OPINION: How to create a thriving interfaith program on campus

OPINION: How to create a thriving interfaith program on campus

By Joel Salmon, President of St. Andrew’s Jewish Society. Screen shot 2014-11-20 at 09.56.02

It has been a tense few years for interfaith relations.

A student was expelled for racist abuse against a Jewish student, the Christian Union was de-affiliated from the Union and the Jsoc’s first ever charity ball was almost cancelled due to protests and the venue pulling out the day before (although we managed to find another venue in the nick of time!).

When I became Jsoc President two years ago, I realised that a vacuum was developing in St Andrews.

Either It could be filled with increasing and institutionalised bigotry and prejudice, or we could fill it on our own terms.

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Two years later and we have built an interfaith programme which continues to thrive and grow. We have had joint events with the Islamic Society and are building up a relationship with the Christian Union (CU) and the Catholic Society. We capped off our year with a conference entitled Coexistence in the Middle East, jointly planned by us, the Islamic Society and CU with almost 100 people attending and a multitude of speakers. We are currently planning for next year’s conference which will be bigger and better than the last.

These experiences have taught me that doing interfaith is not just about awkwardly drinking a cup of tea and talking about humous. It is about providing the right content and building relationships.

Therefore, we have used three approaches which I believe can serve as a model to others: bottom-up, top-down and partnership methods.

The ‘bottom-up’ approach – Relationship building. 

This is where relationship-building happens. Small groups can get to know each other and build a rapport. Regularly put people in a familiar setting and friendships can develop. This can humanise what before was just an ‘other’.

We held a joint event with the Islamic Society marking the fast of Ashura in which Muslims recall the Exodus, where we discussed the meaning of the Exodus in our respective religions and enjoyed a selection of food from all over the world.

Food always helps- as the Talmud says, “There can be no joy without food”. It adds colour to events, especially interfaith ones where people can call on generations’ worth of culinary traditions. With this approach, content is not so important; it is more about human interaction, which I believe is the foundation for all interfaith work.

The ‘top-down’ approach – Content

This might be considered the ‘content’ approach where participants are challenged through lectures, presentations and discussions. This should use the relationships developed to aid discussion of difficult topics. These relationships are important, because they make it easier for difficult topics to be breached. Therefore this year we are focusing more on this, for instance in February we are being joined by the Joseph Interfaith Foundation who will be leading a seminar on ‘Freedom of Expression and Social Media’. Bringing in speakers and presenting issues may be difficult to discuss, but if approached carefully can be used to bridge many underlying questions and assumptions that people may not normally feel comfortable raising.

The ‘partnership’ approach

This is when we fuse the two previous approaches, mixing the social with the academic. Our primary example is the conference, where last year we had some fascinating talks on how Jews and Christians read the Quran, the significance of Jerusalem, and Jewish-Muslim crossovers in medieval philosophy. The panel discussion and subsequent dinner allowed participants to discuss the topics of the day, and it was really lovely observing people talking for hours and days afterwards. True interfaith in action!

University is the perfect place for interfaith to happen. Thousands of students are in a confined space and they come from a huge variety of religious, geographical and social backgrounds. This is such an opportunity for us to empower the next generation not to fear or distrust interfaith, and I hope that ‘good’ interfaith continues to develop in St Andrews, and beyond.


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