Religions get together
A group of over 50 which included rabbis, priests, imams and lay people have lived and talked together for three days at Pallotti College, a Catholic retreat in the Yarra Valley participating in the ninth annual winter conference of the Jewish Christian Muslim Association.
JCMA is sponsored by the three Victorian peak bodies: the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the Victorian Council of Churches and the Islamic Council of Victoria.
This year’s conference theme was The Prophet Motif. Various sessions were devoted to discussions of the attributes that made someone recognised as a prophet. Other sessions examined the implications of the prophetic tradition for modern life. A central component of the JCMA conference is the daily “cluster groups” where people meet to discuss what they have learned.
A strong Jewish contingent, from a wide cross-section of the community, made up more than a quarter of the participants. JCMA vice-president Rabbi Shamir Caplan came for a day with his young family. (JCMA welcomes the attendance of families with children.) Rabbi Fred Morgan gave a masterly presentation in the form of a Talmudic text analysis of sections of the Torah describing episodes in the life of Moses.
Each day’s program begins with a “Contemplation” session led by one of the three faith groups. Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black, the faith convener on the Conference Committee in charge of the Jewish segment of the program, explained the significance of the tallit, Shabbat candles and challah, and brought along a Sefer Torah which had originally belonged to a congregation in Nakuru in central Kenya.
Food is of course a vital part of a residential conference. Pallotti provides vegetarian and halal food. Separate strictly kosher meals are arranged for anyone requesting it at time of booking.
Free time is built into the program. A classic film, “Oh God!” starring George Burns (born Naftaly Birnbaum) in the title role, funny but serious, explored the interesting idea of what might happen if the Almighty made personal contact with a young supermarket manager and gave him a prophetic message to share with the world.
Simultaneously, Jo Silver was leading a group of walkers through bushland to nearby Warburton. The previous night, Jo had participated in a panel of three where a member of each faith community told their personal stories.
Some of the free-time is completely unscripted. Rabbi Ian Goodhardt was seen late one evening, chatting for an hour with two young Muslim women who wanted to know more about Jewish holy days, beliefs and practices.
Speakers’ Corner is an annual feature of the program, where people are given fifteen minutes to air their views on anything and everything. Dr Paul Gardner offered a rapid overview of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Morgan expressed his discomfort with purely literal interpretations of sacred texts.
The conference is normally held in the first week of July. That won’t be possible for the next three years, as the fasting month of Ramadan – eleven days earlier each solar year – moves through July. This year’s conference committee has already recommended an August date in 2013.