Yet it was an important experience for me in many ways. Not only did I find younger and not so young Germans interested in Judaism and my perspective on it, but also keen to hear and understand my experiences of coming there. And of course, I also met people and experienced cultures, services, beliefs and approaches of other faiths from across Europe. I remember many long discussions into the early hours – I never went to bed if there was anyone else I could talk to. Not surprisingly, I was eager to return the following year.
I very much enjoyed these conferences, meeting and talking with young Germans (mostly Christians) as well as other Jews and of course Muslims. Coming back the second time, I renewed my conversation with those who had been there the year before – and it became clear that, after the first powerful exposure, one started dialogue in a different place. I called this the ‘Bendorf Effect’. One could often pick up conversations, discussion and friendships almost as if the intervening year had not happened. People who had been before already understood. It was not necessary to be defensive. One was not there to represent one’s faith, but to be oneself. People may initially come to learn about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but in fact they met people! They went away with much more knowledge and feeling for how people were actually being Jewish, Christian and Muslim, grappling with the challenges of their traditions as well as celebrating them, and trying to live their life as a person of faith in the modern world. Any book could teach something about Judaism, Christianity or Islam in theory. At JCM you could learn about being Jewish, Christian and Muslim – in practice.
In 1986 I spend a year in Israel and Australia and in 1987 and 1988 I again attended the conference. I consider that the JCM experiences were among the most important of my 5 years rabbinic training. Although I received s’micha in 1988, I was able to attend several more conferences over the subsequent years. Jonathan Magonet was, I think, at every one, a calm, smiling presence, along with Father Gordion Marshal and Sheikh Bashir and other team members. Jonathan carefully introduced each conference, mindful that there were always new participants as well as ‘returnees’.
Over these years, I learned (of the three great monotheistic faiths) that 'a faith framework' rather than any particular one, was most important and valuable for life; that some faiths are suitable for some people, and others may be more suitable for others, in part because of their family beliefs, practices and background; that no faith is homogeneous - each has wide variety within it; but most of all, that no one faith 'owns' the truth, but each does have aspects of truth – that we all grow up with a tinted lens colouring the way we see things, and have to learn to seek out views also through other people’s lenses; and that we all share an enormous amount in terms of common background, history, cultures and values. We who are ‘people of faith’ in the modern western world are the minority, where those who deny or generally ignore their faith seem to be the majority.
It was also quite clear over the years that we who were engaged in and committed to interfaith dialogue, to respecting others and learning about them and from them, had more in common with other seekers from the other faiths (usually fairly 'liberal' and open-minded) than any of us did with the fundamentalists of our own faith.
To me it was clear that, without developing such understanding and respect for each other, the world would only become a darker and more hopeless place (and I can now see a link between my initial fears re Nazism, genocide and holocaust, and intolerance, bigotry and hatred from fear and ignorance of 'the other').
Ministering to a community demands a lot of time 'giving out' and one needs to find ways of replenishing one's own self, and I realised that JCM, whenever I was able to get to it, was a precious way of having 'me time' and input, and recharging my batteries!
In 2003 we moved to Melbourne, Australia, where I asked if there was anything similar - and there was not. A fortuitous meeting (perhaps God makes these coincidences happen?) led to gathering a group of interested Jews, Christians and Muslims together, finding a suitable conference centre, and establishing the Jewish Christian Muslim Conference of Australia (JCMA ). In 2004 we held our first conference. It was very much based on the Bendorf model which had been so carefully developed and tuned up over the years. I chaired the planning group and the conference itself, since I was the one with the experience of Bendorf. Everyone was in agreement that we should continue, and indeed expand activities after that. Following the second annual conference, we started work on an exciting project proposal - taking a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim into Secondary Schools to run a workshop encouraging interest in and respect for difference and diversity, but also stressing common values amongst all the people who make up the population of Victoria today. We have since added a primary schools program, and these programs are still running today. We also launched a 'Women's conference' and it too was very well received (again this followed the Bendorf model of a separate women's conference as well as the mixed one). The Women’s conference has continued successfully each February since then.
My JCM experience has deeply influenced my Rabbinate, and my view of the world, and has directly impacted faith relations and understanding across literally thousands of adults and young people in Australia, and I am very grateful that I was exposed to it.
This article is taken from a chapter written for Rabbi Jonathan Magonet’s 70th birthday ‘Festschrift’, published earlier in 2013 and called ‘Cavalcade.’