The 2004 Parliament of World’s Religions: A Report from Dr. Ephraim Isaac and Rabbi Capers Funnye

The Institute for Jewish & Community Research sponsored Dr. Ephraim Isaac and Rabbi Capers Funnye to attend The 2004 Parliament of World’s Religions conference in Barcelona, Spain from July 7 – 14, 2004. Below is a report from both participants about the conference.

The Report by Dr. Ephraim Isaac

Rabbi Funnye and I participated in the Parliament of World’s Religions 2004, sponsored by the Be’chol Lashon and the Institute for Jewish & community Research. In 1993, the American Jewish Congress of Chicago invited me to be a member of the Chicago and US delegation to the First (Second) Parliament of World’s Religions after one hundred years of such a gathering. I also attended the Second (Third) Parliament as a member of the Jewish delegation.

At the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religion in Chicago, the Assembly included nearly 200 respected and influential persons from the world’s religious and spiritual communities. In 1993 the Parliamant issued a document titled, Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration, that was a result of our dialogues. At the 1999 Parliament in Cape Town, the Assembly issued A Call to Our Guiding Institutions – addressing religion, government, business, education, media, science, organizations of civil society and international intergovernmental organizations – to consider and re-orient their respective roles regarding the critical issues facing the world today.

The theme of the Parliament in 2004 was – Pathways to Peace: the Wisdom of Listening, the Power of Commitment. As before, the current world situation – and the need to foster inter-religious dialogue and cooperation – was central. The Assembly was held prior to the general mass gathering of the Parliament, which was attended this year by about 8,000 people from diverse religious parties and communities and other interested institutions, including even the World Bank.

I was again invited as a Jewish delegate to participate in the small Assembly of religious leaders, held from July 5-7, 2004, at the famous Montserrat monastery in close proximity to Barcelona. The small Montserrat Assembly that consisted of some 250 religious leaders from all over the world focused on four issues that are currently considered of international importance:

* Improving the plight of refugees;
* Canceling international debt for developing countries;
* Overcoming violence, religiously motivated or targeted;
* Increasing access to clean water.

I chose to participate in the section that dealt with overcoming violence, because I felt that this is an issue religions can more particularly deal with more directly. I arrived at Montserrat on July 4, 2004. The three-day Assembly was a gathering of “religious and spiritual leaders, scholars, activists and practitioners, grassroots inter-religious organizers, representatives of the world’s other guiding institutions, and young people, in order to consider the role and contribution of religion and spirituality to a better world.”

The members considered model new ways for religious and spiritual communities to work together with non-religious institutions. It was the intention of the Council that this process of community building and creative engagement in Montserrat Assembly will be repeated four times during the mass Parliament event itself with a wider range of participants addressing each of these designated issues.

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Subsequently, under the auspices of Be’chol Lashon, I attended the mass Parliament gathering in Barcelona held July 7 – 13, with Rabbi Funnye of Chicago to participate on a panel discussion on July 12th on Jewish diversity entitled “The Global Face of Judaism”. I gave a talk on general Jewish diversity with focus on Ethiopian Jews.

The 2004 Parliament featured over 400 lectures, workshops, symposia, and performances exploring matters of religious identity, inter-religious dialogue, and opportunities for shared action. I think our panel is one of the more serious ones.

In my talk, I extended Rabbi Funnye’s and my thanks for the support they gave us to attend the Parliament. I then spoke about the Place of Jews in Ethiopia and the Black world. I analyzed certain Biblical phrases, referred to legends and history, as well as attestations from linguistic and literary sources as to the place of Black Jews in Jewry and their role in Judaism. The talk was taped by the Parliament. At the end of the panel discussion several questions were raised, many directed at me, including one in Catalan about the beatification of Isabella, which I fortunately figured out and even translated for the audience although I gave the answer in English.

The response to our Panel was very positive and a letter that I received from the Parliament summarizes the point:

“I wanted to write to say once again what a pleasure it was meeting you in Barcelona and I’m glad that we had the chance to sit down, even briefly, during the Parliament. I have been telling people that of the high points of the Parliament, seeing the “Global Faces of Judaism” panel come together with the level of discourse (from the panelists and the audience) that it had was immensely gratifying… I very much hope that we will have the chance to work together again in the future… ” (Zach Pall, May 26, 2004)

As the Parliament correctly says, now more than ever the world needs the vision and commitment of people of faith, spirit and goodwill. I believe the Parliament can play a crucial and central role in inter-religious understanding and promoting peace and tolerance throughout the world. But the organization needs better structure, well thought-out agenda, and skilled leadership knowledgeable in world affairs and global cultures.

In conclusion, I again thank the Be’chol Lashon for its concern and support of my work and Rabbi Funnye’s.

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The Report by Rabbi Capers Funnye

The Parliament of the World’s Religions works to cultivate harmony among religious and spiritual communities and to foster their engagement with the world and its other guiding institutions in order to achieve a more peaceful, just and sustainable world.

History

The Parliament of the World’s Religions held its inaugural event as part of the Columbian Exposition in 1893 held in Chicago, Illinois. This historic gathering is widely regarded as the beginning of the interreligious movement worldwide.

At the next Parliament that was held in 1993 in Chicago, Illinois eight thousand people from around the world came together for a centennial Parliament celebration to foster harmony among religious and spiritual communities and to explore their responses to the critical issues facing the global community. I had the opportunity to attend several sessions of this Parliament and found I was very enlightened by the presentations which I attended.

In 1999 the Parliament convened in Cape Town, South Africa to promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation and call the world’s attention to the powerful role that religious and spiritual communities played in the struggle against apartheid. The climax of this gathering was an address given by the honorable Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa.

The 2004 Parliament was held in Barcelona, Spain and there were over twenty thousand people from around the world in attendance. The theme of the Parliament was; Pathways to Peace: The Wisdom of Listening, the Power of Commitment.

The Event

The 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions had several areas that the organizers wanted to cover; to deepen our spirituality; foster mutual understanding; learn to live in harmony; to recognize the humanity of the other; to seek peace, justice, and sustainability; and to actively work for a better world.

There were over four-hundred sessions held in every religious faith from around the world, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, B’hai and Judaism. I was invited to participate in two discussions related to the Jewish community. “The Global Face of Judaism” a panel that included Rabbi Henry Sobel, the Chief Rabbi of Brazil; Shlomo Alon, Vice-Chair of the Interfaith Encounter Association from the State of Israel; Dr. Ephraim Isaac, Head of Semitic Studies Department at Princeton University and a native of Ethiopia; and myself. Each participate had the opportunity to present a fifteen minute talk on their experiences and interactions with other communities of Jews.

For the first time in my life, I found myself in the position to present the views of the Black Jewish community on a world stage. The opportunity to speak to a very large international audience about my experience as a Jew of color was exciting and humbling at the same time. I was humbled because of the opportunity to participate on such a distinguished panel and excited because of the wonderful response to my presentation received from the other panelist and the audience.

The second panel in which I participated was on “Between Jewish Pluralism and Post-Denominationalism: A Jewish Roundtable” was interesting because the other panelist basically spoke about the level of acceptance of the different denominations of Judaism throughout the world. I had to say in all earnestness that the Black Jewish community is not apart of any of the major movements in the United States. I found Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, of CLAL to be very forthright in his comments, and Rabbi Henry Sobel of Brazil seemed to waver when I asked him about conversion in Brazil of the Black Brazilians who are not able to freely convert to Judaism in Brazil. Rabbi Hailu Paris came to Brazil twice and each time he could not get a meeting with Rabbi Sobel. After that conversation Rabbi Sobel invited both Rabbi Paris and me to Brazil.

Dr. Isaac and I also went to Shabbat services at the first synagogue to open in Spain, since the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. The Israelite Synagogue was opened in 1957. It was my first time being in a synagogue where I was not an invited speaker that not only didn’t anyone question my being Jewish, the Rabbi of the synagogue asked if I was a Kohen or Levite. It was truly a beautiful Shabbat and one that I shall remember for a long time to come. After services the vice-president of the synagogue invited Dr. Isaac and me to his home for lunch.

As we lunched, I learned that there are only about 10,000 – 12,000 Jews in all of Spain today and that less that twenty percent of them maintain a kosher diet. It was interesting to learn that a reform temple recently opened in Barcelona and that Chabad also had a rabbi serving the community. As I reflected on my synagogue visit, I wonder if perhaps because there are so few Jews in Spain, that when a Jew of any color comes into there midst, that he/she is welcomed as a Jew. Maybe one day the time will come when I am just visiting a city and attend Shabbat services, that no one here will ask me if I’m Jewish.

I want to thank the Institute of Jewish & Community Research for sponsoring my trip and allowing me to put the Israelite community on the world stage.

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