The ISSRPL was first conceived in a restaurant in Sarajevo, in December of 2001. It was Ramadan and Chanukah and a number of religiously committed Jews, Moslems and Christians who had gathered there from all over the world had to hurry through their meal to partake in a discussion of religious tolerance at the Franciscan seminary on the outskirts of the city.
From that meeting came the idea to establish a school devoted to tolerance and the development of new perspectives on the intersection of religion and the public sphere. The school first met in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 2003 and the school has met every year since. Bringing together fellows to explore specific issues in the intersection of religion and public life, the school’s major aim is to reframe our understanding of these issues and to bring the participants to enact their new understandings in their home societies—either through the establishment of new initiatives, the development of new projects within existing initiatives, or creating new institutional linkages across boundaries of tradition, ethnicity, and/or nationality.
One arena where the ISSRPL has played a significant role is in isolating social-change actors, usually, individuals already committed within NGO’s or educational institutions, and—through the experience of the summer school and the networking and shared learning that takes places there—enabling them to significantly expand the scope of their institution building activities. This has taken many different forms, from institution building proper, through educational activities to networking between institutions and community organizations in different countries.
One of the goals of the ISSRPL is to enable its fellows to develop projects inspired by the summer school experience in their home countries. Over the years of the school, a number of initiatives have emerged, all attempting to realize ISSRPL goals in different ways in many of the different countries that fellows come from:
Following the 2005 school in Jerusalem, fellows from Bosnia returned home to establish a Center for Inter-Religious Dialogue in Sarajevo within the organizational framework of their sponsoring institution, the International Forum Bosnia. A similar, satellite project was begun in Tuzla, oriented to the students at the Tuzla University School of Law.
Following the 2004 year, in Bosnia, fellows from Tirana established the organization Selvia (Cypress Tree) and initiated the establishment of a small café/cultural center in Tirana which provides a space for the citizens of the capital to expand their knowledge of the religious traditions of the world in an atmosphere of shared friendship, trust and mutuality. We continue to work with these fellows in the organization of meetings and lectures.
Other Albanian fellows from the 2006 and 2007 schools have begun work to organize a camp for high school students from the city and migrant communities in the suburbs to explore issues of difference and ways to overcome the stereotypes that create tensions between the various communities.
Following the 2007 year in Turkey, fellows from Israel have begun to organize a Center for the Ethics of Nursing in a Multicultural Society, in Emek Yizrael. We are in fact helping them to establish a center for applied ethics in the health field which will be an address for thinking, suggesting and supervising health care providers. The center will also serve as an institution for research in applied ethics. This center will enhance democratic values within the context of multi-cultural sensitivity.
Critical to the long-term impact of the ISSRPL has been its work with educators and its role in enabling the sharing of educational perspectives and initiatives across cultural, civilizational and national divides. A number of major projects have been enabled through the cooperation across religious traditions and knowledge bases that the ISSRPL has provided. These include projects that are aimed at university audiences, high-school teachers, civic leaders and local level elites. They represent the initiative of ISSRPL staff, board members as well as former fellows and even former host institutions.
Yeshiva Ma’ale Hagilboa/ Bagh-al-Grabia Islamic Academy: This initiative has focused on bringing Rabbinic students and students in an Islamic Academy in contact with one another to learn together once a month. It grew out of the participation of Jewish and Muslim Israeli fellows during the first two years of the school and is being developed under the auspices of Yesodot: Center for the Study of Torah and Democracy.
Sde Eliyahu/Yafiach: Over the past few years a teachers program has been underway, bringing secondary school teachers from Sde Eliyahu (a Jewish religious kibbutz) and Yafiach (an Arab municipality outside of Nazareth) together for joint programming and training. Teachers and principles involved in this program, including those who developed it, from the both the Jewish and Arab sides were past students at the ISSRPL in the Balkans. Here too, Yesodot is the local sponsor in Israel.
Project Tolerance/School Curricula: From 2000 to 2007 and under the broad coordination of Boston University’s Tolerance Project, inter-religious school curricula were drawn up in Bosnia and Israel to teach the principles of tolerance to religious students in religious schools from religious perspectives. The ISSRPL has provided an important venue where assumptions of this curricula were tested, where individuals involved in its preparation in the different countries met, exchanged views and perspectives and made use of their experience in the school over the years in which the curricula developed.
Van Leer Jerusalem Institute: Conference and working group on Comparative Turkish/Israeli roads to statehood. Inspired by the 2007 school in Turkey it will purse the comparison of these two, post-Ottoman Empire states, especially in terms of the questions of secularism from above and the moves to achieve ethnically homogenous populations.
Amazing Fathers Project Dinner Dialogue: This project, organized by two former school fellows, who direct the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, brings together the diverse populations of a number of Texas cities for shared food, discussion and the practice of civility across the hard boundaries of religious difference. It is, as the Center Director, Carol Quillen, claims, inspired by her experience of the ISSRPL in Jerusalem in 2005.
One of the most important functions of the ISSRPL has been to provide a sort of international, global, and inter-religious agora, a space of parhesia (of publicly spoken truths) where the effects of each individual and organizational effort can be multiplied through the connections established and linkages effected. The ISSRPL thus has an important role as enabler of certain types of social, educational and institutional action around issues of religion, pluralism and the public realm through the networking capacities it offers.
Some of this has already been made clear. The connections established between Yesodot, an orthodox Jewish Educational institution in Israel and IFB, a multi-religious Bosnian NGO have been prodigious: joint curricula work, publications in Bosnian, Hebrew, English, German, training of religious facilitators, and of religious elites.
Similarly, and as pointed out, the ISSRPL provided an arena where crucial ties between members of Yesodot and of the PTHA deepened and developed into shared educational projects. Each year the ISSRPL has hosted members of both Yesodot and of the PTHA.
Beyond this and through the networks created over the course of the past four years, ties have also been instituted between the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem – the most important liberal-Orthodox (Jewish) think-tank in the world and the IFB. At present, and with the invitation proffered to one of the 2005 ISSRPL fellows, who is also Head Librarian of the Islamic Faculty at the University of Sarajevo, these ties between Jewish and Moslem, Israeli and Bosnian religiously oriented educational institutions stand to deepen.
The fact that the 2005 ISSRPL was co-hosted in Israel by Yesodot and various Israeli institutions has allowed for the extension and deepening of contacts between the IFB and the Van Leer Foundation (and their respective directors) that was initiated some years ago by the co-directors of the ISSRPL.
While such gathering of dozens of people from different countries and traditions for two weeks of intense study and reflection is clearly transformative of the individuals involved we can only access these changes through their social implications or consequences. Some of these have been noted above. Beyond these there are however a network of publications, translations, reviews etc. whose appearance was facilitated (and sometimes made possible) by the cooperative effects of the summer school. These include at the moment, works in Bosnian, Turkish, Hebrew, Albanian, English, German, Italian, Bulgarian, French and Arabic. Works of ISSRPL directors, fellows, teachers and facilitators have found outlets in different languages and venues through the networks established at the ISSRPL.
The ISSRPL has thus provided a nexus of connection, joint programming, institutional building and publication between elites and institutions in Albania, Bosnia, Israel, Italy, Pakistan, Turkey, USA.