Emouna: Teaching Democracy to Religious Leaders

A Roman Catholic priest plays tennis with a rabbi. A Protestant minister discusses the merits of meditation with a Buddhist monk. In one role-playing activity, an imam acts as a rabbi and a priest simulates the part of a battered woman, attempting to understand her pain.

These are just some of the surprising moments of a nine-month-long French interfaith programme called Emouna.

Launched four years ago, Emouna is the brainchild of London’s Leo Baeck College and France’s first female rabbi, Pauline Bebe. “My own family history provided inspiration,” Rabbi Bebe explains. “Christians saved my family during the Holocaust and my parents raised me in an environment of openness and tolerance.”

After the 2015 terrorist attacks rocked the French capital, creating the ground-breaking Emouna programme was her response to the violence. Rabbi Bebe teamed up with Mohammed Azizi, an imam, and Thierry Vernet, a priest, and with the help of Frédéric Puigserver from the prestigious Sciences Po, Emouna was born.

In Hebrew, “Emouna” means trust, loyalty, spirituality, adherence, and commitment through acts. All branches of Judaism and all denominations and sects of the other faiths are represented. The curriculum teaches religious leaders how to lead in a secular Western democracy. Religious leaders discuss subjects ranging from biotechnology and abortion to laws about professional secrecy, how to support the faithful in prison or hospitals, and, of course, the challenge of radicalisation.

Since no other comparable programme exists, Rabbi Bebe is expanding Emouna. In Belgium, the Universite de Louvain just finished its first year, graduating 30 religious leaders. Amsterdam University offers the course in Dutch. Talks are underway with Italian universities and Columbia in New York. All told, Emouna counts 200 graduates.

In the coming academic year, COVID-19 will force the courses to move online, although Rabbi Bebe is eager to restore traditional classes. She believes the personal contact among religious leaders is crucial to success.

After graduation, alumni events continue the interreligious dialogue and exchange. The goal is not to get an agreement, only understanding. “Some of our students are for abortion, for example, while others are against,” says Rabbi Bebe. “At Emouna, they can still become friends and work together.”

About the Author
William Echikson is the director of the Brussels office of the European Union of Progressive Judaism. Before joining the EUPJ, Mr. Echikson worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to bring the State of Deception exhibit on Nazi Propaganda to Europe. He also worked for six and a half years at Google running corporate communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa. He launched the company’s Europe blog and led its efforts around data center government affairs and Internet freedom Issues. Mr. Echikson began his career as a foreign correspondent in Europe for a series of US publications including the Christian Science Monitor. Wall Street Journal, Fortune and BusinessWeek. From 2001 until 2007, he served as Brussels Bureau Chief for Dow Jones. Mr. Echikson also has written, directed and produced for television documentaries for BBC and America’s Public Broadcasting Service. He is the author of four books, including works on the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the history of the Bordeaux wine region. An American and Belgian citizen, Mr. Echikson graduated from Yale College with a Magna Cum Laude degree in history.
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