Raquel Ukeles is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program and a Golda Meir postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the academic director of www.intellectualencounters.org, on philosophy and science in the world of medieval Islam. Raquel can be reached at rukeles@gmail.com.

As a veteran participant in inter-religious programs, I’ve learned a tremendous amount by watching the successes and mistakes of others. For example, the most successful programs I’ve experienced incorporate many different kinds of learning – formal seminars, participant-led sessions, and having fun together. These programs have clearly designed schedules with ritualized beginnings and endings to each day and a subject that develops in complexity over time, such that the participants feel that they are building something together. I’ve noticed, though, that most of these well-run programs have benefited from bringing together people who differ in their religions yet share a language and basic cultural values. It is much more difficult, however, to run a successful program that crosses linguistic and cultural barriers. In particular, one needs to pay significant attention to issues related to translation, which can affect profoundly the outcome of a program.

By far, the most egregious translation-related mistake I’ve witnessed was at a workshop between high level Arab Muslim religious leaders and American Christian and Jewish counterparts. The director, faced with the high cost of simultaneous translators, decided that we would ‘make do’ without them. At our first session, held at a Protestant seminary, the Christian theologians there spoke eloquently about our shared theological and ethical principles. The Muslim leaders sat politely in a row, though occasionally they looked a little bored. Afterwards, as the theologians congratulated each other for expressing such daring and courageous ideas, the director appeared elated and said to me, “I think we’re off to a great start…very important work occurred here today!” I looked at him in utter astonishment – “Nothing happened here today, because the Muslim scholars did not understand a word…not one word!” The director refused to believe me then, but after several painful days with ersatz translators (myself included), he brought in some professionals. The lesson, though, is one that I’ll never forget – don’t ignore the problem of translation and don’t skimp on translators. Besides the obvious problem of having no way to communicate, the lack of proper translation creates a power imbalance in the room and undermines any attempt to convey mutual respect.

This July, I had the opportunity for the first time to build and run the curriculum of a two-week encounter between Egyptian graduate students from al-Azhar University and American doctoral and seminary students of different religious backgrounds. The program was small in scale (30 participants), but ambitious in that most of the Egyptians spoke poor English and most of the Americans spoke no Arabic at all (not to mention the serious gaps in worldview and cultural orientation). The workshop was an opportunity for me to apply many of the lessons I have extrapolated over time. For example, we began each day with a moment of silence to create non- scripted space for prayer or meditation; I incorporated both formal lectures and participant-led sessions; I fought hard with the managing director to have a movie night with cookies and milk (following the important Wexner teaching, “no bonding without sugar”); and we played around extensively with issues of translation (and yes, we hired a simultaneous translator).

I was especially proud of two parts of the program that were designed to build mutual respect across cultural and linguistic lines: 

1 – While most of the lectures were in English, I invited a series of American Muslim scholars to present in Arabic, so that the Egyptians would be empowered to participate fully and the Americans would experience learning in translation. These American Muslim scholars also served as cultural bridges to facilitate the exchange not only of ideas but of values. 

2 – Beginning at the end of the first week, we visited places of worship related to each of the traditions in the group: On Friday, the students experienced Jum’ah prayer; on Shabbat, they went to shul; on Sunday, they attended a (Catholic) mass; and the following week they visited a Buddhist temple. In my view, the fact that the students each took turns being a visitor and being a host allowed for a genuine give-and-take and conveyed dignity for all. (In fact, it was a small group of the Muslim students who encouraged me to invite our one Buddhist student to organize a visit to the Buddhist Temple, because the principle of equity was such an important basis of our group dynamic).

As a first-time academic director, I made all sorts of rookie mistakes that I would change or improve, such as covering too many topics with not enough free time, and hiring only one translator, such that we were unable to ‘make do’ when we tried to break out into small groups. In the end, though, I believe that the encounter worked because the participants collectively and individually felt that their voices were respected and their places were valued. And this, I believe, is a lesson that can be applied even for programs that share a common language or culture.