Sharon Rosen, Global Director of Religious Engagement, Search for Common Ground,

Issue I: Trans­forming Tomorrow

I-8 | Sharon Rosen: “Collaborating side by side on a joint problem provides religious actors with a sense of purpose”

"Collaborating side by side on a joint problem provides religious actors with a sense of purpose"

Sharon Rosen

Read, what Sharon Rosen thinks is the difference between practical work and dialogue. And what is necessary for a fruitful conversation between religions.

An Interview by Alexander Görlach 11|25|2020

Görlach: Working on inter-religious collaboration projects: what are the cornerstones of successful inter-religious practice?

Rosen: The basis for interreligious collaboration rests on certain fundamental values without which it is very difficult to develop an authentic relationship between people of different religions. These values include mutual respect and trust, and a recognition that human beings have an inalienable dignity because we have all been created in the Divine image.  The question is whether these values need to be present at the beginning for interreligious collaboration projects to flourish or whether they can develop during the process? I have discovered, especially when there is conflict –  and many generations of engrained ignorance and prejudice – that bringing people together around a common interest, e.g. the protection of their holy sites, is a good way to start. In this way people begin to know one another and slowly but surely there is a growing recognition that there is so much more that is similar than different among them.  The human encounter naturally breaks down barriers and prejudices, and I’ve seen the excitement among interreligious groups when people discover similarities in practice and belief.  This recognition then helps them to respecfully listen to differences. At the same time religious actors need to feel safe when collaborating which is why projects that are skillfully facilitated are so important. Even during times of conflict, one can normally find religious actors who are inclined towards collaborative projects to advance peace.  The question is how do you reach the religious actors who are not? The answer is in creating a project that is of significant enough interest to all sides so that it overcomes the barriers of separation.

Görlach:Is practice a better field to engage than inter-religious dialogue?

Rosen: Interreligious dialogue is an important part of interreligious practice or as I prefer to call it ‘interreligious engagement’. Neither is ‘better’ than the other but often the latter is an easier and more practical way to begin bringing people of different religions together. Collaborating side by side on a joint problem provides religious actors with a sense of purpose and the motivation to create positive change for their communities rather than simply coming together face to face in dialogue out of curiosity or for their own personal benefit.  But for engagement to be successful, there must also be dialogue because that is what builds and sustains mutual trust. Interreligious engagement is also broader because it can include other sectors of society as well, such as government, the police, and civil society organizations which results in even greater collaboration. In this way, the web of communication and collaboration within society is woven.

Görlach: In your experience; what is an ideal constellation to have a fruitful interreligious conversation and an impactful inter-religious action?.

Rosen: Let me provide an example of a project I feel proud of which has greatly reduced interreligious tensions on Mt Zion just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Mt Zion is the location of a crucially important shared holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims;  the Tomb of King David – known to Muslims as Nabi Daud – and the Room of the Last Supper, all within the same physical structure.  Centuries long conflict over ownership and religious rights on the mount, fuelled by rivalry and intolerance, as well as more recent religiously motivated hate crimes, had resulted in an atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion, and violence. We set up the Window on Mount Zion initiative in 2016 with a local partner, the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, to promote interreligious dialogue and collaboration via the following three components: (1) engaging local religious leaders, identifying shared goals and concerns, and finding collaborative solutions; (2) establishing a body of volunteers to help maintain a harmonious atmosphere on-site; and (3) organizing workshops and site visits for over 1000 police officers and youth to increase interreligious understanding. The results were astounding. After three interreligious meetings during which religious leaders discussed with local government and the police common practical concerns such as security issues, lack of parking, garbage collection, and safety hazards, they began to talk about a common vision for Mt Zion. They subsequently jointly and publicly condemned an attack on a Christian holy site on the mount (most probably the first time in three thousand years!); volunteers from different faiths assisted with a variety of religious services and together they cleaned up a historically important Muslim cemetery. Interreligious violence ceased. I think that says it all.

„Collaborating side by side on a joint problem provides religious actors with a sense of purpose and the motivation to create positive change for their communities rather than simply coming together face to face in dialogue out of curiosity or for their own personal benefit.  ”

Sharon Rosen

Görlach: What role do women play in the projects that you design and implement?

Rosen: Inclusion is a core value at Search for Common Ground so women always play a role in our projects. My own role as the director of religious engagement at Search reflects this as well as the fact that many of my colleagues designing and implementing our projects are women. That said, religions are generally both patriarchal and hierarchical so sometimes we need to be highly persuasive in recruiting women as participants! I have had situations when I’ve designed an inclusive religious leaders’ project only to be told by the men that there simply aren’t any female religious leaders to recruit.  So we have intentionally broadened our definitions,  using the term ‘religious actors’ rather than ‘religious leaders’ with the recognition that true, authentic interreligious dialogue and action, leading to conflict transformation can only come about when all players – and that includes representatives of 51% of the world’s population – are involved. To our benefit, there is a much greater awareness and appreciation within religions, and indeed across society, of the crucial role that women can and do play, not only in the private sphere of their home but also in the public space. But we still have a way to go!

Görlach: You lived and worked for quite some time in Jerusalem: what will the future of a place like this city, where humans of many different faiths live in high density neighbourhoods, will look like?

Rosen: I have lived in Jerusalem for nearly 40 years and I still live and work there. Jerusalem is in my blood and it is in the direction of Jerusalem that  I have prayed as a practicing Jew since my earliest memories.  I cannot tell you what Jerusalem will look like in 5 years let alone in another 40. We are living in such dynamic times and Jerusalem must be one of the most complex cities in the world, lying at the heart of a conflict that still needs to be solved. But what I can share with you is my vision of a healthy, flourishing and secure Jerusalem where everyone lives with dignity and is free to practice their religion as they choose so long as by doing so they do not harm others. Yes, we have high-density and largely homogeneous neighborhoods but I don’t see this as a problem provided people of different religions respect one another.  I do sometimes think though that I will have to leave my home in Jerusalem if there is peace. The billions of pilgrims from the Abrahamic faiths visiting the city will make it impossible to live there!

Görlach: The majority of humankind does in fact already live in cities. Cities are a melting pot of different backgrounds and beliefs. Inter-religious practice therefore will become even more important than less one would assume. Does this pose a special challenge to your work?

Rosen: There has been an exponential growth in interreligious dialogue and collaboration over the past 20-30 years which has gone hand in hand with a growing recognition that the vast majority of the world’s population identifies with religious communities.  Religion must be taken into account as a highly significant identity marker in people’s lives.   Cities are not always melting points of different backgrounds and beliefs. In many cases, one can more correctly describe them as mosaics – like Jerusalem – where different homogeneous communities live side by side. What is true though is that if we are going to live in peaceful and flourishing cities we need to create opportunities for people to reach out, get to know, and collaborate with one another. In this respect, I do believe that interreligious engagement will become even more important in the future. I don’t see this as a special challenge – I welcome it with open arms.

Sharon Rosen

Short Biography

Sharon Rosen has worked with Search for Common Ground since 2005, assuming the role of Global Director of Religious Engagement in 2017. In this role, she oversees the development and project implementation of Search’s global religious engagement strategy. Prior to Search, she co-founded and directed Education for Life, an international non-governmental organization that provides tools for the development and wellbeing of children within state educational systems. She was also a faculty member at the Jerusalem Center for Near East Studies teaching courses on Bible, gender, and contemporary relevance. She is a member ​of ​Religions for Peace Secretary General’s Advisory Council.

Sharon is an expert on designing and implementing ​religious engagement programming to strengthen societal collaboration. She recently completed a training toolkit: The Common Ground Approach to Religious Engagement and co-created and leads the Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites initiative. An experienced facilitator in conflict resolution and strategy planning during her time at Search she has directed multiple projects on religion, development, health, and media.


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I-8 | Sharon Rosen: “Collaborating side by side on a joint problem provides religious actors with a sense of purpose”

Read, what Sharon Rosen thinks is the difference between practical work and dialogue. And what is necessary for a fruitful conversation between religions.

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