RDJ students hold Torah
Congregation Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Robert Gamer shows a student how to hold a Torah before the pandemic. (InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit)

For the 2020-21 school year, a new program will provide engaging interfaith and intercultural learning opportunities using creative remote and virtual content.

Since the 2002-03 school year, thousands of local seventh graders have embarked on Religious Diversity Journeys, an immersive interfaith educational program of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Before schools closed for COVID-19, 700 students from 50 public, private and parochial tri-county schools visited local houses of worship for five different faiths.

Whether at a church, temple, mosque or synagogue, students met with congregants and clergy who discussed their beliefs, customs and holidays, and demonstrated the use of ceremonial objects. The students shared a traditional meal and got to ask questions. The program draws enthusiastic reviews from participating students, parents and teachers.

Religious Diversity Journeys has a strong connection with the Jewish community. Its founder, Gail Katz of West Bloomfield, was teaching English as a second language to students who had recently immigrated to the U.S. She saw a need for greater knowledge and understanding among students of different backgrounds.

“When we know little or nothing about the religious beliefs of our neighbors and we classify them as the other, they become our enemies,” she explained. “Our hope is that with Religious Diversity Journeys, the other will be replaced by our friend.”

Five local Jewish congregations (Congregations Beth Ahm and Beth Shalom, and Temples Beth El, Emanu-El and Israel) hosted students during the past school year. For Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Beth Ahm, “having the students and their teachers here was a great experience. The program felt like a precious opportunity to share the beauty of Jewish life.”

The Religious Diversity Journeys program “helps students learn about their neighbors who practice different faiths, overcoming fears about unknown or little-known religions and customs, and encouraging new friendships,” said Rachel Clawson, InterFaith Leadership Council board member and chair of its Religious Diversity Journeys Committee. “The program is intended to increase understanding and appreciation for religious differences, substituting knowledge for stereotypes.”


Due to school closures in March, the final field trips of the 2019-2020 school year — to a local Muslim mosque and Hindu temple — were done virtually. Religious Diversity Journeys program director Wendy Miller Gamer of Huntington Woods created these virtual sessions to complete the year. For the 2020-21 school year, a new program will provide engaging interfaith and intercultural learning opportunities using creative remote and virtual content. Students do not need to leave school and aspects of the program can be done independently or with teacher participation, she explained.

Two organizational partners, Detroit Public Television and the Detroit Experience Factory, are developing the program, which will have two tracks — Foundation and Ambassador. The Foundation Track will be similar to the current curriculum with synchronous learning (online in real time) and remote field trips to local houses of worship. The Ambassador Track is a leadership development program to teach skills for building intercultural connections.

Detailed program information, including tuition fees, scholarship availability and registration forms, are available online at detroitinterfaithcouncil.com. The Interfaith Leadership Council is a faith-based nonprofit civic organization made up of religious and lay leaders of many faiths whose shared values compel them to work toward a community that lives together in harmony. 

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