9 June 2010
In recognition of the growing diversity of America's religious landscape, a California institution affiliated with the United
Methodist Church will add clerical training for Muslims and Jews to its curriculum this fall, to become, in a sense, the
first truly multi-faith American seminary.
Though the seminary will be the first accredited institution to train clergy members of multiple faiths, its expanded mission
could cost it financially. Earlier this year, the church suspended its financial support of the seminary, an amount that accounts for
about 8 percent of its budget, pending an investigation.
The venerable Claremont School of Theology has taught Methodist ministers and theologians for more than a century, but in the
fall they will 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, launched Wednesday, 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 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
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
The collaborative effort among the seminary, Jewish academy and Islamic center is 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
"It is our responsibility as religious leaders to show that religion can be a powerful force for unity and love in the world,
instead of it being captured by a spirit of divisiveness, based on fear of the other and ignorance of the other," said Rabbi
Mel Gottlieb, president and dean of the Academy of Jewish Religion's California chapter.
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 (pictured), 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 Islamic school will piggyback on Claremont's accreditation, and therefore enjoy the status of an accredited institution.
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 aren't
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 studying Islam
have often had to go abroad for their education.
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,"
Gottlieb said. "That is the basic principle of all religions, instead of an entity that divides people and creates friction
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. One Jewish Academy faculty member took a
leave of absence when he heard of the project's inception.
The United Methodists 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.
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."
Students have expressed excitement about the project. Susan Goldberg, 36, a third-year rabbinical student from Echo Park,
said she is "thrilled" about studying overlapping theologies and scriptures in the project.
"I have a great desire to learn about others and in the learning it clarifies who I am and how I'm different and how we're
connected," she said. "It can only serve to make us better leaders."
Christopher Carter, 29, is returning to Claremont in the fall to begin a doctorate and plans to take classes in Jewish ethics
at the Jewish Academy.
"As a Methodist pastor in Southern California, I can see a future need for an education like this," said Carter, who said he
was attracted to Claremont's pluralistic approach because it has helped him with issues of diversity and intermarriage.
"I know I wouldn't have understood that if I stayed in the Midwest because it's more religiously homogeneous," he said.
"Being exposed to something like this gives me more of a leg up."
Project leaders have 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."
"Methodist Seminary Expands Training to Jewish and Muslim Clergy" Chronicle of Higher Education June 9, 2010
Nardine Saad, "" Associated Press June 9, 2010
Mitchell Landsberg, "Claremont seminary reaches beyond Christianity" Los Angeles Times June 9, 2010