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  • Creating Particularistic Religious Identities in an Age of Pluralism

    Posted on December 20th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment


    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Even if you did not attend the URJ Biennial to know that Jews in America are worried about how to engage, attract and maintain a connection with young people. And it is not just Jews who worry about the next generation. In an age of individual choices about identities, where switching faiths or having none at all is more likely than staying the course with what we are born into, how do we connect with young people? Apathy and radicalism seem to sell but what about moderation and generosity? 

    There is no easy or single answer to these questions but they are the questions that animate Eboo Patel’s autobiography Acts of Faith. At the start of the book Patel asks us to consider his fellow coreligionists, young Muslim men like himself, who in the summer of 2005 blew up transportation hubs throughout London killing and maiming over 800. What he wonders separates himself from these young people?

    Patel’s look back over his life is an attempt to answer this question by way of describing how he came in his twenties to found the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) an international interfaith service group engaging to make the world a better place by focusing on the concepts of good works found in all religions. The organization is his answer to the question of how to engage youth and it is a compelling one. Much of his analysis of American institutionalized religion and the formulation of the solutions resonate across religious lines.

    But long before you get to the solutions, and even if you do not find them compelling, this is a must read for those looking to work with youth and believe passionately in both particularism and universalism. Patel’s personal story is a familiar one. He is the son of immigrant parents who work hard to assimilate and succeed in becoming American. Elements of his family’s Muslim faith and culture are casualties along the way. As a young man searching to find his place in the world, he looks everywhere but his own heritage before eventually returning to it.

    Along the way he describes a series of close relationships, many romantic and some platonic with others who are compelling to him precisely because these individuals know their own faith traditions and draw strength from them. Each of these characters provides a powerful positive model for being modern and religious. The encounters inspire Patel but also sharpen his sense of self as distinct from the other. And just as we see this happening for Eboo Patel, we ourselves experience this sharpening of self through our encounter with him.

    Patel’s assessment of his Jewish fellow travelers provides an inspiring vision of what is positive and attractive about being a modern Jew. In the mirror of his prose, I was able to see elements of Jewish life that sometimes go unnoticed.

    I want to recommend to every young person of any faith –especially those wondering if faith is for them. But Patel’s vision can and should inspire all of us who struggle with being particular in a universal age and want to share that vision with the next generation.




    One response to “Creating Particularistic Religious Identities in an Age of Pluralism”

    1. I haven’t read his book yet, but I did hear Eboo Patel speak a couple of years ago at a “town hall” style meeting of 100 People of Faith in Atlanta. He is truly inspirational in words and deeds. I look forward to reading Acts of Faith in 2012. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

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