Local rabbis participate in Qatar interfaith dialogue

Two local rabbis were among the approximately 12 Jewish leaders from around the world who took part in last month’s 11th Doha Interfaith Conference in Qatar.

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam who teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) campus in Los Angeles, has attended the event for the past seven years.

He was joined by Rabbi Sarah Bassin, executive director of the nonprofit NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, which is focused on dialogue between the two faiths. Bassin was recently hired to be the new assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

The Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs funds the annual conference, which is organized by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue and drew more than 200 Muslims, Christians and Jews this year, according to Firestone. Muslims, typically, make up the majority of attendees.

The event provides an opportunity for academics, faith leaders and others to deliver presentations on their respective programs devoted to creating dialogue. They also talk about Scripture and more. Every panel features a Jewish, Muslim and Christian speaker.

This year’s conference, which took place March 25-27, focused on the “Role of Youth in Enhancing the Value of Dialogue.” Firestone participated in a panel in which he discussed “Religious Perspectives on Youth and Dialogue From Jewish Scriptures.” He cited biblical passages instructing parents to prepare their children to become moral adults. Bassin was part of a panel about developing high-school students into interfaith advocates.

Another member of the Southern California contingent that made it to the capital city of Doha was Imam Jihad Turk, president of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic-focused graduate program at Claremont Lincoln University.

Firestone, who said he served as an informal liaison between the Qatari government and the Jewish contingent at this conference, was pleased with the amount of Jewish participation this year.

“I think it’s a pretty good representation, frankly,” he said in a phone interview.

The conference, which took place at the Doha Marriott Hotel, is not a place for news-making political negotiations, Firestone said. Instead, it provides an opportunity for “track-two diplomacy” between the three major religious groups. It “gets people to see where they have commonalities and where they have issues and interests of common importance, and people can get to know one another, and then they begin to create a culture of acceptance and understanding [that] makes it easier for government to make a larger step.”

Bridge-builders from all around the world turn up at the conference every year, which is always held in a hotel in the Qatari coastal city of Doha. One country that did not participate this year, however, was Israel. While the Qatari government does not have an official policy barring Israelis from participating, few Israelis attend, Firestone said.

“They don’t always come, but some are invited,” Firestone said.

 The Qatari government pays for the attendees’ expenses, spending millions of dollars every year putting together the conference, according to the HUC-JIR professor.

Although participants are asked to speak on specific topics, they are given the freedom to say what they want, Firestone said. 

Prior to the event, the organizers put out what is known as a “call for papers,” in which they ask those who have been invited to submit papers on a list of subtopics. This year’s submissions included “Religious Perspectives on Youth,” “Opportunities and Challenges Facing the Youth Today,” “Interfaith Dialogue for Youth” and “Youth Contribution in Interfaith Dialogue.” Conference organizers consider which papers will be presented during the event itself.