Now in its sixth year, the Christian Leadership Initiative continues to bear rich fruit, says Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations.
The initiative is a partnership between the AJC and Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. This year, 16 American Christian leaders completed the intensive 13-month educational program, which focuses on the teaching of Judaism from a Jewish perspective. So far, 41 people have participated in the program.
“We give Christian scholars an opportunity to understand Judaism, and Jews, the way it is understood by the Jewish community,” Marans said. “We expose them to the diversity of Jewish thought and the ability of Judaism to sustain pluralism and divergent opinions.
“It’s an eye-opener for them,” he added, pointing out that “Judaism eschews a doctrinaire approach … particularly when it comes to Jewish thought.”
The purpose of CLI – which brings together Christian scholars, seminary presidents, deans, professors, denominational leaders, and pastors of influential congregations, nearly all with doctorates — is far from theoretical.
“We want to help shape the education of the next generation of American Christian leadership,” Marans said. “Many positives that have come out of this are tangible.
“Many of these scholars bring students to the Holy Land as part of their seminary education, and quite a few have reconsidered how they do that so that it introduces students more fully to the State of Israel and Jewish identity within the modern state.”
Visiting alumni also try to present a more comprehensive understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Participants study at the institute twice — first when they begin the program and then when they complete it. In between, they engage in monthly distance-learning sessions. AJC leaders also meet with cohort members when they attend annual academic conferences.
At this summer’s institute in Jerusalem, CLI members explored texts focusing on Jewish concepts of community, using the classic chevruta method of Jewish study, which involves learning with a partner or partners.
“Just like the rabbis and Jewish laypeople at Hartman, they come in, a scholar introduces the material, and they go study it together,” Marans said, adding that knowledgeable Jews — two AJC staff members and two Hartman staff members — participate in the program as resources for the Christian students.
The results have been very positive, Marans said. Not only are CLI participants introduced to chevruta study, but “they are enamored and often adopt this study method for their own students at seminaries and congregations.”
Molly Marshall, president of the Central Baptist Theological Seminary and professor of theology and spiritual formation, told Marans that CLI transformed her understanding of her own identity.
In a seminary blog post, Marshall wrote that she now understands Judaism “through the eyes of Jews, not the vitriolic history of Protestantism exemplified by Martin Luther.” In addition, “I learn to respect a key aspect of Jewish scholarship: always including and thereby preserving the minority voice.
“Jews and Christians need one another for we clarify our respective identities as we think together about our heritage,” the blog post continued. “More insight comes for both as we open our lives to one another.”
CLI “speaks volumes about the magic of the partnership between the Hartman Institute and AJC,” Marans said. Through this program, “AJC’s ability to network and recruit the most influential Christian educators and denominational leaders is combined with the particular brand of Hartman, where openness, pluralism, and confronting new ideas is part and parcel of what they do.”
Since this year’s CLI program overlapped with Hartman’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, the Christian leaders were able to have one day of chevruta learning, lectures, and programs together with the visiting American rabbis.
“We matched them with their regional partners to create ongoing relationships,” Marans said, explaining that the goal of the program is to have a “multiplying effect.”
“The overarching goal of the program is to ensure better understanding of Judaism and the modern State of Israel for people who have the ability, through their institutions and their students, to reach millions of American Christians through the multiplying effect of training leadership,” said Marans. “You never know which student is going to be the leader of a megachurch and which professor’s writings will be seminal in Christian education in the 21st century.”
He pointed out that through this cohort alone much has already been accomplished.
“Several are already working to revamp their educational programs in Israel to include lessons they have learned and experiences they have garnered as a result of the program,” he said. He noted also that Hartman has followed up its iEngage program – which seeks to create a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life – with New Paths, a program of education about modern Israel for Christians. Several CLI alumni have helped create this curriculum.