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Interfaith Shows Philanthropists Why Religion is a Force of Good

Panelists from the Parliament, World Bank and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation present “The Role of Religion in an Increasingly Polarized Society” at the Council on Foundations Philanthropy Exchange conference June 9, 2014 in Washington D.C.
From left: Parliament Executive Director Dr. Mary Nelson, Parliament Chair Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Parliament Vice Chair Rabbi Michael Balinsky, World Bank Lead of Faith-based Initiatives Adam Taylor, Parliament Trustee Janaan Hashim, and Vice-President of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation Cheryl Tupper.

Religion is often accused of causing much of the polarization in the world. Those who perpetrate violence through words and actions often point to religion as justification. However, the Parliament supports the notion that religion is a powerful force for good, bringing out the best in both individuals and communities.

Adam Taylor of the World Bank and Cheryl Tupper of Arthur Vining Davis Foundation joined the Parliament leadership on a panel presented at the Council of Foundations 2014 Philanthropy Exchange Conference on Monday, June 9. The breakthrough session called “The Role of Religion in an Increasingly Polarized Society,” attracted more than 40 engaged representatives of grantmaking organizations.

Panelists exploring this theme agreed that both the commonalities and distinctions between faiths can powerfully address deep moral and ethical issues of scarcity of resources, equality gap and justice, and the environment. Cheryl Tupper, speaking from a philanthropic perspective, said foundations are not only an important audience for these messages, but can also play an important role in addressing these issues.

Describing religious and spiritual communities as a force for good makes sense in financial terms, too. Participants live tweeting the panel highlighted Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid’s comments on reports projecting that $2.6 trillion U.S. dollars in charitable relief and social support come from faith communities in service annually.

“Interfaith brings out the best in faith,” said Imam Mujahid, who chairs the Board of the Parliament. Marketing the dollar signs behind religious good is a critical step forward for the interfaith movement itself. By quantifying the social good it becomes harder for guiding institutions to deny or ignore the massive potential of faith-based collaborations.

Adam Taylor elaborated the point in catchy terms. At his turn, Taylor spelled out the World Bank’s Faith Based Initiatives’ “4 B’s of Religion,” championing religion as a “bridge, balm, beacon of hope and a boost for social movements.”

Throughout the discussion the panelists sought to highlight practical ways faith communities are working to ameliorate the polarization between individuals religions, communities and our guiding institutions; in addition to how philanthropy can be a strong catalyst to support creative outcomes.

Moderator and Parliament Executive Director Dr. Mary Nelson explained reasons why some foundations have been skittish about engaging with faith-based initiatives, acknowledging that concerns arise when sectarian violence is committed ‘in the name of religion,’ but that the extremist fringes do not follow religious teachings. In reality, the majority of people of faith come together through common values of compassion for the other, or the Golden Rule.

Nelson further affirmed that “religion offers an ongoing source of renewal empowering us to face the issues of the world,” and that one of the opportunities foundations can be powerful colleagues in fostering a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world is in supporting ways of engaging younger people who are increasingly identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious.’

Remarking on the need to move beyond simple platitudes, Rabbi Michael Balinsky emphasized the need to build real relationships like those he seeks out not only in his work as Vice-Chair of the Parliament, but also in the Chicago neighborhoods of faith where he serves dual executive roles on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

Janaan Hashim, another Parliament Trustee, underlined the importance of dialogue. Sharing her experience teaching seminary students, Hashim reflected on how interfaith engagement is a way to learn productive and respectful communication when difficult issues emerge.

By the session closing, engaging questions from attendees pushed the 75 minute gathering overtime an additional five minutes. It was heartening for those working within and supportive to the interfaith movement to discover foundations so interested in understanding new pathways to collaborate with interfaith initiatives.

Mazel Tov to Parliament Treasurer, One of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis”

Rabbi Michael Balinsky, Treasurer of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions Board of Trustees, was just named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Daily Forward.  Of the honor, Balinsky said a former student had nominated him after inspiring him to become a rabbi. “It was all very touching,” Balinsky shares.

Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum describes Balinsky’s influence on his journey toward Rabbinical work:

“As my Hillel rabbi at Northwestern University, Rabbi Balinsky showed me that it was possible to guide young people toward Jewish observance with a sense of tolerance, openness and patience. He was sensitive to the fact that college students endure many ups and downs, and he approached each student with a proper mix of honesty and compassion. Most of all, no matter what I asked him, his answer and tone were both genuine and respectful. He is the reason why I became a rabbi, and if I can one day become half the rabbi that Michael Balinsky is, my community will benefit greatly.”


Do We Have To Pray Together?

Rabbi Michael Balinsky

Rabbi Michael Balinsky

by Rabbi Michael Balinsky
CPWR Trustee

“Do we have to pray together?”

I asked this to Dirk Ficca just before my first board meeting as a new trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. I was relieved with his response: Members of the CPWR do not pray together, in order to recognize the differences that exist between our traditions.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I am part of a tradition that has been wary of inter-religious dialogue. For some, the tension historically has been one of suspicion about the motives of those who sought dialogue—and the lurking question if it may simply be a subterfuge for proselytizing.

Perhaps as significantly, however, has been the concern that in the search for common ground, we might dilute the theological uniqueness of each of our individual communities. That we might ignore the specific ways a community views its sacred traditions and texts.

A recent blog I read, written by a rabbinic colleague, commented on the biblical verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and pointed out the universal nature of this ethic, listing its application in a number of other religious traditions. While the point was well taken, it would probably come as a surprise to most that in the vast majority of Jewish sources, this is not a universal ethic, but one often understood by our sages to apply only within the Jewish community.

Now this is not to say that Jews (and the tradition they follow) only care about fellow Jews and not about others; obviously Jews do. But the imperative to engage others and the world emerges elsewhere in the tradition. For most classical Jewish thinkers, a “neighbor” is the one with whom I share a common religious language, practice, and destiny. What might at first seem common to all is really unique expression of a particularistic community.

My experience with the Parliament has been one in which multiple religious communities can gather together, explore the unique dimensions of each of its members’ traditions, and then seek ways to collaborate on the issues facing all of us as a global community. The Parliament does so by creating the space where open discussion can occur, where a living laboratory of religious people can ask questions and seek greater understanding—and then be called to action to help others.

As a member of the Jewish community, I experience and live my life in a covenental relationship with God that expresses itself through my fulfillment of commandments and God’s bestowal of those commandments for me to fulfill. I certainly seek to share the wisdom I get from my tradition. But I do not claim that these commandments are obligatory to those outside of my community.

It is to the credit of the Parliament that at the end of the day I am given room to seek out my own sacred space—and pray alone or with fellow members of my community, in fulfillment of the religious obligation I understand prayer to be for me as a Jew. But then I am also given room to join with others and work on sustaining the world, far beyond the bounds of my religious community alone.