Subscribe for Email Notifications

Friday, January 15, 2021

What Interfaith Means to Me As a "None" | By Eva Whittaker

 Eva is a post-graduate intern with Interfaith Philadelphia. She has a background in Social Anthropology and a keen interest in the intersection of religion and civil society. She will be writing a few more pieces for the blog over the coming months, on topics such as: expanding our definitions of ‘love’ in social action and community building; the ways in which sacred practices may enrich ‘secular’ life and communities; and the ways in which young people are shifting and shaping the spiritual/religious landscape.

What (or who) do I have faith in? What do I believe in?

As a young ‘none'* interested in the spiritual and sacred, I ask myself these questions frequently. And as a person committed to coming into loving, listening  relationship with others - committed to the hard work of community cultivation - these questions play doubly on my mind.

And furthermore, what is my stake or place, as someone without religious affiliation or faith, in interfaith dialogue? In order to speak to this present question, it feels right to turn to the roots of my curiosity about community, and my first experiences in multifaith spaces.

I trace the beginning of my interests (personal and academic) in community and spirituality back to growing up in non-theistic Quaker schools here in Philadelphia. From a young age, I learned about the SPICES – or how Quaker values are often taught to pre-K students (through 12th grade): Simplicity; Peace; Integrity; Community; Equality; and Stewardship. These were my values, and these were the values of my community; we enacted them in relationship with one another, in Meeting together, in days of service and in play. We learned about how our history informs our present, how the lives of a resilient many before us enabled the community we continue to cultivate, and how our manifold differences (together with what we have in common) should always be held with care. My interest in who we are and who we can be to each other started here. 


Because of these loving beginnings, I like to say I’m Quaker in values – but I don’t feel I have a personal relationship to God or a religious faith. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve come into a deeper understanding of how these values are challenged or denigrated entirely by the systems of harm and inequity which underlie most social structures in our shared world. Working to dismantle structures of oppression requires the collective.

I do continue to believe in a light within all of us. And this light, to me, signifies something innate, loving and shared between people – a potential for growth, for love, and for understanding. My commitment is to community, and to showing up for my community; to a life guided by integrity and an interest in being of service to others, committing to peace and equality as yet unrealized ideals to work toward together. 
Even though I don’t have a faith or religious affiliation, I have a stake in interfaith work because I have a stake in what it embodies – the generative potential of listening and connecting across difference, in order to cultivate new ways of being together. I continue to see how faith and religious traditions work to animate and unite communities – and how respect and understanding between those of different spiritual outlooks is essential to founding lasting relationships of solidarity and support, which extend outside the religious sphere. I believe in the potential of interfaith work to break down barriers of misunderstanding or hurt, to construct bridges of mutual trust and solidarity, and found relationships of social healing and harmony.

This work starts at the level of encounter; when we are able to speak openly and vulnerably about our hopes and fears, the experiences and beliefs which guide our lives, we come into loving relationship with one another. In order to hold and create space for this long-term work of social reckoning and communal healing, we at Interfaith Philadelphia and in each of our communities need to set a wide table. And I am so glad to have a seat at this table with you.

*person without a faith or spiritual orientation


Thursday, December 24, 2020

My Christmas Story | By Rev. Richard Fernandez

I want to share with you a very short overview of the Christmas story. It has moved from the fascinating days of pagan influence, early church opposition to its celebration and growth, and then, gradually over the years, acceptance in our own time. It is a rich history with a lot of bends and curves along the road.

No one really knows the date of Jesus’s birth. Christmas was first celebrated in late November, which marked the end of the harvest season. In 336 A.D., Constantine established December 25 as the official date to celebrate Jesus birth. Although we credit Constantine for setting the date for Christmas to be celebrated, the deeper roots of the day lie in pre - Christian festivities - actually pagan ceremonies of the winter solstice. 

We cannot pass the early celebration of Christmas without mentioning Bishop Myra of Asia Minor. We know him as Saint Nicholas or, now, Santa Claus. He was born in the Greek city of Patar. In his early ministry he became known as a kind bishop as he ministered to seamen and, especially, to young children. In parts of Europe, on December 5, the eve of his feast day, children leave their shoes by the fireplace filled with hay and carrots for Saint Nicholas’s horse. During the Reformation the worship of Saints became forbidden, so in most of Europe, Saint Nicholas became Father Nicholas. In Holland, he was given a far more interesting name, Sinterklass. When Sinterklass came to the United States, he became the American Santa Claus. 


In his European “life” Santa was of medium build and height. However, in 1890, the American cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Santa a pot belly…and children loved it. In 1920 the Coca-Cola Company decided Santa needed a makeover. They left him with his pot belly but put a big black belt around him and gave him sun tanned cheeks. This, of course, was to remind all of us that Coca-Cola tastes just as good in the summer heat as it does on winter frosty days.

It must be pointed out that before Santa Claus got a makeover from Coca-Cola, Christmas itself took a while to gain acceptance in the United States. The early Puritans brought with them a resistance to celebrating what they considered a pagan holiday. They also objected to the drunkenness and general revelry that took place on Christmas. “Hardly the way to observe Christ’s birth” they thought. In Boston, you could be fined 5 shillings for celebrating the day, and through the 1700’s, December 25 was considered a working day across the nation.

Attitudes began to change and soften in the early 1800’s and were helped by the publication in 1823 of Clement Clark Moore’s “Night Before Christmas.” Christmas carols and cards became more popular and available thanks to more sophisticated printing press capacity.

Let me end this all too brief overview of this important day with a short story. In Philadelphia, in 1868, a 33 year old Episcopal priest at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square wrote a very simple poem for a grade school Christmas celebration at the church. He asked the church organist to see if he could put it to music. Early on the Sunday morning it was to be performed, the organist, Lewis Redner, finished his composing for a piece he thought would be used just one time. The Priest at Holy Trinity, Philips Brooks, had a similar expectation for the new children’s song they had just created…O Little Town of Bethlehem. 

Today, I leave you with these words:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by;

Yet in your dark street shines forth, the everlasting light,

The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Adapting to Mourning During and Beyond the Pandemic | By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

The pandemic through which the world is moving mournfully and medically has left no area of life untouched. Moments of the life-cycle for which family and friends would normally gather have migrated to primarily distance-and-digital experiences. Even where the unfolding of Covid contamination has allowed for intervals when small gatherings could take place, many moments of significance now unfold remotely over various online platforms. 

Some of the events that occur in isolation will allow for future regroupings – private Zoom weddings may be followed by a first or second anniversary in-person celebrations; students of the 2020 high school classes can look forward to college graduations convened in person. 

But for the moments of loss occurring during Covid, the inability to gather when the emotional and family consequences are most intense compromises and inevitably attenuates the rites and rituals of spiritual traditions. Put differently, at what is perhaps the most intense liminal experience of the life-cycle, the comfort of in-person presence that provides consolation is unavailable. While a memorial gathering at a later time can be meaningful, and such gatherings can and will evolve as Covid is tamed, the immediacy of the emotions of loss will have receded.

                                                 Image: Jewish News

Spiritual communities and those who belong to them have had to accept and adapt to different ways of providing support and fulfilling rituals, whether viewed as obligatory or as optional. And yet, we are learning from Zoom funerals, wakes, comfort observances and other religious rites, that online platforms that currently serve as a substitute for traditional services may, when Covid is over, remain as a supplement to those same services. I will use the Jewish rituals with which I am most familiar as an example.

The shiva gathering (the seven-day period of mourning observed at home after a funeral, when mourners receive condolence calls and religious services migrate from the synagogue to the home) has customarily been in-person; colloquially, comforters “make a shiva call” to be with mourners in their home. 
During Covid, shiva visits have been made by joining designated Zoom open calls, and morning or evening services have been conducted remotely. The end of the pandemic will see a return to in-person shiva observances, but I anticipate many congregants and clergy members will also want to retain the Zoom option for those who live too far away to attend a funeral or make an in-person shiva visit. While before Covid people could always send a condolence note or perhaps make a phone call, we have learned from Covid the importance of joining mourners and comforters in “real time”, even if remote. A “both-and” format is likely to be a viable way of forging connections. 
Put differently, while the pandemic restrictions have temporarily removed us from the comforting in-person familiarity of spiritual traditions, these same restrictions have made us more aware of the importance of access to those traditions – and how the technology towards which we defaulted out of necessity has made us aware of how we may learn to adapt that technology out of choice.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Bringing Identity to the Table | By Dani Hobbs

I come from a multi-faith and multiracial family. My mom is white and was raised Jewish, and my dad is Black and was raised Baptist. My siblings and I grew up going to church every Sunday, but also celebrating Jewish holidays and considering our Jewish roots an important part of our heritage and culture. 


Admittedly, I’ve often struggled trying to make the multiple aspects of my identity feel whole. The world often talks about me in halves, and I’ve had to deal with the feeling that I’m not enough [fill in aspect of identity here]. Throughout my life though, the one place where the seemingly disparate parts of my identity come together is at the table. 



It’s through meals that I feel like I am able to fully celebrate the cultures that make me who I am, and it’s through meals that our family was able to blend them together. We eat soul food at our Passover Seders, and some years the smell of our Christmas cookies mixes with the smell of lingering latkes. I’ve seen religious boundaries crossed with the passing of matzo and charoset, and cultural boundaries crossed with heaping plates at the family cookout. When we share meals with others, we’re not just sharing food, but pieces of ourselves as well.  


Growing up, I didn’t always know what spaces I fit into, but I also grew up in a family that always made sure there was space for everyone at the table. That’s why food and sharing meals are both really special for me, and that’s also why I’m so excited about the South Philadelphia Community Cookbook. Through the cookbook, the contributors aren’t just sharing their recipes with the world, but a piece of themselves as well. The result, I think, is a unique display of what makes South Philly so beautiful and vibrant. I hope that, like it did for me, it will inspire you to think about the significance food and sharing meals have in your life. 


Today's blog post comes from Dani Hobbs, our Community Programs Student Coordinator. To sign up for the Cookbook Launch Party on December 14th, or to order your own copies of the cookbook, check out our website.


Thursday, November 19, 2020

Ways to Give on Giving Tuesday | By Sara Zebovitz

There are so many ways to give to Interfaith Philadelphia on Giving Tuesday!

  1. Donate in honor of someone you love


    2. Text “understand” to 44321

  2. Donate a scholarship -- sponsor someone’s participation in one of our programs

  3. Share on social media -- let’s increase our media following! We offer lots of free programming through Facebook live, which people can access with a click!

  4. Let your friends know about us -- Interfaith Philadelphia programs equip Philadelphians with the skills to talk to one another and have the difficult conversations. By bringing more people together through our programs, through our page, through discussions, we can shift the course of polarization to one of connection.

  5. Post an “unselfie!” How are you being unselfish on Giving Tuesday, or everyday?

  6. Let us know why you support Interfaith Philadelphia through a social media post!



Thursday, November 12, 2020

Overcoming Divisive Times | By Bronwen Mayer Henry

What is next for a country so divided?

What is the way forward?

How do I (and should I?) stay connected to people who view the world so differently from me?

In these divisive times, many are pondering these questions. We might be prone to think the differences between ourselves and our neighbor (or friend, child, parent, spouse, colleague) are just too wide to cross. We find ourselves caught in catastrophic thinking that makes our neighbor an ‘other’ that we fear we will never understand. 


What is the way forward? How do we stand tall in our own beliefs and still stay connected in relationship with others who think differently?

This moment in time is an opportunity to step away from debating and step into understanding.


Are we willing to be vulnerable? Are we willing to look at our own biases, experiences and belief systems and consider how those perspectives have shaped our thinking?

How do we build authentic community? It is important to find spaces to explore and practice deep listening with people of different backgrounds, beliefs and viewpoints. 

Now may be the time we will burst the myth that we cannot talk about politics, religion, and race.

We can lean into new spaces for connection across diversity and in doing so, we learn about ourselves as we learn about others. 




Abby Stamelman Hocky, in an interview with Lucas Johnson of the On Being project and WHYY: "Being in relationship across religious traditions is the perfect example of having respect for one another and one another's views and difference and distinctiveness, while not trying to convert one another. " 


We are not in relationship if we are there to convert. If our hope is to change someone's mind--then we are debating. If our hope is to understand each other's viewpoints, solve problems together, and work together, that is an authentic relationship.

I think from my own life of a moment when I was in conversation with a friend, and she expressed defensiveness and outrage about the idea that she might be a racist (another acquaintance had suggested so much to her). How was I to respond to this moment? I took the tools from Passport Online to be curious about her story. I listened to her talk about her past experience of struggle and trauma in her family history. With time in the conversation she shifted from thinking of racism as a personal affront to more of a toxicity in the air we breathe.

These kinds of conversations are often fraught with self doubt--many of us would rather avoid these hard conversations than risk the missteps. Yet I see time and again people’s willingness to name the discomfort, enter the conversation, be humble and open to learning more, and as a result we are collectively and individually transformed.



These are some of the practices we explore in the Passport to Understanding ONLINE. We gather together a diverse group of folks (ethnicity, religion, age etc.) and we engage in thoughtful, intentional, meaningful dialogue to better understand one another with the intention to stand tall and stand with one another.

Passport to Understanding ONLINE is an opportunity for real time check ins as we navigate such a tumultuous time. Participants gain concrete tools and skills to help navigate difference.


Along the way is an opportunity to build new connections with people who view the world differently. We provide a structure and supportive community to venture out into new spaces and practice deep listening. Though it is a time of ideological divide and physical distances, there are many ready to step forward into more conversation and community to work together. If you feel drawn to this conversation, join us.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Nation Shall Not Lift Up Sword Against Nation | By Raphael Kail

I am a water colorist. In 2018, noticing the rise in Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and religious intolerance in general, I had the urge to put something down on paper. I decided on Isaiah 2:4, "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

Phonetically, the Hebrew reads, "Lo Yisa Goy El Goy Herev, ViloYilmdoo Ode Mealchamaw." "Lo" means "no", "Goy" means "nation," and it also means "other."  In my mind, this word from YHWH was not only intended to move people from war to peace, but was intended to instruct people to get along in general. To follow God’s way, we need to not just coexist, but to respect each other. I created this piece of art.

Two years ago, when the eleven people were murdered in The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was strongly affected on two levels. First, as someone who is Jewish, I realized these people died only because they were Jewish, and if I happened to be there for whatever reason, I possibly would have been martyred also.  Second, how could this happen again in America? With permission from my synagogue, Temple Sinai of Dresher, I built a large memorial for the congregation’s front lawn to plead to the world to wake up. I wanted to make a statement.

I did this to honor those who were murdered, but also to plead to our country, stop this madness.
A short while later, two Mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand were attacked, and then a Catholic church in Asia. With Temple Sinai's help, we created a committee with the goal to create, with churches, mosques, and synagogues in our community, a group, to gather, to learn about our differences and identify what we have in common.  Knowledge is the key to understanding others. The committee is The Interfaith Partnership Initiative.  Our committee was short lived because of Covid-19. We are only being temporarily stopped; we will eventually continue!

About Raphael Kail:
I am retired after a career of over forty years in the furniture industry. As a hobby, I have always been good being creative with woodworking, but in 1990, after a lifelong admiration of water colors, I decided to take a class. I have now been in three galleries. For more information on the memorial at Temple Sinai of Dresher, contact Rabbi Adam Wohlberg. 215-643-6510.