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A large procession brought the Torah scroll to the new synagogue. With music and dance, the Cottbus Jewish Community celebrated the official opening. The city's orignal synagogue was burned to the ground during Kristallnacht in 1938. Photo by Michael Helbig.

Inside a dying German church, a new synagogue rises

Sumi Somaskanda Apr 20, 2015

COTTBUS, Germany (RNS) For years, the Schlosskirche, or castle church, at the heart of Cottbus’ historic old city stood mostly empty.

Like many other parishes in Germany, the Schlosskirche no longer had a congregation of its own. And recent efforts to breathe life back into the 300-year-old structure had come up short.

There were environmental seminars, educational workshops and, for a long time, food and shelter for the homeless. Then word got out that the local Jewish community was looking for a synagogue to replace their cramped quarters around the corner. Church officials jumped at the chance.

“For me, it was the only possibility to keep the church as a house of God in the long run,” said Ulrike Menzel, the regional superintendent of the Evangelical Church in Germany, the nation’s main Protestant body.

With the city’s backing and unanimous support among church leaders, state officials offered to buy the building for the Jewish community and turn it into a synagogue — the first in the eastern State of Brandenburg since 1938.

Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, at news conference at the North American College in Rome March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George dies at 78, an icon of a conservatism suddenly out of favor

David Gibson Apr 17, 2015

The death of Cardinal Francis George at age 78 on Friday (April 17) was not unexpected. The powerful archbishop of Chicago had been battling cancer for years, and when it returned, the toll contributed to his decision to give up the reins of one of the nation’s premiere dioceses — the first man to retire rather than die in that office.

What is much less certain, however, is the fate of George’s legacy as the intellectual lodestar for conservative U.S. Catholics, and how, or whether, that patrimony will endure in the era of Pope Francis.

George was a Chicago native, born Jan. 16, 1937 in the city’s Portage Park neighborhood, an altar boy who thought of becoming a priest from the time of his First Communion at age 7.

In many ways, George ran counter to Chicago’s reputation as an incubator of church innovation, a sprawling, diverse diocese of outspoken lay people and doughty clergy who were unafraid to speak their minds and to champion the demands of their flock.


Book Review: “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor”

Ariel Morrison Apr 16, 2015

In her 2011 memoir of a year spent practicing a different spiritual practice each month, “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor,” Jana Riess can make readers laugh, cry, and pause for reflection. From a month of fasting regularly, to one spent on conscious consumerism, and another on being consistently grateful, Riess takes readers along for the ride through a year of challenges and insights. While the practices Riess took on in writing her memoir may not seem fun or invigorating initially, her refreshingly honest writing makes all the difference. Riess presents a very real and tangible voice to the struggles of fasting, not buying anything other than essential needs, and regularly practicing centering prayer.

“Flunking Sainthood” is as informative as it is entertaining, as Riess maintains motivation to meet the challenges of each month’s spiritual practice, while providing refreshingly realistic commentary. While she did not identify as religious in childhood, but came to adopt Christian faith as an adult, Riess describes her longtime fascination with religion and spiritual life as inexplicable. In a year of reading spiritual classics, from Therese of Lisieux’s memoir “The Story of a Soul,” to the texts of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Riess embarks on a journey to reignite the spark in her faith life. While the year’s task of adopting a different spiritual practice each month might seem lofty or complicated, Riess makes the challenge digestible, relating each text she reads and each practice she follows to her own life, usually with a good dose of frankness and humor.

Model Firman Nazirulhasif wears Boston-based Munir Hassan’s clothing line. Hassan has created an entire line of stereotype-shattering clothing for American Muslims. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Izzraimy,

‘Radical Muslims’ clothing line attempts to shatter stereotypes

Ken Chitwood Apr 14, 2015

Radical Muslims. The phrase elicits images of ISIS militants and terror in the desert, perhaps grainy YouTube videos, Kalashnikovs and raised fists.

What about a man in an ankle-length garment and cotton headscarf carving the air with his skateboard?

Is that a radical Muslim?

Along with shirts bearing the “Radical Muslims” image and a Nike-like swoosh saying “Just Dua It” (dua being nonobligatory Muslim prayer, or supplications), Boston-based Munir Hassan has created an entire line of stereotype-shattering clothing for American Muslims.

In an explicit attempt to flip the script on popular images of Muslims and Islamic symbols, Hassan’s own Sidikii Clothing Co. merges cultures in fashion-forward, Muslim inspired designs.

“I’m Muslim, I’m American. I was born both,” said Hassan. “I wanted to design clothing that showcased different pieces of my culture inclusively.”

Marco Rubio speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

Five faith facts about Marco Rubio: ‘Once a Catholic always a Catholic’

Lauren Markoe Apr 13, 2015

(RNS) Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla,), who is expected to launch his presidential campaign Monday (April 13),often talks about faith and wrote about his religious convictions in his 2012 book, “An American Son: A Memoir.”

Here are five faith facts about this Catholic son of Cuban immigrants who has also found comfort in Mormonism and a Southern Baptist church:
1. He was once a serious, young Mormon

Rubio’s parents baptized him Catholic and he is now a practicing Catholic, but when he was 8, his family moved from South Florida to Las Vegas, where his mother attributed the wholesomeness of the neighborhood to the influence of the Mormon Church. Young Rubio was baptized again, this time in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He spent three years as a Mormon, upheld its teachings more enthusiastically than his parents, and chided his father for working as a bartender, a no-no for Mormons who abstain from alcohol.
2. He frequents a Southern Baptist megachurch

Rubio and his wife Jeannette often visit Miami’s Christ Fellowship, a Southern Baptist congregation the couple appreciates for its strong preaching and children’s programs. Rubio has donated at least $50,000 to the church, which he attended almost exclusively from 2000 to 2004. But he now finds his religious home in Catholic churches in Washington, D.C. and Florida. In his memoir, Rubio writes that he will go with his family to Christ Fellowship on Saturday nights, and Mass on Sundays at St. Louis Catholic Church. His children have received First Holy Communion.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and conference goers sing at the first session of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 185th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah April 4, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/George Frey

The truest GOP believers? Mormons

Greg Perreault Apr 10, 2015

Mormons lean more heavily toward the Republican Party than any other major demographic group — whether clustered by race, age, gender, educational attainment or religion.

So says a study released Tuesday (April 7) by the Pew Research Center, based on more than 25,000 survey interviews conducted nationwide in 2014.

The survey shows that 70 percent of Mormons lean Republican, compared with just 22 percent who tilt Democratic. That 48-point gap is greater for the GOP than margins provided by any other single group.

Behind Mormons in GOP support are white evangelical Protestants, who give the party a 46-point edge; white Southerners, a 21-point GOP advantage; white men with some college education or less, also 21 points; whites, 9 points; and the “silent generation,” ages 69 to 86, 4 points.

Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann at Mishkan Chicago's Get Higher: High Holidays 5775 services at the Preston Bradley Center. Photo by Timothy Smith, courtesy of Mishkan Chicago

Women rabbis are forging a path outside denominational Judaism

Lauren Markoe Apr 8, 2015

At a synagogue in Charleston, S.C., more than 20 years ago, teenager Rachel Nussbaum began wrapping tefillin — two black boxes attached to leather straps that Jewish men wear as they pray.

To the older Jewish men gathered for morning prayers, the sight of a woman decked out like a man at prayer was shocking. Many didn’t know what to make of Nussbaum’s brazen willingness to break with tradition.

Now 38, and a rabbi, Nussbaum leads The Kavana Cooperative, a growing Jewish prayer community in Seattle that has much in common with a synagogue but doesn’t call itself one. Like the tefillin-wrapping teenage Nussbaum, Kavana prides itself on a reputation for doing Judaism its own way.

It is known, as are about 10 other like-minded “indie synagogues,” for its exuberant prayer, willingness to experiment and welcoming attitude toward those whose comfort zone lies outside the traditional Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations. Another commonality: Women lead most of them.

These communities have grabbed the attention of more conventional Jewish leaders because they have enjoyed success where mainstream synagogues and institutions often struggle: attracting young Jews.

Many of these groups, born less than a decade ago, draw scores of people to Shabbat services and hundreds to holiday celebrations. The Los Angeles-based Ikar congregation boasts 600 family units, an impressive size in the Jewish world.


4 notable remarks from President Obama’s Easter Prayer Breakfast

Adelle M. Banks Apr 7, 2015

President Obama turned both personal and preachy Tuesday (April 7) during his annual Easter Prayer Breakfast, which he has hosted at the White House six times since he was elected.

The long list of Christian leaders attending included Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, Roman Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Rev. Al Sharpton, retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, civil rights veteran the Rev. C.T. Vivian and African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti McKenzie. The Rev. Amy Butler of New York’s Riverside Church gave the opening prayer.

Here are four memorable statements from the event:


Shadows, Shawshank, and the Eucatastrophe of Holy Week

Kevin Glenn Apr 6, 2015

Could you imagine the Lord of the Rings without the death of Gandalf?

I remember reading the story for the first time and being shocked that his encounter with a Balrog ended with him falling to his death. I was attached to Gandalf and felt he was taken too soon. I stopped right there, put down the book, and moved no further for a long time. Later, I spoke with a friend who had finished the series. He was going on and on about Gandalf the White. I asked, “Who is that? Gandalf died.” He replied, “Right, that’s where the story really takes off!” I confessed in that moment that I had stopped reading, but now I wanted to know what happened. Wisely, my friend pushed back. “No way! You can’t appreciate Gandalf the White unless you understand the death of Gandalf the Grey.” Then he called me out for being lazy and challenged me to read the whole story. I did.white

I discovered that without the sacrificial death of Gandalf the Grey, the hellish Balrog of Morgoth would have lived on to spread the fear of death in Middle Earth. Gandalf the Grey fought, endured, and defeated the demon, giving his life in the victory. Through his death, Middle Earth encountered Gandalf the White. Same, but different. Familiar, but strange. Resurrection is like that. The darkness of the struggle with death makes the light more brilliant.

In one of our subsequent discussions of the story, my friend asked how I processed the suffering of Jesus. I told him that I didn’t believe our focus should be on the death of Jesus, but the resurrection of Jesus. He asked if I’d ever been to a Tenebrae service, a service of shadows and darkness. I was speechless and thought of the best reply I could muster … “I’m Baptist.”

Projecting the Worlds Faith

The future map of religions reveals a world of change for Christians, Muslims and Jews

Cathy Lynn Grossman Apr 3, 2015

Muslims will overtake Christians by the end of this century.

India, now mostly Hindu, will become the world’s largest Muslim country.

The numbers of people with no religious identity will soar in the United States and Europe, but the unaffiliated will lose worldwide market share as Christians maintain a steady growth.

All these changes are drawn from the Pew Research Center’s new projections, released Thursday (April 2), that map global faith traditions and how they’re likely to shift by 2050.

The report says nothing about the transcendent message of any religion. It makes no claims about believers’ level of devotion or practice.

Instead, it’s a story of nitty-gritty statistics: Which group is having babies (lots of babies or just a few)? Which ones have many young people, and which are slowly graying out? Whose followers are on the move — from one nation to another, or switching religions?