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California Theology School To Meld Studies of Different Faiths

CLAREMONT, Calif. – A rabbi, a minister and an imam walk into a classroom and it’s no joke.

The venerable Claremont School of Theology has taught Methodist ministers and theologians for more than a century, but in the fall they’ll try an unorthodox approach: cross-training the nation’s future Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders in classrooms scattered around Southern California as they work toward their respective degrees.

The experimental approach is intended to create U.S. religious leaders who not only preach tolerance in an era of religious strife but who have lived it themselves by rubbing shoulders with those in other Abrahamic faiths.

The idea has already met resistance from more conservative elements in some religious communities; its architects say that only underscores the need for such an approach.

“Christians attend school with Christians, Jewish with Jewish and Muslims with Muslim,” said the Rev. Jerry Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology. “Educating people in a segregated environment is not a way to teach them to be peacemakers. It only steeps them in their own religion and with their own people.”

Conceived in 2006, the University Project will allow seminary students at Claremont to cross-enroll in programs that train future Muslim and Jewish religious leaders while working toward their own degrees in Christian theology. Claremont already has chaplaincy programs for Muslims and Jews who ultimately work as counselors in institutional settings, but they don’t have rabbinical and imam certification programs. Course topics will include inter-religious conflict resolution, scripture and ethics.

The exchange will also work in the other direction. Starting this fall, rabbinical students enrolled at the Academy of Jewish Religion’s California chapter will be able to study at Claremont. And by next year, the project will include an Islamic program that aims to create a standard for training American imams by working with the LA-based Islamic Center of Southern California. Classes at the Islamic institute will be taught by Claremont professors and will also be open to seminarians and rabbinical students.

The collaborative effort among the seminary, Jewish academy and Islamic center is believed to be the first to integrate the three studies. Other Christian institutions, such as Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary, offer an imam training program but do not incorporate rabbinical students.

Claremont has already used an initial $10 million gift to hire the first Muslim and second Jewish faculty members. If the project takes off, its architects hope to add Hinduism and Buddhism and house the project under one roof.

“It could be a breeding ground for conflict, but it should be a place where students can develop skills for a multi-faith environment and what better place to do it than with their education?” said Najeeba Syeed-Miller, the Muslim professor. “When they’re in practice, they have a tool box ready to respond to the conflicts that come up. To me, that’s at the core of why it’s unique and exciting.”

The project has yet to be approved the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accreditation institution.

The Islamic school will be incubated by the Christian seminary, piggybacking on Claremont’s accreditation.

Organizers hope to raise $40 million for its development from both U.S. and Middle Eastern donors, possibly through fundraising trips to Islamic nations. Muslim groups here have found little opposition to the interfaith initiative but are not sure what to expect when news of it becomes more public.

Islam has the most to gain from the project because it remains the most misunderstood faith in the U.S., said Jihad Turk, an imam and religion director for the Islamic Center of Southern California. Traditionally, Muslims interested in being imams must return to the Middle East for their education, but they find the more conservative approach is not compatible with the needs of Muslims in America.

Turk, 38, said the project will cater to the hallmarks of Islam in America, which is more inclusive of women in leadership roles, involved in interfaith relations and has a higher degree of civic engagement.

“This is a very American approach. It’s an expression of American religion and American religious attitude,” said Turk, a U.S.-born Muslim who himself studied to become an imam in Iran and Saudi Arabia. “It’s better that they’re getting their training in America if they’re planning to work in America.”

Jewish organizers are excited that the project will allow future rabbis and imams to study together for the first time, something that’s increasingly important in a world where Muslim-Jewish conflict makes headlines almost every day.

“God is the God of all people, and we want to get back to the notion of treating people the way you’d want to be treated,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president and dean of the Academy of Jewish Religion’s California chapter. “That is the basic principle of all religions, instead of an entity that divides people and creates friction and acrimony.”

But organizers have not been able to avoid acrimony entirely. Some more conservative elements in the Christian and Jewish communities have pushed back, worried the approach may dilute their own faiths.

The United Methodists, for example, have withheld funds, and the University Senate, a body within the United Methodist Church that oversees schools and colleges, hampered the project’s momentum last April when it called for a review of the curriculum. Results of the review are due later this month.

The United Methodists traditionally give about $800,000 to Claremont each year, said Campbell, the school’s president.

“There are some elements within Methodism that felt we shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “The issue is whether the United Methodists will put money into the school for education of only United Methodists.”

Project leaders have already agreed to teach the classes on separate religious campuses to address concerns among some conservatives that too much integration would dilute the study of their own beliefs. Originally, the planners had envisioned a “university within a university.”

Professors will be able to cap the number of students from other faiths in their classes.

“We could be swallowed up by a larger school,” Gottlieb said. “This is an attempt to respect each other’s boundaries.”

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