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Monday, July 27, 2020

2 Sides of the Same Coin | by Lia Hyman

I grew up with what one might consider a typical Jewish experience. I lit the candles and ate challah every Shabbat. I dipped apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah. I fasted on Yom Kippur. I shook the etrog and lulav. And I used the Shamash to light the Hanukkiah.


That wasn’t all, though. I also got to celebrate Christmas and (the occasional) Easter. Often when my friends found out I got presents for both Christmas and Hanukkah, I was deemed “super lucky”; however, it was all I’d ever known.


My mom grew up in a Catholic-Italian household. Later in her life, she became unattached to the religion that had raised her. My dad, on the other hand, had been raised Jewish and began practicing more frequently as the years went by. Cue the discussion of children, and they agreed to raise my older sister and me within the Jewish religion. I attended both a Jewish preschool and Jewish sleep-away summer camp, URJ Camp Harlam. Committing to Camp Harlam marked a crucial decision in my life that shaped the years following. There, I developed a love for Jewish music and traditions, wearing white on Shabbat as my friends and I walked up to Chapel on the Hill. I played games and competed in Maccabiah (Color War) for all 7 summers before traveling to Israel with my fellow campers on my 8th and final summer, sealing it all in a time capsule I can now only access through photos.

During my childhood, I felt I was also holding on to a special superpower. One that allowed me to dress in green and red when we made the long drive to my uncle’s home in Virginia. On the evenings of December 24th, I joined in the tradition of my Christian friends and sat by the fireplace sipping eggnog, faintly listening to the murmur of adults in the kitchen.


My ability to appreciate traditions in two different religions is what has sparked my curiosity to engage in interfaith dialogue and work. In high school, I learned about Islam and the prophet Muhammad, which led to reading the entirety of the Koran. I’ve visited mosques and participated respectfully. My increasing interest in inner peace and the ego then led me to Buddhism and Hinduism, reading library books about reincarnation and nirvana.


Today, in 2020, I consider myself a proud Jew who’s more spiritual than religious, but Jewish nonetheless. I love Friday night Shabbats and the minor chords of the music. I’m very active in my university Hillel and have met amazing staff members there. And I still enjoy Christmas dinner, pasta e modica, at my uncle’s. My spiritual side can be physically seen in the chakra flags that hang in my bedroom, the Torah portion from my Bat Mitzvah hanging on the wall, the crystal I wear around my neck, or the Om tattoo on my arm. But maybe most of all, you can see the blend of religions I’ve researched and practiced just in the way I live my life, constantly asking questions without the need for just one answer from one place.

Being raised in a home that accepted the possibility of two belief systems allowed me to find the string that runs through all religions: peace, love, and something greater than thyself.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Holy Family | By John Hougen

This summer, we are featuring meaningful art in our new blog series: Art and Identity. In this week's post, John Hougen reflects on anger and rebirth through oil pastels. If you have artwork and commentary you'd like to share, please email Liz and Andrew

One of the turning points in my life was facilitated by the spiritual exercise of Art Journaling. I have practiced Art Journaling on and off for the 23 years I have known Sister Marianne Hieb RSM. She is a spiritual director who has encouraged me to use simple art materials to explore what’s happening in my mind, heart, and soul. (See Hieb, Marianne. Inner Journeying Through Art Journaling: Learning to See and Record your Life as a Work of Art. London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005.)

I created this piece while I was a Regional Director for Lutheran Campus Ministry. I had returned from a series of meetings with Bishops and their Synods’ Campus Ministry Committees. It had not gone well. I was angry with myself and the people I met with. My proposals had been rejected, and nobody came up with anything better. 

That night, I took out a large sheet of paper and oil pastels. I made hard angry lines of orange and red. I added black lines of despair. Then, I noticed that the black lines looked like a music staff and the oval looked like a whole note. I turned it into an agitated eighth note. Take that! Angrily, I rubbed and rubbed with my thumb and fingers, adding more color until the entire paper was filled. 

I sat back and looked, relieved because I’d gotten my anger and utter frustration out of my gut and onto the paper. After looking at it for several minutes, I did what Sr. Marianne did when I brought my art into our spiritual direction sessions. I turned the painting on its side, then upside down, and then onto its other side…

I was stunned! What I saw was a nativity scene, the holy family in the stable: Mary holding the baby Jesus, Joseph wearing a red head covering on one side and the angel leaning over them on the other. 

…. What or who was that over in the lower right corner? Immediately I knew it was me; and the long arm of Jesus was extended, bringing me in to be part of his holy family. I was loved. Persuading others with convincing arguments and finding practical solutions to intractable problems was not the way to approach my ministry. Instead, I was to soak in the warmth of holy inclusion and the joy of being Jesus’ brother in the holy family. My calling was to be loved and to relax into whatever God would reveal for the future. 

Then it hit me: the long arm of Jesus’ embrace also is reaching for others. If God can reach out to pull me closer when I am angry and frustrated, bitter and cynical, then who would be excluded? No one! God’s embrace is wide enough to reach the people who frustrated me during our meetings, the entire Christian Church, all people of faith; indeed, everyone! 

Art Journaling has been an important factor in my faith formation. Because of it, plus other study and experiences, I am committed to a radical version of the Lutheran understanding of God’s grace. I believe God’s affirming and accepting love is freely given to all people, whatever they do, whatever they believe, whoever they are. I strive to live with gratitude for being included, and to treat others as beloved siblings in God’s Holy Family.

Monday, July 20, 2020

What To Do When Dealing With Spiritual Eclipse | Albina Truax

There were times in my life where I struggled to feel hope within my spirituality. It felt lonely and it felt dark. It was even though fog overpowered my mind and my ability to connect with God. Did you ever feel that? If so, know that you are not alone and there is a way to get out of what I call “spiritual eclipse.”

What Is Spirituality?

Spirituality is when a person is trying to connect to a Higher Power. To some people a Higher Power is God, to some it is nature, and to some, it is still a journey to figure out what or who it is. When people feel satisfied in their spiritual life, they feel connection, love, purpose, and hope. On the other hand, when people are struggling with their spirituality, they feel disconnection, apathy, purposelessness, and despair. 


A solar eclipse occurs when a moon overshadows the sun. During a solar eclipse, if a person looks at the sky, she/he can see the full moon and a small part of the Sun. It is beautiful to look at for a moment but eventually, we will realize that we need the sun. When the spiritual eclipse occurs, a person might feel that his or her sun (source of connection, love, and hope) is overshadowed by a moon (mental illness, doubts, and despair). It could last for days, weeks, and even months.

What to do?

We All Feel It

No matter what worldview a person is pursuing, and what or who he or she is worshiping, everyone at least once in their life feels a spiritual eclipse. We all feel it. Sometimes I was in denial that I felt it, because I felt shame that I struggled in my worldview which is part of my spirituality. The thing is though, the more I realized that I had a problem, the more hopeful I felt.

There Is Light

The hope that came from my realization of having a spiritual eclipse empowered me to have the ability to see the light. I did not give up on my spirituality/worldview, which is the light of my life. I kept doing the things that I knew would help me to see the light: reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon, praying to God, going to the temple, and seeking help.

Helping Each Other With Spiritual Eclipse 

People of various worldviews have a common belief to help each other. In her 2012 article "What Do Religions Say About Charity?", Purdue Global’s Darlene Levy showed how four major worldviews all believed in helping one another. For example, in Christianity, it is believed in the need of mourning one with another. Another example is that Buddhists have a required action called Dana, where a person needs to give and share talents and time with the other selflessly and without seeking a return. Thus, we see that we all can help each other with spiritual eclipse. We can listen to each other's stories, sympathize, and offer help. A person with spiritual eclipse can be reassured that there is hope and light!

Monday, July 13, 2020

Faith for the New Generations | By Maxwell Staley

I grew up receiving a lot of praise from the older folks in my church for just about everything I did. I found this perplexing as I was just doing what came naturally to me — involving myself in the life of my small United Church of Christ congregation. I sang in the choir because I love music. I went to Sunday school because I like to learn. Yet every week I was given more praise and encouragement. I remember asking my grandmother why everyone in the church seemed to dote on me so. Her reply: “We need more young people involved in the church. Without kids like you, the church is going to die.” Talk about pressure!

I did go on to increase my involvement, so much so that I now find myself entering my second year of study toward a master’s degree in divinity. I’ve found my classmates and professors sharing sentiments similar to my grandmother’s: Their churches are slowly fading.

The overall decline in religiosity has been a hot topic among individuals of faith likely since the conception of religion itself. This despite more than 84% of the world’s population identifying with some type of religion. Even 70% of atheists and 90% of agnostics report being open to a category of divination, whether it’s astrology, reincarnation, or another spiritual practice (2019). But how can these statistics be true when local communities have seen attendance and financial support dwindle? 

Let’s first explore reasons the younger generations may be declining to identify with organized religion, despite the inner spiritual feelings they may or may not have. At face value, it’s easy to assume that people belonging to generations X, Y, and Z simply don’t agree with the “traditional values” of Judeo-Christian America. Millennials, for one, are delaying marriage, co-parenting in separate homes, and including organized religion in the list of oppressive institutions perpetuating the capitalism that they are hyper-focused on tearing down. Is an embracing of religion possible in our current capitalist society when you believe that capitalism is inherently violent? Generation Z — or ‘Zoomers,’ a new favorite term of mine — have been raised with infinite access to information, are glued to their screens, and are overall politically radical. How could these two generations thrive within the walls of organized religion? It seems antithetical.

Exacerbating this disillusionment is an inundation of convictions of abuse and political philandering from religious institutions, and hateful speech from some faith leaders. As Linda Woohead, a professor of Sociology of Religion at the UK’s University of Lancaster suggests, “religions do well, and always have, when they are subjectively convincing — when you have the sense that God is working for you.” It can be hard to believe that God could be working for you, your fellow humans, or for love, peace, and happiness in the face of such hypocrisies.

And yet despite all of this I hear peers of varying traditions and backgrounds, many of whom left the communities of faith they were raised in, claim to want something to answer to. We want to have faith in something; we want to be able to love each other, live peacefully, and feel confident in a higher purpose. The very thing that is turning younger generations off from religion is the reason we need something to believe in. Whether our current climate is due to “the fall of capitalism” or another explanation for the chaos in our societal institutions, it is clear that the nation is experiencing birthing pains and younger generations are seeking an ultimate answer. We all want something “Good.” 

I don’t have a specific solution — and I very well might be projecting! But I think it’s time for something new. A fresh interfaith tradition that embraces diversity and addresses the issues of today.  A “church” for the new generations. 

Will it be a benevolent AI created by humans working together, à la Roko’s Basilisk? Could it be a return to Zoroastrianism, or something more syncretized? As Sumit Paul-Choudhury writes in ‘Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the future of religion?:’ “Perhaps the religions that span the world today are less durable than we think. And perhaps the next great faith is just getting started.” Personally, my money is on the latter and I’m eager to see what the next generation will do.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Interfaith Shabbat Dinners | By Gilana Levavi

This spring/summer, we are sharing stories and recipes from throughout the region. In this week's post, Gilana Levavi of Cherry Hill, NJ reflects on food and faith during her year at Hartford Seminary. If you have a recipe you'd like to share, please email Lia Hyman at or Ana West at

    I spent this past academic year as an International Peacemaking Program student at Hartford Seminary, an interfaith graduate school focused on Christianity, Islam and Judaism. One of the highlights of my year was sharing ten Shabbat dinners with Hartford Seminary community members of diverse religious identities. I am grateful for the support of an Interfaith Starter Grant and an Interfaith Leadership Fund grant, both from Interfaith Youth Core, which enabled me to host these dinners. Sharing Shabbat dinners with fellow students and others of diverse religions, identities, nationalities, worldviews, and perspectives was such a pleasure and a privilege for me. I am grateful for all who joined me for these Shabbat dinners. These experiences epitomized for me the essence of Shabbat, the weekly Jewish sabbath: connection, community, rest and renewal.

    Each time that I hosted a dinner, I would carefully plan out the food that I needed to purchase, and how and when I would obtain it. This typically happened by bicycle, but sometimes by bus or throughthe generous car-involving assistance of a Hartford Seminary staff member. I would choose menus that evoked the foods that I’ve been accustomed to eat at Shabbat dinners since I was young. There was always challah (bread with ritual significance - this simple vegan recipe, sans the glaze, came to be my favorite). I would also serve either vegetable-based soup or cholent (a traditional Ashkenazi bean and vegetable stew) prepared in a slow cooker, lots of varied roasted vegetables with olive oil and spices, rice, chicken with a tofu alternative, desert and fruit. I enjoyed preparing the food with friends from my program. 


    The dinners served as a relaxed setting for Hartford Seminary community members and some others to talk and get to know each other, as well as to experience and learn about Shabbat. Often, the dinners would involve opportunities for my HartSem classmates and friends, a few of whom had not had much previous interaction with Jews before coming to Hartford Seminary, to meet Jewish friends of mine whom I would invite. I grew closer to many fellow students through talking with them at these Shabbat dinners. We would talk about religion, life experiences, and more. Together we cultivated an atmosphere of warmth and fellowship, a term I’ve come to understand better from Christian classmates. I continue to cherish memories from these Shabbat dinners. I hope to be able to continue hosting interfaith Shabbat dinners, wherever I am, when possible.