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Rabbi Naomi Rachel Kalish: “Learning about the Other helps us realize something about ourselves”

29 November 2018

Naomi Rachel Kalish, Coordinator of Pastoral Care and Education at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, was very involved in dialogue work while she was studying to become a rabbi. She later decided to focus her professional work in chaplaincy but she always felt like “there was a missing piece” despite the diversity she encountered in her work on a daily basis.

A Google search on interreligious dialogue led her to the KAICIID Fellows Programme. The involvement of Senior Adviser Patrice Brodeur, who had been her mentor over 20 years ago in a National Conference of Christians and Jews programme, was a first motivation to join. Rabbi Rosen’s presence in the Board was another reason for her to be positively impressed.

The fellowship gave Naomi the opportunity to reconnect with one of her professors from rabbinical school, Rabbi Burton Visotzky, who has also been involved in KAICIID initiatives. After the programme, he recommended Naomi for various projects. One of the Fellows also recommended her as a speaker at a symposium on “Women, Faith, and Culture” in Rome, organised by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“In terms of my work and in relation to my experience with KAICIID, the fellowship and these new opportunities are appealing because institutions in the United States, like my hospital, are increasingly interested in developing a better culture and protocols for diversity and inclusion. At a very concrete level, there is real networking and establishment of relationships in the Fellows Programme. It has been a wonderful experience for me to participate in it,” she says.

The training in Indonesia was especially meaningful for her. First, because of the location itself, a country with a Muslim majority where she learned about how local Fellows approach dialogue, conflict resolution, and transformation: “They are planting the seeds of peace, pluralism and inclusion in the education that they are seeking to provide throughout the country”.

The Jakarta training allowed her to experience how Muslim Fellows awaited for the announcement of the exact beginning of Ramadan. “Everybody was waiting for the Saudi religious leader to declare the beginning of Ramadan. I stayed up late with two of my peers, one from Saudi Arabia and one from France, both Muslim, and it was just a wonderful experience of sharing stories, like how the Hebrew and the Muslim calendars work. It was very special to experience it together. We were sitting by our phones, waiting for the announcement, wondering if they would be able to eat or not in the morning. I remember talking about astronomy and its role in our religions. One of my peers said ‘the point is to seek the knowledge, to seek Allah’ and I found that so beautiful. I have actually integrated talking about that back in the Jewish community; what I learned as a Jew, by going to a Muslim majority country. Because sometimes learning about the Other helps us realize something about ourselves. This gave me a deeper appreciation of my Jewish practice”.

Naomi lives in Hudson County, New Jersey, one of the most diverse counties in the United States, where the September 11 attacks led to the establishment of the Hudson County Brotherhood/Sisterhood Association, an interfaith body for understanding and mutual support in her community. “They were previously organizing the more old fashioned academic form of dialogue: with panels and presentations. However, our gatherings did not really have a dialogical approach and the association didn’t have a youth component, so I decided to innovate with those aspects over the last year”, she explains.

Under the Association’s umbrella, Naomi started the Teen Dialogue for Peace Pilot Project earlier this year. In a way, it was a continuation of what her eldest daughter had seeked a couple of years ago when she reached out to a priest and a Muslim girl and planned a youth programme with a dialogue structure, where people from different religions would answer each other’s’ questions and get to know each other. “In a way, we were hearing from children that they were distressed by what was happening. It helped us realize that we all needed to do something,” Naomi recalls.

Her initiative for the Fellows Programme, co-funded by KAICIID and the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a Dialogue Calendar created by youth and with an editorial board including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh representation from her community. High school and college students, including her youngest daughter, drafted the content, took pictures and produced artwork about religious holidays, which is the 2019 theme for this calendar. Hard copies of the calendar will be distributed to religious leaders that have been involved with the Association.

Naomi hopes to secure the funds to continue the youth programme and the calendar project in coming years. It is a side job that she is enjoying and is bringing benefits both for her community and her family: “It is wonderful to share the value of it. My children go to Jewish school, and it is very important to my husband and me that our children know people beyond the Jewish community. So it serves a parenting goal as well”.