PTS program offers chance for respectful dialogue

PTS program offers chance for respectful dialogue

Rabbi James Gibson and Rev. Liddy Barlow participate in a communal dialogue at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. 
Photo courtesy of Dr. Helen Blier
Rabbi James Gibson and Rev. Liddy Barlow participate in a communal dialogue at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Helen Blier

Guests of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary found an orderly way to handle conflict. Last week, representatives from various religious faiths participated in a program titled, “The Place Where We Are Right: A Conversation Between Friends about Israel and Palestine.” The event, which was organized by Helen Blier, director of continuing education and special events at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS), offered an opportunity for respectful discussion of the oft-heated topic of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

“The idea is not to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, but to be in civil discourse and recognize the importance of continuing to be in challenging relationships especially across differences more important than being right,” said Blier.

The program, which featured a discussion led by Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai and Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, was interspersed with break-out sessions for the roughly 50 attendees.

The evening and each of the sessions was subject to certain rules that were shared by Blier and available to participants in hard copy. Included among the commands, which were taken from The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, were requirements to “be mindful of the use of terms ‘I’ and ‘we,’ as well as to ‘be gentle with each other’s differences’ and ‘be honest, speaking the truth as you experience it, in love.’” Also, comments made during the break-out sessions were offered under the conditions of anonymity and confidentiality.

“We had a very productive conversation and were able to understand each other,” said Skip Grinberg, former chair of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, when asked about the conversations that he had with members of other faiths.

While the break-out sessions allowed participants to freely dialogue, other elements of the program required more listening.

At the program’s outset a translation of Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The Place Where We are Right” was read aloud and discussed by both Gibson and Barlow. The pair then offered several questions — each separated by a small discussion — asking participants about the subject’s difficulties, where people see themselves as “right” in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and what hope exists for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I’m happy that we are brave enough to talk about this topic in interfaith dialogue; it’s usually a topic that gets dodged in interfaith dialogue, because it’s frightening and we don’t want to offend our partners,” explained Barlow, who along with Gibson made comments largely echoing what the pair had jointly expressed in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed, from March 1, titled, “Interfaith peace efforts are ongoing in Pittsburgh.”

As the rabbi and reverend explained, their partnership began in April 2015 while visiting Israel with Interfaith Partners for Peace, a program of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) that pairs rabbis and non-Jewish clergy committed “to peace and reconciliation, and two thriving states for Israelis and Palestinians, as well as true interfaith dialogue without tearing down the narratives of either group,” as explained by the JCPA.

Observing Gibson’s and other Jewish participants’ passion for Israel was “inspiring,” said Barlow, who added that the trip helped her to “read the Bible differently” as well as alter her perception of political affairs.

“Now it was not a two-sided right and wrong conflict, but it was something that had a lot of personal stories embedded within it,” she explained.

Several of those stories were shared at the event and within the duo’s op-ed. What emerged from those narratives was not that agreement is necessarily the goal, but rather understanding.  

Enabling respectful dialogue was one of the event’s goals, explained Josh Sayles, director of the CRC.

“Over the last several years the vast majority of the Jewish community and some members of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary have not seen eye to eye on issues around Israel including things like” the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. “We hope that this conversation presented the seminary’s community members who wished to actively support the Palestinian cause to find ways to do so that won’t harm the country of Israel or the Jewish people as a whole,” he said.

Last year, the PTS hosted a conference with Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), an American branch of Sabeel, a self-described “international peace movement initiated by Palestinian Christians, who seek a just peace as defined by international law and existing United Nations resolutions.” With offices in East Jerusalem and Nazareth, Sabeel is known to support the BDS movement. FOSNA was one of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the United States, according to a 2013 ranking by the ADL.

Last week’s program offered alternative perspectives for all participants.

“It’s important that people with different opinions sit down and converse with one another,” said Grinberg, who added that even without solving the problem, better understandings can be achieved through conversation.

If people left the event and “stopped talking about the two sides of this conflict, not from a Jewish perspective and Christian perspective or an Israeli perspective and Palestinian perspective, I would be really happy,” said Barlow. “It’s a much more complex and nuanced discussion than that. There are as many sides as participants in the discussion.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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