Diversity and Democracy

Affirming Interdependency: Interfaith Encounters through the Humanities

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind those which are caused by a difference of sentiment in Religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing,” wrote George Washington in 1792, articulating a challenge still facing our country (1792b). Yet that same year Washington also wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Rhode Island assuring congregants that the new government would guarantee freedom of religious expression and would give “to bigotry no sanction” (1792a).

George Washington’s promise inspired a workshop led by Michael Feldberg of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom as part of Kingsborough Community College’s (KCC’s) Interfaith Forum held in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 2016. Participants read and analyzed Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation, underscoring key principles of First Amendment rights, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and immunity from religious citizenship tests. Our students, who represent 142 countries of origin and speak seventy-three languages, seemed both reassured and empowered by reviewing these core commitments.

In welcoming forum participants, KCC President Farley Herzek described a meeting he convened the day after the country’s divisive presidential election with student leaders from all faiths and cultural backgrounds. The students were determined, he said proudly, to “watch each other’s backs.” This requires truly listening to and directly engaging with “the other,” a message that resonated with many of the over five hundred students, faculty, administrators, and community members who grappled with the forum’s theme, Promoting Religious Pluralism and Inclusive Citizenship.

The US presidential election clearly demonstrated the country’s ambivalence about who may be included as a citizen. Just one week after the election, numerous bias incidents on campuses around the country had already been reported. Can the humanities help address such rising tensions?

They can, argued Caryn McTighe Musil, senior scholar and director of civic learning and democracy initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and director of Citizenship Under Siege, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in which KCC participated. The humanities use imagination and storytelling to “offer windows into people’s lives, dreams, and anguish,” Musil said at the forum, and can generate empathy and prompt people to “question, reflect, and care.”

An Ethics of Care

The idea of an “ethics of care,” originally a feminist studies concept, framed KCC’s interfaith work throughout 2016. Our focus on religious pluralism arose from our student body’s unique—and cherished—diversity, as well as the college’s institutional and academic commitment to giving meaning to that diversity. Our commitment included participation in the NEH curriculum development project, Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation, as well as the establishment of a civic engagement graduation requirement—the first at a community college.

As part of a faculty group involved in developing civic engagement courses directly relevant to students’ lives, I have written elsewhere about teaching civil rights as civic engagement. In 2016, the faculty group published a book, edited by Emily Schnee, Alison Better, and Martha Clark Cummings, that we believe was the first volume on civic engagement by community college faculty. There, I described teaching a course that addressed the centrality of African American churches in the movement, including the tragic Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls in 1963—but I later realized that the course provided no opportunities for students to discuss their own deep religious commitments, which might inspire contemporary forms of student activism. Despite many years of work on diversity in higher education, I had managed to sidestep religious diversity—and much of the progressive academy has done the same. The topic makes educators uncomfortable both because of the incorrect belief that separation of church and state precludes discussion of religion and a fear that such discussion will engender classroom conflict. Yet looking out at my classrooms, I saw young Muslim women wearing hijabs chatting amiably with Orthodox Jewish women. What made this possible on our campus, and what could we learn about directly engaging religious identities that were obviously profoundly important to our students—especially at a moment when the national political dialogue makes this work particularly urgent?

When the opportunity arose to join AAC&U and The Democracy Commitment’s Citizenship Under Siege project, KCC decided to take on the challenge of looking at religious diversity. Each facet of our interfaith programming demonstrated that students, faculty, administrators, and community members were willing to step outside their comfort zones to engage this timely topic.

Demonstrating Interfaith Empathy

What started from a desire for my own history class to hear first-hand testimony from a Holocaust survivor will become an annual event each spring reaching over two hundred students. On April 6, 2016, in collaboration with Self-Help, an organization that serves thirty thousand survivors living in Brooklyn, KCC hosted keynote speaker and Auschwitz survivor Sonia Klein and ten other Holocaust survivors from surrounding communities. At each of ten roundtables of ten participants, one survivor shared her story with nine students and then invited questions and discussion. Standing by to prompt dialogue were ten facilitators—but they were not needed. The moment survivors ended their stories, students eagerly asked questions, made comments, and articulated connections between these past traumatic events and current issues concerning immigration, war, and refugees. The survivors said they valued the experience as much as the students did; it gave them a sense of connection and of passing on the story to a new generation of those who were predominantly non-Jewish, thus expanding responsibility for the cultural and moral imperative to never forget the lessons of the Holocaust.

One key lesson that emerged for the roundtable organizers was to trust our students—their willingness to listen, their empathy, and their openness to sharing their own stories. These habits of heart and mind were highlighted by Jennifer Peace in her keynote address to the November 14 Interfaith Forum, entitled “We Need Each Other: What Interfaith Work Teaches Us about Civic Life.” An associate professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School and visiting associate professor on religious pluralism at the Harvard Divinity School and Harvard’s Pluralism Project, Peace modeled her belief that “storytelling as a means of getting to know each other is the first essential step in interfaith work.”

Peace shared four deceptively simple accounts of her own interfaith encounters, each illustrating a disposition vital to dialogue across religious difference. After each story, she posed a question for participants to ponder—though indeed these questions were invitations to reflect and share. Arguing that religious commitments tend to narrow our field of vision and that we need each other to liberate us from our own stories, Peace asked if we were willing to share something that is often quite intimate—our practice and feelings about our religion or lack thereof. She concluded with a challenge that captures the spirit of KCC’s interfaith initiatives as they proceed into relatively uncharted waters: “Do you have the courage to add your voice to this messy and complex conversation we call democracy?”

As if answering this call immediately, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif took the stage with a sense of urgency after Peace’s address. New York University chaplains and friends whose families live in the same faculty housing facility, they modeled a conversation and partnership in which individuals acknowledge their differences of belief yet stand up for one another’s communities. This dynamic has informed their shared work cofounding New York University’s OM (Of Many) Institute and helping to institute the first academic minor in Multifaith Leadership. (For more information about the university’s interfaith work, see the website.) Both Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif told moving personal stories of the impact of 9/11 on their lives and professional practice. Students later said that they were particularly affected by Imam Latif’s account of attending a 9/11 memorial ceremony in his New York City Police Department uniform (as the youngest chaplain in the department’s history) and being questioned by the FBI while there about his visibility as a Muslim leader. Despite the fact that he has spoken on stages with the Dalai Lama and the Pope, such questioning continues to happen.

Translating Theory into Practice

Invoking the presidential election, Rabbi Sarna said that interfaith work must now move from “kumbaya moments to active resistance, a more grassroots, face-to-face, action-oriented movement.” Imam Latif called for reflection on higher education’s mission: “We’re learning specific skills to pursue a career and to make money but we’re not learning how to ask real questions. This allows others to capitalize on fear.” Addressing our students directly, he said, “Your voices as young people are pivotal. We’ve seen where indifference and passivity have taken the US. Are young people going to stand by and watch it?”

Imam Latif’s remarks riveted the audience, including students in my civil rights history class. Responding to a writing prompt after the forum, one Latino young man wrote, “What stood out to me was when he talked about us as minorities—our greatest strength is when we come together.” Students’ comments showed that they value the campus as a place where they can learn and pursue their goals safely, collaborating and communicating with students across many types of difference.  Yet they are realistic about the fact that the campus does not fully reflect the larger society. One young Muslim woman wrote, “Living in a city like NYC with so many backgrounds and cultures you would expect people to be so diverse but in reality if you see where people live you will see that NYC is in fact segregated. It might not be legally segregated but if you took a train to any area, you will see the same type of people who look the same get on and off at the same areas.” A young religiously observant Jewish woman indicated, “It was surprising to me to see the close friendship that the Rabbi and Imam had and that their children play together. I think it’s great what they are able to accomplish on the NYU campus but I don’t think the NYU campus is an accurate representation of the country at large.”

It’s true that campuses are, to some degree, their own unique ecosystems. But at Kingsborough, our hope is that what happens on campus can influence broader communities—and we are already seeing evidence that the campus community will come together to give “to bigotry no sanction.” Students, faculty, and administrators organized a petition campaign calling upon the college to become a sanctuary campus protecting students with undocumented immigration status. In two weeks, the petition garnered 1,400 signatures, joining a national movement on college campuses (Najmabadi 2016). At the end of November, the college broke ground for a new Student Union and Intercultural Center (http://www.kcc-suic.org), a place for the kind of democratic dialogue envisioned by our country’s founders—where we hope that students’ face-to-face encounters across many kinds of difference will further inspire them to “watch each other’s backs.”


Herzek, Farley, Khalid Latif, Caryn McTighe Musil, Jennifer Peace, and Yehuda Sarna. 2016. Remarks delivered at Kingsborough Community College Interfaith Forum, Brooklyn, New York, November 14.

Najmabadi, Shannon. 2016. “How Colleges are Responding to Demands that They Become ‘Sanctuary Campuses.’” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2. http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Colleges-Are-Responding-to/238553.

Schnee, Emily, Alison Better, and Martha Clark Cummings, eds. 2016. Civic Engagement Pedagogy in the Community College: Theory and Practice. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Washington, George. 1792a. “Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.” The George Washington Institution for Religious Freedom. http://www.gwirf.org/washingtons-letter-to-the-hebrew-congregation-of-newport-rhode-island/.

———. 1792b. “From George Washington to Edward Newenham, 20 October 1792.” Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0132.


Debra L. Schultz is Assistant Professor of History at Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York.


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