“Inter-faith dialogue isn’t inter-faith agreement” – Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Truah


Q : Can you tell us about yourself and your organizational affiliation?

RR: Truah and Rabbis for Human Rights, North America are the same organization, as we changed our name in January this year. I am a conservative Rabbi and the Director of North-American programs. We also do work on issues in Israel and West bank but I do domestic work.  Issues that are part of my portfolio are : Slavery, human trafficking, Labor trafficking and American Muslim community. Coalition of Amakelli in Florida (tomato industry), Anti-torture campaign: It has two campaigns – Americans against torture on war on terror and other on solitary confinement and we also do work with our partners. Their issues may not be directly correlated to ours, but we provide support. We are also involved in a big way in  Immigration reforms.

We had about 130 congregations taking part in the Human Rights (HR) Shabbat program, around international human rights day. The general consensus is that over 50% of Jews are associated with a synagogue and we work through Rabbis to articulate our messaging. Sometimes, Rabbis are able to speak out for justice in congregations and bring them with them, or at times bring their moral voices.

While we focus domestically, and on Israel; we want to pick issues where we have some leverage, either as Americans or as Jews. For example, we did not get involved in Syria, though it is a major human rights question, simply because we don’t have leverage in that area. While it is good to raise awareness, we need to do something and pull people to do something. Awareness is a good place to start, but not to finish.

Q: How do you set goals, gather support for your campaigns ?

RR : Every year we do long and short term planning. Sometimes, it is about creating a resource to get it out there. I also work with partner organizations, and in some ways I am supporting needs which they articulate, That sense of campaign planning is all pervasive.

During our campaign planning, we realized how much basic education about Islam is needed. Through some of our partners, we realized how critical that is, in our messaging too. When you compare the issue of Islamophobia with gay rights, the reason why the conversation about gay rights has changed in such a big way in the last two years is because people are aware of gay people. They have a friend or a family member who is gay. The reason Islam is demonized is because people don’t know Muslims. Even today, most Americans don’t know someone who is Muslim. Only 20-25% know who is a Muslim. It is much easier to believe stereotypes when there is no direct contact. Rabbis themselves have gotten to know the local imams, but they haven’t gotten together to get their communities together, yet. In part, because, it is hard to figure out how we talk about contentious issues such as Israel and Palestine. It does remain a challenge. On the other hand, there are successful models. The reason I mention Chicago, is that the community there is so well organized. The Jewish council on American Affairs have partnered on issues of shared concern – housing, immigration. The approach that they have taken is to focus on issues that are real and of concern to both communities.



Q : What is the role of College campuses in addressing these issues?

A : Because of the discussion surrounding Israel and Palestine, any dialogue is often politicized. On the other hand, there is also good Jewish-Muslim collaboration. On campuses, kids are from similar backgrounds, they are living together and are on similar wavelengths. When the AP reports of NYPD spying on Muslim college kids came out, some of the strongest pushback came from the Rabbis on campus. Such collaboration and support for each other gives me hope.

 I don’t want to say that we have to wait for another generation, as youth can be biased too, given the role that Jewish communities on campuses can play, and the expectations of parents that they will play such a key role in transmitting Jewish values. It is effective messaging when I tell parents that “How’d you like it if your child was afraid to go to Hillel, because he/she is being spied upon?” So, that’s interesting to me, and is something to watch.

Q: How did you get involved with Truah?

RR : I came to work with Truah during my senior year of Rabbinical school, that is about six years agoI came to work on the anti-torture campaign and it was really fascinating for me, as I thought of myself as a political junkie and also was involved in Jewish social justice wor. Torture brings up very deep issues and forces you to confront deep moral questions and for me, it was like beginning of an awakening of whose civil liberties are we willing to violate to feel safe. There is also the difference between feeling safe and being safe actually. That people for the perception of safety, are willing to victimize the other. The organization has changed much since I came, in all good ways. I feel the conversation in the Jewish community has changed and we are taking on more issues than before.

Q : How big is your network and how do you carry out your campaigns?

A : We are based in New York and have about 1800 Rabbis across the country.

We have in the past had conferences but don’t currently do those anymore.  IN the coming year, we are looking to do one day trainings, to educate Rabbis on skills building.

Q : What is the state of inter-faith work ?  What are the key challenges coming your way?

RR : I think there is a lot going on and that is good. There are many organizations talking to each other. At shoulder to shoulder, we are all Abrahamic faiths.

Through 1950s through 90’s, inter-faith meant Jewish and Christians and now it is becoming Jewish-Muslim-Christian and some sprinkling of other faith groups. When religions move to the US, they begin to organize like a church, and in other countries. New groups are developing their systems and they also don’t have clergy in the real sense. We started to bring Muslims in that structure, but there are challenges to go beyond Abrahamic faiths.

The other challenge is of course when you are building a morality structure, around faith; there are those who are spiritual but not affiliated. This is a challenge too. How do we reach out to churches of color and immigrant communities? A lot is being done on the organizational level. A lot is going on, and I am not sure how much of it is entering the national conversation.

I come from Canada, where religion is not as much as a public issue and national conversation, as it is here. It is an important fact about the U.S, compared to other countries and in particular Canada. Even if Americans are becoming less religious, religion is becoming a big part of the national dialogue. I wonder if the conversation about Muslims is not about religion per se but is more about immigration and so.

Q: Your experience with Jewish congregations?

RR : What I see is that in times of tension whether the recent Muhammad film controversy, people who are liberal, fall into the stereotypes about Muslims. For example, they would say things like “ You never see Christians doing such things”, without an understanding of the dynamics. It is very easy for people to believe stereotypes of Muslims and Islam.

Also, I believe it is refusal to take responsibility that they are believing in stereotypes. People are writing about the films and not having the background about it. For me, those are often challenges and even secular people can be so antagonistic.

Q : How are you funded?

RR: We are funded by both foundations and private donors. My sense is that there is money for this kind of work. There just seems to be more need for this.

For many Jews the question is not whether they should support HR at all, because they are modern, ethical people and do from that standpoint. It is what is distinctly Jewish about supporting human rights. We are speaking to people who think about how to address these issues, from a Jewish perspective, rather than simply approaching them in a secular, neutral manner.

One piece of push-back that I am getting and one that needs to be addressed both from Jewish and secular perspective is that of “Why should we care about HR when they (criminals or terrorists) don’t value them”? I try to tell them that it is not about their values, but our own. We don’t torture because it is against American values, it doesn’t matter what a terrorist will do in their cells, with their captives. We won’t let them set the agenda.

It is troubling for me, and that is often where Jewish language comes in. What we do is what we do. We must uphold our values irrespective of how others behave with us.


Q : What have you learnt that you’d like to share?

RR : Inter-faith work is incredibly worth doing, and takes a long time and you have to be open to listening to the other. And also that you have to understand that inter-faith dialogue isn’t inter-faith agreement. And it is ok to engage with people who don’t agree with them and how can we expect them to agree with us, if we don’t agree with them.





Book review: A free and Ordered Space – A.Bartlett Giamatti

Giamatti Bartlett, WW Norton & Co. New York, 1988
Giamatti Bartlett, WW Norton & Co. New York, 1988

While it is not fashionable to review old books, there can be exceptions. Or rather, there should be exceptions for classics – they should be read, reviewed and discussed- time and again. Giamatti’s “ A free and Ordered Space” is one such book. This book, first published in 1988 is one man’s vision of higher education in the U.S and its role in shaping the future of the country. While certainly very opinionated and seemingly traditional in many respects, he offers us deep insights into lessons he learnt as the President of Yale University.

By the term “A free and ordered space,” Giamatti means one where intellectual pursuits, challenges and collegiality thrives and one finds like-minded people who may aid in the growth of oneself. While he points out that the family can never be replaced, no matter how stellar or dysfunctional, the university does play a key role in being a home away from home- at least intellectually. “You will find, to say it all, that a state of independence is achieved by broadening your connections and affiliations, intellectual, spiritual and human.” By freedom he means a space for “openness, honesty, intellectual inquiry for the truth and mutual respect. These values foster debate, disagreement, diversity of ideas and opinions; they protect freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas, because that is the essence of a free, independent university in a democracy.”

With the advent of online education, the call to re-evaluate the study of liberal arts, social sciences, Giamatti seemed uncomfortable with the narratives surrounding this field. IN the chapter “Power, politics and a sense of History” he says:” Why thoughtful people have chosen to join the gang on the crowded anti-social science bandwagon is a question I cannot answer.” This anti-intellectual trend seems to be gaining ground in some states and is true today, as when he first wrote this book. He further adds that the idea of power and how a society articulates it is key to forming it amidst ourselves. “How power is conceived in a society has the most to do with determining who is attracted to positions of power.” He points out. His vision of a powerful society is one where power is shared with others and is not concentrated in just a few hands. This is rooted in the need to have stability in society and power becomes a way to articulate that stability and achieve it.

His call is also to move away from narrow minded dogma and ideology, either of the right or the left. This is becoming increasingly important, as we are witnessing a political landscape, which is increasingly becoming vicious, partisan and one may even argue, anti-intellectual; where simple explanations to complex problems are being demanded, on a regular basis. As Sen. Chuck Hagel said during his confirmation at the Senate “I am not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today, its far more complicated than that.” The world we live in has many shades of grey and we must learn to be comfortable with this ambiguity and uncertainty.

The sense of purpose that a university and educational system is supposed to impart is clear in his voice. He points out:” Our present-day confusion about our schools and the role of an education does not occur, I believe, because we have resolved this tension. It occurs because we have lost the tension. We have lost it by allowing the utilitarian view of school to displace the larger educational perspective. In losing it, we have lost touch with our past, with the fructifying energy that the older tension, fully embraced, could inspire.”  He goes on to point that the civic ideal of preparing citizens who are thoughtful and productive at the same time is lost in the muddle and debates about the utility of our present education system. This, he points out is harmful and indeed is at the heart of many debates, ongoing about the relevance of liberal arts education in states such as North Carolina and Virginia, whose politicians have sought to cut funding for the programs. UNC Chapel Hill in particular has been in news for the same reasons.

Giamatti had a clear vision for Yale and how it can achieve the same:” First, Yale must use its financial and human resources prudently, imaginatively and wisely, to encourage new patterns of teaching and research to emerge. Second, Yale must continue to reaffirm the diversity of America. Finally, Yale must expend every effort to nourish and encourage its young or nontenured faculty,” he points out. The pressure on families is immense and the institution itself is under threat from modern ways of living, the migration of populations and also changing dynamics of the labor force. The sense of displacement, disconnectedness and loss of cohesiveness in families these days is impacting how the youth relate to a university, or any institution; he points out.

He is also a champion of sports and athletics forming a key part of the character building process. “Athletics is essential but not primary. It contributes to the point, but it is not the point itself.” He says, highlighting that scholarly pursuits should never be subordinated to  achievements in sports.

His book is a compassionate call for upholding some of the traditional values of higher education: respect, academic freedom, upholding human dignity and above all – retaining a sense of purpose, which has made the American institution what it is today. His call for nurturing the future leaders is summed up in this para, when he says:” I am concerned, at last, with the next generation of voices. I wish them to be as strong and confident and effective in what they do as those who came before. And they will be if we recall our nature and our purpose and engage each other to fashion our future together.”



The university as a politically contested space


Two events in the recent past helped me gain some insights into how politically contested a university campus can be. This political nature of American campuses is not new, but offers opportunities for students to engage, deliberate about issues that they are passionate about and can be seen as a positive factor in one’s education. The flip side of over-politicization of campuses is a danger too, as we will see.

The first was the abrupt appearance of an AIPAC member in one of my classrooms, to recruit volunteers for their conference in Washington D.C, which is taking place in March. And she appeared on the day of the controversial talk by Boycott Divestment and Sanctions activists in Brooklyn College, NY. The second was the recent debate about assault weapons ban spear-headed by President Obama. I believe that the way in which we handle both issues in the U.S will have implications not only for freedom on campuses, but also shape the narrative about freedom and responsibility in this country. These two examples serve as a good prism to look at the broader fights going on in contemporary American politics.

Both issues are highly politicized, controversial and arouse equal passion from the supporters and their detractors. While they are both very complex arguments, which cannot be evaluated in this short piece, I will focus only briefly on how they play out on a university campus and what implications it has for student politics as well as the notion of “freedom.” I believe the progress of both these will define a key national and international issue, which will impact the youth of this country in a significant way.

Also involved in these two issues is the question of justice, violence, rights of the oppressed, racism as well as the exercise of power. These two issues couldn’t be more far apart and yet so close. One is a domestic issue, while the other involves a land thousands of miles away. Ironically, they seem to involve the same strands and binaries which characterize the fight for justice.

Freedom of speech and the American university

The controversy notwithstanding, what is telling is New York Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks following the incident. A man of courage, he stood up for the right of the speakers and organizers to carry on with their event, despite opposition. His remarks are telling :

“ If you want to go a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea … I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students. The freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system. Take that away, and higher education in this country would certainly die.”

                While one can read this and say that he was being partisan ( as his detractors have accused), these are words which essentially speak to what is enshrined in the first amendment of the U.S constitution and also what makes American universities unique: their ability to allow free speech and allow for dissent, debate, discussion and counter-debates to exist. While the speakers at this event were critics of Israel, those who are supporters of Israel have the right to organize, protest and speak all they want. Why should the rights of these BDS activists be taken away? The argument about representing “both sides” of the debate seems hollow at best. One need only ask the question: How many pro-Palestinian speakers are invited at the AIPAC meetings?

Speaking at the event, Philosopher Judith Butler said :” You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.” She went on to talk about why this issue is relevant to our generation and what role each one of us can or not play in this – depending on our choice.

Gun control and college campuses

The most recent development in this regard is the legislation in Colorado, passed this week that sought to increase regulations and banned concealed guns on campuses. This follows intense debates at the national level, involving the president’s direct intervention following Sandy Hook shooting earlier this year which shook the nation and forced a debate, which has been unprecedented in the nation’s history.

Yahoo news reported this legislation whereby ammunition restrictions limit magazines to 15 rounds for firearms, and eight for shotguns. Three Democrats joined all Republicans voting no on the bill, but the proposal passed 34-31. While this debate is still playing out in its entirety, it is interesting to see how university campuses are reacting to it. There is a strong pro-gun lobby on campuses too, with some sides arguing that students need guns to protect themselves. The pro-gun sentiment was captured by a representative in these words: “Do not disarm our young adults in general and our young women in particular on our college campuses in the name of a gun-free zone,” Republican Rep. Jim Wilson said. This line of argument, while valid constitutionally and legally is coming at a time when the country is still coming to grips with several mass shootings in the year 2012 and a charged political environment.

But at Virginia Tech, where I am a student and one which witnessed the horrific shooting in 2005, the mood is somewhat somber. Recently, VP Joe Biden spoke about this incident and called for compulsory background checks to anyone who wants to purchase a gun. The issue of gun-control seems to be gaining traction and we can see more laws in the country restricting sales of guns.

Protect freedoms, allow deliberation and debate

While I am clear about both issues and know where I stand, I believe it is important that all parties to these two issues have the right to express their opinion and within legal bounds, be allowed to act on them. If a college campus is the venue they choose organize on, so be it. There ought not to be false restrictions based on any viewpoint, even if the climate for discussion seems quite tense.

One couldn’t frame this anymore eloquently than Butler, who said :” These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.”

As far as the gun-control debate is concerned, while the pro-gun student groups have the right to garner support and do what they think is right, the maxim that one’s freedom stops where the other’s rights begin should be kept in mind.

Why you should get a PhD and the importance of being “productively stupid”



I feel privileged to be in a Ph.D program, with a world-renowned adviser and a fairly new department( which means I have a lot of flexibility to study and explore my area of interest) in a way that would be impossible in a more established set-up.  The past six months that I have been in my program have been some of the most intense and intellectually charged months of my life. This is just one of the perks of being in a Ph.D program. While there are as many negatives to committing years of one’s life  to pursue a doctoral degree, I will make the case for earning one, here.  In essence, a Ph.D degree helps you to  be “productively stupid,” as Martin Schwarz has pointed out.

Productive stupidity is feeling stupid, while looking for the right answer(s), to the questions before us, and knowing that the truth is out there ( or within us) and needs to be un-veiled.

For starters, the Ph.D degree is structured to make you look stupid. Just reading brilliant works by remarkably smart people can be intimidating, and make you feel that you are perhaps not going to produce such work, ever.  In this interesting essay, Martin A.Schwartz points out the importance of feeling stupid in scientific research. In it, he talks about how it is crucial to realize  that one is framing questions, which have perhaps never been asked and why it is crucial to work diligently to answer them: for discovering a new reality or dimension of truth. He says:”My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.” This comment is telling, in that most of us Ph.D students don’t take the project before us in context of the wider contribution it can make to literature, and our understanding of the world.

Those of us who realize the enormity of this task end up in two opposing camps: They ( like Schwartz, in the beginning) feel incredibly stupid or on the other extreme, end up becoming extremely arrogant. The know-it-all types. I am sure you have come across a few of those folks, yourself.

What then, is the point? One may be tempted to ask. What is the point of focusing all one’s time, energy (and often) money to focus on a narrow field of work. How does it help one’s career and growth?

For those who believe in “developing themselves,” and living the “good life,” the argument is easy: You study and get more education to become a Mensch, a refined man( or woman) who is an asset to one’s society. Earning a Ph.D is often a long process, requiring endless hours of reading, writing, discussing, and often re-thinking and questioning one’s assumptions about basic things in one’s field ( and life).

For those who approach the enterprise of education from a purely utilitarian perspective ( how will a Ph.D equip me to get a better job), the answer is also likely to be a positive one. Depending on one’s field, a Ph.D can open( at times close) a few doors.  Much of scientific( both pure science and social science) research depends on higher education. It has been demonstrated beyond doubt that

A National Science Foundation research points that a Ph.D has a lesser likelihood of being unemployed in a tough market. This study has some interesting statistics.  The reason that top scientists and researchers are harder to fire is because, they are sitting on more knowledge. As the author of this article points out:” During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from oneErlenmeyer flask to another.” This seems common-sense to anyone who has an idea of how scientific establishments work. Knowledge seldom is totally useless.

While the American Ph.D is modeled after the German model of learning and scholarship, it is still relevant. It also seems to be adapting to the new challenges thrown before it: one of technology, changing modes of knowledge production and dissemination. As this article points out, there is a growing shift in academia to approach the dissertation as a piece of work that shows scholar ability and the format of presenting it is changing. It is no longer confined to just traditional dissertations. In fact, one of my committee members advised me to write a book, a viable alternative to producing a dry, 250 plus page jargon-filled dissertation, which would not be read by more than five people at the most.  Here is an example of a Ph.D student, who has produced a website which documents her work as a Prison-historian.  Her work is more accessible, readable and has an activist bent of mind. Very useful to non-academics, as well.

For all those skeptics, who don’t think a Ph.D is helpful, one needs to only take a cursory look at all objects, artifacts and ideas around oneself – most definitely all of them have had some researcher paying close attention to their innovation, development and refinement.

So, the question is not whether a Ph.D is relevant and useful; but rather whether it is catching up (in its methodologies) and what is expected in terms of output with what is needed in the ‘real world’?

The answer is a mixed one, but considering how some of the trial-blazing universities are responding, there is hope. Hope that the doctoral degree will keep pace with the changing world and not become a relic of the past.