenchanted with my own field.” She felt Jewish-Christian relations were driven by the Holocaust and Israel: “All too often, Christians were bringing guilt, and Jews were bringing a desire to get support for Israel.” Interfaith work, she thought, should be more than “agenda-swapping.” Discouraged, she said, “This was not what I wanted to do; it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I did not want to be a prophet to Christians, but to Jews. I wanted to get our house in order.” Kreimer “drifted away” from interfaith, to the healing field. Over the next 4 years, she served as a rabbi at the Philadelphia’s Jewish Family and Children’s Service, helping to bear a different set of burdens.
In the months after September 11, 2001, Kreimer found herself drawn back in to interfaith work, receiving requests to appear on panels. She discovered, “All of a sudden, the old field I’d taken a hiatus from was transformed.” No longer were the conversations about Christian guilt, or responsibilities to support Israel; they were about Islam. No longer was it a panel with a priest, a minister, and a rabbi; it was a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. Although Kreimer completed coursework on Islam as part of her doctoral studies, she hardly knew any Muslims, and the way she studied Islam did not seem relevant. “I realized I was ill prepared to do the work … and, worse, I was not preparing my students. So I set to work to reinvent the way in which we taught interfaith at RRC.” As a leader in the Jewish community, she felt: “We needed to wake up and notice that we were no longer the oppressed other in America. That community, Muslims, was something that Jews knew little about.” She would encounter a “tremendous amount of ignorance” about Islam, but a strong desire to understand better. “Our rabbis really did need to educate themselves so they could educate the community.”
Kreimer developed a partnership with the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and created a service-learning course for the teaching of Islam. They developed peer relationships for rabbinical students with emerging Muslim leaders, creating an annual retreat that is open to rabbinical students from across the denominational spectrum. Today, the department –now called “Multifaith Studies and Initiatives”– emphasizes relationships, activism, character and leadership development, in the context of Jewish tradition and community. She is mindful of how much rabbinical students must learn in five years, from Talmud to Jewish Feminist Interpretations, so when teaching about other religions, Kreimer asks, “How can I give them the biggest bang for the buck, given scarce resources of time?” She continues, “We incubate innovative projects and resources at the leading edge of seminary education,” many of which take students beyond the classroom into the city. Kreimer’s reinvention of interfaith education, a process she considers ongoing, brought her back to the work she felt “called to do.”
At the same time, Kreimer has emerged as a strong and vital public voice against rising Islamophobia, often drawing parallels to the Jewish experience in her speeches and writings. Her Huffington Post article, “Park51 Should Not be Complicated for Jews,” was among the earliest attempts to shift the narrative of suspicion around the “Ground Zero Mosque”; she is a founding member of Clergy Without Borders, an organization that recently undertook a speaking tour of the U.S. to promote “an active religious pluralism”; and, she is a key member of Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a group with the tag-line: “Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values.” In addition, Kreimer engages in the grassroots work for which she educates her students, participating in Philadelphia’s rich interfaith life, serving on the board of the Philadelphia Interfaith Center, and working with the committee that plans the city’s annual Peace Walk.
One thing that hasn’t changed for Kreimer since her return to interfaith work is her sense that the subject of Israel/Palestine represents an “obstacle” to interfaith engagement. She feels that the competing agendas obscure what would otherwise be a “natural alliance between Jews and Muslims trying to make their way in a majority Christian culture.” She is dismayed that some of those beating the drums of Islamophobia are Jews, and that Jewish-affiliated organizations such as the Clarion Foundation supported anti-Muslim media projects. Yet she also recognizes that many in the Jewish community, especially the younger members, have taken on the burden of the other and begun to educate and engage across lines of difference. “There is an enormous amount of movement.” She comments, “I have been at this a long time, so I can see it in perspective.” And, she adds, “Piece by piece, we’re going to make a different world.”