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Two scholars bring colorful lives, Jewish lens, to conversations at Center for Interfaith Engagement

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Based on the qualities of its visiting scholars, the Center for Interfaith Engagement (CIE) could make a strong claim to be the most diversified place at Eastern Mennonite University during the spring 2014 semester.

Joining two Muslim scholars from Iran is a Jewish scholar from Chicago, who does martial arts when he’s not leading synagogues, being sought by the media, and writing books (he’s working on his 10th), plus a Harrisonburg-based professor of the arts who was raised in a liberal Jewish family, knows Hebrew and Arabic, and is married to a Mennonite.

Below are brief descriptions of the fascinating lives and myriad interests of these two men, beginning with rabbi Niles Goldstein followed by professor Bob Bersson.

Niles Goldstein

Niles is a forward-looking rabbi and award-winning writer. He is passionate about renewing an ancient faith (Judaism) and dialoguing with people of other faiths. In 2000, Niles was named one of the “Top 40 People to Watch” in the 21st century by The New York Observer.

Niles came to EMU for the 2014 spring semester as part of the visiting scholars program of the Center for Interfaith Engagement. The program is funded for three years by the Henry Luce Foundation of New York City. Niles is teaching a course in spiritual writing as well as a course in comparative monotheistic religions with a Muslim scholar and Christian scholar.

Niles is currently based in Chicago, where he is the community rabbi and rabbinic scholar for two large Reform Jewish synagogues. He also teaches a graduate course on moral leadership and leads seminars on comparative religion and spirituality at Loyola University.

Niles lived previously in New York City, where he co-founded an innovative and independent Jewish congregation in 1999 called The New Shul. He served as senior rabbi of the 200-household synagogue until 2010.

While at EMU, Niles is completing his tenth book – Question of Faith: Timeless Questions from the Bible that Guide and Ground Our Lives. He travels frequently to the Washington D.C. area to lecture on the book and to promote EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement

His book, Gonzo Judaism–A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, was a finalist for the Quill Award for best religion book of 2007.

Niles authored, co-authored or edited eight other books: The Challenge of the Soul–A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior; Craving the Divine–A Spiritual Guide for Today’s Perplexed; Lost Souls–Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness; God at the Edge–Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places; Spiritual Manifestos–Visions for Renewed Religious Life in America from Young Spiritual Leaders of Many Faiths; Duties of the Soul–The Role of Commandments in Liberal Judaism; Forests of the Night–The Fear of God in Early Hasidic Thought; and Judaism and Spiritual Ethics.

The essays and op-eds of Niles have appeared in many publications, including Chicago Sun-Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Newsday, The Forward and Moment. He has been featured and interviewed in Time, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Jerusalem Report, Belief.net, Yahoo Internet Life, New York Observer, New York Magazine and Jewish Week.

Niles has appeared on television and radio, such as NBC, CNN, NPR and BBC. He was a regular contributor to the show New Morning on the Hallmark Channel and was the voice behind Ask the Rabbi on the Microsoft Channel.

In the late 1990s Niles was involved in two ground-breaking projects in New York. As senior fellow for the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, he developed and taught curricula on leadership development and community building at conferences and seminars throughout the United States. As program officer for the Steinhardt Foundation, he helped establish a national Jewish retreat center with a focus on spirituality and pluralism. He was also the founding editor of Contact, a journal of Jewish thought and opinion.

Niles is a 1988 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in philosophy and minored in English literature. In 1992 he earned a master’s degree in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion. He was ordained as a rabbi two years later.

Niles’ activities and skills range from fluency in Hebrew to black belts in karate and tae kwon do. He also created and led Jewish Adventure Travel trips to domestic and international destinations and created and led humanitarian missions to overseas locations.

Bob Bersson

Bob’s interests are innumerable, his experiences are deep and wide, his vision is broad, and he has a passion for mutual understanding. Professionally, he was a professor of art and art history for 23 years at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.

At EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement, he teaches a course on films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (He teaches the same course at JMU.)

Raised in a liberal Jewish family in New York City, Bob has visited Israel, where he has family and friends, three times. His longest stay was for six months when a work-study program (ulpan) took him to a kibbutz. After he retired from JMU in 2003, he spent 14 months in Egypt, where he became familiar with Muslim and Coptic Christian cultures. Added to his religious experience is that he is married to a Mennonite who is an EMU alum, Dolores Shoup.

In Harrisonburg, Bob founded the Interfaith Initiative for Peace and Justice, focusing especially on getting Muslims, Jews and Christians to work together on thorny problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is currently publishing a book titled Three Years in Cairo: Stories from the Egyptian Street.

Bob speaks the languages of both sides of the conflict in the Middle East – Hebrew and Arabic.

Bob’s academic career started at Brandeis University, where he graduated in 1968 with a degree in studio art and art history. Later he earned an MS in art education from the State University of New York and a PhD in art education from the University of Maryland.

At JMU he taught modern and contemporary art history, aesthetics, art criticism, and art appreciation. He wrote two textbooks on art history and art appreciation − Responding to Art: Form, Content and Context (McGraw-Hill, 2004) and Worlds of Art (Mayfield, 1991). He produced an illustrated children’s art-appreciation book titled Stripes and Stars (Crystal, 2004). He also directed a documentary for JMU, “Hard Times for the Truly Needy,” about government budget cuts that hurt the elderly, disabled and others in the Shenandoah Valley.

While at JMU, Bob won a distinguished teaching award and an “educator of the year” award for higher education in the Southeast from the National Art Education Association.

Bob seems interested in everything and everyone, from golf to guitar. He not only plays golf and performs in local bands with his guitar, he can’t get away from teaching. He teaches private guitar lessons and offers a course on “Golf Made Easier” in the local Lifelong Learning Institute.

In addition to the Interfaith Initiative for Peace and Justice, Bob founded other local projects − Citizens for Downtown, Caucus on Social Theory and Art Education, Fridays on the Square arts series, and Blacks Run Greenway.

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