Beth Katz admits she was a bit smug when she began her studies as an undergraduate student at Creighton University. She said she walked into her first theology class thinking she had the basics covered when it came to Christianity.
“I thought, when you boiled it down, it was basically the Easter bunny and Santa Claus. I knew Jesus was a big deal but I didn’t know why. I did feel like I had enough of a sense of it that I could get through it, but once I got there, I realized how incredibly ignorant I was about Christianity, let alone the diversity within Christianity,” said Katz.
She started her interfaith work nearly right away. Katz was the first Jewish person many of her classmates had met. She said they asked her good questions about Judaism and being Jewish.
“It was a really powerful experience. I appreciated being able to ask my classmates those sorts of questions and seeing what was at the core of who they were and how that shaped their understanding of the world around them,” Katz said.
During her time at Creighton, Katz formed a Jewish student group. Not long afterward, the leadership of campus ministry approached Katz and several other students about starting an interfaith group. She co-founded the group and created programming for the campus.
Katz said she loved it, “I felt it utilized my strengths and found it amazing to see the transformative effects these types of encounters had among the students as well as on myself.”
Through that work, Katz met and befriended the leader of the Muslim student group. The two talked about forming a center for Jewish-Muslim relations. At the time though, she said interfaith work was not on the radar so they didn’t know if people even did interfaith work for a living. She and her friend agreed to wait until they were professionally and financially established before opening the center.
“We made a pact that if it was still needed in 10 or 15 years, we would start this center for Jewish-Muslim relations. But after I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2005, I had this moment of clarity where I knew I couldn’t wait to do this work,” said Katz.
She started Project Interfaith in December 2005. Katz chose Omaha because she grew up here and thought it might be right for a sustainable interfaith program. Since most people who aren’t from Nebraska have low expectations of what happens here, Katz said she thought if it didn’t work people would just say, “Of course it didn’t, it’s in Nebraska.” But she knew if it did work that people would say, “If it succeeds in Omaha, it could succeed anywhere” and that was her goal.
“We want people to understand these conversations, interactions and learning need to happen everywhere and can. It doesn’t have to look the same and shouldn’t be confined to major cities,” she said.
Project Interfaith’s mission is to grow understanding, respect and relationships among people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures. The organization is committed to creating spaces where all people feel valued, included and protected.
According to Katz, Project Interfaith focuses on building and sustaining community and not a particular theology.
Katz said, “A person’s belief system, whatever it is, is so central to how they understand themselves and the world around us, that we need to find ways to openly and respectfully learn and share these parts of ourselves and our traditions.”
Project Interfaith’s newest endeavor, Ravel/UnRavel encourages people to do just that. The project grew from the organization’s first multimedia project.
In Spring 2010, Project Interfaith held a six-week interfaith youth service project. The kids were supplied with flip cameras and a list of questions concerning service, identity and beliefs and sent out into the community.
The students interviewed people about their religious and spiritual beliefs at religious centers, schools, businesses and community groups. These interviews were then uploaded to a video blog on Project Interfaith’s website.
Sierra Pirigyi, Program Coordinator for Project Interfaith, said the purpose of the project was to offer people a way to explore the religious and spiritual diversity of the identities that make up our community.
The idea for Ravel/UnRavel unfolded during the first week of the student project. A participant was in her dorm room filming her first video blog when someone came in and said, “You’re Muslim? You’re not brown.” Pirigiyi said instead of berating that individual or shutting down, the participant decided to use her video blog as an educational tool. She told people what it meant for her to be Muslim, making it clear that Muslims were varied and not all have the same background or culture.
As the staff at Project Interfaith watched this video, an idea began to take shape.
“It was so powerful to hear this woman define herself in her own terms. She was able to take apart a stereotype out there about her identity. And we thought how wonderful it would be to give everyone the same opportunity, to allow people to define themselves in their own words and dismantle the stereotypes that impact them based on religious or spiritual identity,” said Katz.
The initial phase of Ravel/UnRavel was set for September-December 2010. 35 volunteers, with 14 different religious and spiritual identities, set out with flip cameras to record as many interviews as possible.
Project Interfaith’s initial goal was 150 videos, but after extending the end date of the first phase to March 2011, they ended up with more than 720 videos.
Katz and her staff were astonished by the response. She said the diversity of the people who shared their stories really comes through on the website.
The big goal of the project was not just to show the overall religious and spiritual diversity of the community but the diversity within these identity groups and the limitations of the labels that we place on each other.
Pirigyi said all interviewees were asked the same questions, “How they religiously or spiritually identify, a stereotype, myth or misconception about that identity that has affected them and how welcoming they find the community to be in following their religious or spiritual path.”
Due to the overwhelming community response, Project Interfaith will launch the next phase of Ravel/UnRavel: The Ravelution beginning July 22nd. A 1957 cherry red Bel Air wagon will be touring the city, drawing attention to the project.
The goal is to capture an additional 500 videos by the end of October, bringing the total number of videos to 1250.
“We’re going to be adding pieces to Ravel/UnRavel this year. We created curriculum for middle school, high school and college students that we are piloting in the fall. We’re excited about the potential to create conversation in the schools,” said Katz.
If they can raise the necessary funds, Katz said the organization will send teams of interviewers across the country. She hopes to open a national dialogue about topics that are not common for people to discuss.
Ravel/UnRavel: The Ravelution Tour begins July 22nd at Trug Omaha, at 26th and Leavenworth. Banners will be on display to attract participants. View or upload videos at ravelunravel.com.