Rabbi Aaron Bisno has faith in the future — and the future, as he sees it, will be one of faith.
He hopes that his new Pittsburgh-based nonprofit ensures that’s true.
Bisno, the Frances F. & David R. Levin rabbinic scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation, recently launched the Center for Interfaith Collaboration (C4IC). Its inaugural program, an interfaith panel of clergy, will take place on Sunday, April 16, at Calvary Episcopal Church at 1 p.m.
Bisno served as senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation from 2004-2022. When that tenure ended last summer, he was offered an office at Calvary Episcopal Church and the title of rabbi-in-residence. He delivers sermons there on a voluntary basis and teaches a course on Sunday mornings with Calvary’s Rev. Jonathon Jensen called “A Priest and a Rabbi Walk into a Classroom.”
Through C4IC, Bisno plans “to focus on how the wisdom traditions — cross-religions and cross-culturally — can help us ask the most important questions or create the conversations that we need to be having now in order to have faith in the future.”
The rabbi envisions his new center will reach diverse religious denominations throughout Pittsburgh with lectures and other programs “about issues related to the intersection of faith and wisdom and modern society,” he said.
Bisno hopes to eventually partner with academic and corporate entities “to explore the challenges we face in the modern age that our wisdom traditions can help us better appreciate,” he said, and to launch a speaker series focusing on topics related to spirituality.
The future of religion, as Bisno sees it, will be “interfaith and collaborative.” While various denominations will still exist, he predicts, they will be secondary to broader spiritual work.
“There will still be synagogues and churches and mosques on various street corners, but fewer of them,” Bisno said. “Our citizenry, our friends and neighbors, and we ourselves, have now embraced a pluralistic understanding — an inclusive understanding, a broader understanding — of the communities in which we live. That requires us to enter into dialogue and to collaborate.”
This collaborative nature of religion does not necessarily portend the dilution of Judaism, Bisno said. Rather, it is “the next cycle.”
“The genius of Judaism,” Bisno said, “is that it has been adaptable. And in the 21st century, we have new realities with regard to who we are as individuals and who we are as the Jewish people in the world.”
To meet the spiritual challenges of the 21st century, people of faith must determine their priorities in a world where “more emphasis is placed on the commonalities and the universal,” he said.
And actions are more important than doctrines.
“I firmly hold that what we believe is interesting, but it’s what our beliefs lead us to do that is significant,” Bisno said. “The other foundational premise I have with regard to all of this is that you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
Bisno’s C4IC is not the first Jewish organization in Pittsburgh focused on interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The Jewish Community Center’s Center for Loving Kindness aims to build “community connectivity” through the sharing of resources and discussion, according to its website. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council works within and beyond the Jewish community to develop relationships as well.
Bisno’s new nonprofit is different, he said.
“We’re fortunate to have a number of organizations in town that are focused on how we live with each other how we how we can better understand each other,” he said. “My vision for this center is that, while it appreciates the importance of us understanding each other, what I’m really interested in is using our shared wisdom traditions to inform the questions we ask and the decisions we make.”
The C4IC, he hopes, will bring together thought leaders from across disciplines, institutions and faiths to dialogue on issues of significance to humanity.
The April 16 panel discussion, “The Changing Face of Faith,” features Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Imam Abdullah Antepli, Executive Minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania Rev. Liddy Barlow and Calvary’s Rev. Jonathon Jensen. Salkin and Antepli have dialogued together in other cities as well.
The discussion will be “far-ranging,” Bisno said, and will include the “challenges of remaining faithful and the challenges in society today coming out of the pandemic.”
“We’re going to talk, among other things, about what we can learn from each other’s experience and the importance of making room for the other’s experience.”
The work Bisno is doing with C4IC is consistent with the mission of Calvary, Jensen said, as the church is highly engaged in outreach with other faiths and institutions. It has lent its sanctuary to Tree of Life Congregation for High Holiday services since 2019 and collaborated on projects with the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and other local Christian churches.
Calvary will provide the space for C4IC programming, as well as infrastructure and some of the funding, Jensen said.
“Our role is to be that supportive neighbor and friend,” he added.
Bisno, Jensen said, has the experience and character to lead this new interfaith endeavor.
“He has the energy, the creativity, the vision for all of that, and he has the right personality,” Jensen said. “He’s a more upfront person, and I love to work behind the scenes a little bit, to be supportive. And I think that works very well as a combination.
“This is [Bisno’s] creation, to bring about the Center for Interfaith Collaboration,” Jensen continued. “But it’s something that we can help do together.”
He and Bisno co-teach a class on the parables of Jesus, which attracts between 40 and 60 people each week. The students are mostly Christians, but several Jews attend as well, Jensen said.
“I have learned a great deal more about these stories I’ve taught for years and years, thinking about them and hearing about them and learning about them from a Jewish perspective,” he said. “And [Bisno] has learned a lot because the stories are mostly new to him. And then all of us as a community, Jews and Christians together, learn from each other.”
Aiming to build on that interfaith momentum, Bisno and Jensen will co-lead a pilgrimage to Israel in October. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.