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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