At a time when many in the Jewish community might be worried about their faith (rising numbers of Jews who say they believe in Jesus, declining numbers of young people who feel engaged in the Jewish community), Marcie Lenk, director of Christian programs for the Shalom Hartman Institute, has one thing to say: Don’t worry about it.
“We don’t necessarily have to be so afraid,” said Lenk, who visited Baltimore late last month to attend the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting. “I think we can be challenged.”
Lenk grew up in a largely Orthodox community in New Jersey. While attending yeshiva, she said she was never encouraged to learn about or interact with other faiths.
“We were not taught to look for interfaith context at all,” said Lenk. “I always say that I was taught two things about Christians: They either want to kill us or convert us.”
While she was in Israel, Lenk began to become curious about other faiths. Feeling confident in her own Judaism, she involved herself in interfaith dialogue and started teaching Jewish text in Christian seminaries.
In 2000, she moved back to the United States for 11 years to earn her doctorate in early Christianity from Harvard University and teach Jewish and Christian text at Boston University before moving back to Israel to join the Hartman Institute.
“Given the experiences that I’ve had and the training that I have, it was natural for me to get involved and to further develop their already significant interfaith initiatives,” she said.
As director of Hartman’s Christian programs, a teacher at a seminary in Jerusalem and co-director of New Paths, a Hartman Institute project that encourages interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews by offering courses aimed at educating Christians about Judaism and the State of Israel by building on pre-existing shared values, Lenk is able to engage with both sides of the Judeo-Christian spectrum. Misunderstanding and a lack of information, she said, exists on both ends.
“There’s a need for all of us to understand where the other is coming from,” she said, adding that many of the Christians she interacts with know little, if anything, of the history of anti-Judaism in Christianity and many of the Jews she talks with know only of the negative history and don’t realize how much Christian thought has changed over time.
In terms of the fear she has witnessed among Jews about the possibility of Christians trying to convert them, Lenk said, “Let them try.”
Lenk said the future of Judaism rests in the hands of Jews.
“If, as Jews, we’re teaching a strong and compelling Judaism, then we have nothing to worry about,” she said, noting that the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews showed that Judaism is strongest among those who are part of a Jewish community.
“That’s out there, and it’s a question of how to get it out there further,” she said.
Studying Christianity and working with people of other faiths has, in many ways, enhanced Lenk’s own Jewish faith.
When she travels, she tries to observe some of the Christian leaders she works with to get a better understanding of what they do. When she does this, she said, she is not hurting or weakening her own faith. Rather, she is building it and deepening her own understanding.
In today’s world of intermarriage and interfaith families, Lenk said it is perhaps more important than ever for people of different faiths to understand one another. Syncretism is not watering down one’s own religion, she said: “There are ways that we can come together and learn from each other that don’t demand that we become the other.”
Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter