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Wednesday, February 3, 2021

"It Takes Courage": An Interview with Ellen Firestone

Ellen Firestone is a human rights educator and activist, passionate about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We interviewed her about her background, vocation and faith, and the links to interfaith work for the UN’s Interfaith Harmony Week, February 1-7. 


Tell us a bit about how your interest in human rights education and the UDHR developed. 


For a long time, I knew I had a purpose but really did not know what that purpose was. I spent years trying to “figure it out” by reading books, taking classes, going to workshops and traveling around the world. I remember being about 34 years old and looked around one day and thought “this can’t be it, there has to be more to life”. Fast forward about 10 years, my son, who was starting his freshman year in high school, was invited to an International Youth for Human Rights Summit at UCLA in Los Angeles. He said to me “I’ll go, if you go.”

At the summit, we learned about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), met amazing people from around the world. I remember seeing my son sitting between one student from Morocco and another from Germany and thought: what a great education that is! We also heard real live people speak about horrific human rights violations that occurred either to them or to people in their country. It was difficult to believe that human beings were doing these types of things to other human beings. I had not learned about the UDHR in school, and I remember thinking, someone needs to make this document known.


How do you see your faith to be connected to this vocation? 


I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for 8 years. When I was in second grade, I remember a nun telling us that she had a calling. I thought I had a calling too, but was not sure what it was. I also remember a line from the Bible that impinged on me. It went something like, to whom much is given, much will be expected. Even though I was not a millionaire, I knew I was given a lot in many ways. So I thought, what is expected of me? I do think having and following a purpose is spiritual and keeps a person on the path of a more spiritual and happy life, no matter what your “day job” is.

Why do you think education and dialogue around issues of peace, security and justice are so important today?  

I think the UDHR is as relevant today as it was when it was first adopted in 1948. Following that historical act, the General Assembly called upon all member countries for it to be disseminated and expounded, principally through educational institutions. Unfortunately, this has not occurred. Could you imagine what the world would look like had the UN followed through with this original intention? Part 2 of Article 26, Right to Education, says, Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. Education and dialogue are essential in order to have this document fully executed. 

How do you see the UDHR, human rights education and interfaith work to be related to one another? What ways could they influence each other for the better?


They are connected, can and should influence each other for the better.  Article 18 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I think the writers of the Declaration were very thoughtful about the words they used in each of the articles in the UDHR for us, in order to create and maintain a world of tolerance and peace - where all humans not only survive but thrive. Different people and cultures may have different views and that is okay - the key is to have safe spaces to communicate with each other, like what Interfaith Philadelphia does to foster more understanding. I love the tagline “Dare to Understand”. It sometimes really does take courage to listen to another’s viewpoint. It’s easy to listen to another’s view when they are similar to our own; it’s when we get into the differences that tolerance and courage are needed.

This post is in honor of the UN’s Interfaith Harmony Week. Many thanks to Ellen Firestone for celebrating this with us through sharing her experience and insights, and for her advocacy around human rights education. If you’d like to learn more, you can find more information on her website or listen to her podcast – Know Your 30 Human Rights with Ellen Firestone. You can also learn about your 30 Human Rights through this course from United Human Rights


Monday, January 25, 2021

Jacob's Nocturnal Encounter: Struggle, Engagement, Resolution, and Reminder | By Richard Hirsh

My favorite Bible story is of Jacob’s transformative nocturnal encounter with an unnamed and unknown presence:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he    had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip    was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”  

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.  

So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping on his hip. [Genesis 32:25-33] 

The story has been imagined in art in many ways, as can be seen in this sampling here. Most paintings collapse the deliberate imprecision of the Bible – “A man wrestled…You have striven with a being Divine…” – and represent the adversary as angelic, if often gender non-specific. The artists also choose different moments in this brief narrative as their subject.

The interpretations to which I gravitate are the representations by Odilon Redon, who did two paintings based on this story. In one the encounter is at the center, and in the other most of the painting is an opening of light and the two figures are depicted as almost incidental, blending into or emerging out of the background towards the bottom of the frame.

In the square framed painting, the moment Redon has captured looks to be “Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ ”  In the rectangular framed painting, the moment seems to be “When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him."

Each human life seems to have its own versions of Jacob’s encounter, and usually more than one. Unanticipated, unexpected and unwanted, we often find ourselves entwined with a force or power, a situation or circumstance that challenges us, against which, the Bible writer suggests here, perhaps the best we can hope for is to “prevail” or “endure” – not to be a victor or to be vanquished, but to be transformed. 

As Redon suggests in his first painting, the nature of blessing is often imprecise: Jacob’s condition for release is a blessing, but what he receives is a change of name. On one level, this is an anticipation of the aphorism: Be careful what you wish for. But on a more consequential level, the text suggests that at key moments, our expectations and the actual way life unfolds are often out of alignment – but not unrelated. 

Put differently: what we are given to work with as we move through life are not the outcomes we anticipate or imagine, but those that emerge out of the encounter between who we have been and what we meet along the way, pointing us towards who we will now become as a result. 

There is a poignancy to the price Jacob pays for prevailing, as Redon suggests in his second painting. Jacob stands on one leg, the other rests in the hand of his adversary, who stands almost effortlessly, upright against Jacob’s grasp. The Bible reminds us: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.” These defining encounters not only transform us, they extract a price from us – they leave a mark. We are never the same again. 

I find the interpretations Redon brings to this story to be among the most authentic reflections of the truth of encounter-engagement struggle-transformation as the path we have been given to walk through this life. 


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!