Towson’s Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies seeks to make Baltimore a model religious city

A group listens to one of the participants during the table discussion on the lesson regarding Baruch Spinoza's influence on contemporary Jewish-Christian relations at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Towson.

After listening to Dr. Benjamin Sax lecture during a mini-course entitled “Crossroads in Jewish-Christian Dialogue” earlier this month, it’s the turn of a group of mostly senior citizens to speak.

Seated around a dozen or so tables in the library of the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Towson, they are asked to discuss weighty ideas in the context of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s critique of historical religious dogma and doctrine.


“Spinoza opened the door to interpreting other religions individually,” Sax, the ICJS Jewish scholar, said of the 17th-century, Jewish-educated philosopher who eventually joined a Mennonite sect. “He talked about the universality of religions and about recognizing an opinion, rather than a fact.”

The attendees were urged to mull over that idea along with many others offered by Sax, with the burning question being what would happen to religious institutions if the masses, a la Spinoza’s philosophy, interpreted sacred tracts on their own.


While the discussions at the institute are important, the breaking down of communication barriers among the participants of different backgrounds, ethnicities and religious persuasions may be most significant. It’s a microcosm of one of the key initiatives of the organization, located at 956 Dulaney Valley Road: to push Baltimore toward becoming a model inter-religious city.

“We deal with questions in depth,” said Dan Liebert, 72, who traveled from Woodstock in western Baltimore County to attend the class. “We talk about who we are and what we do. There’s a good spirit of acceptance here, and that’s remarkable these days.”

Maureen Keck, 79, has been attending and participating in ICJS events since its inception.

A Catholic who also studied at the St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary & University, Keck said that not even the heavy Beltway traffic she often encounters on her trip from her Catonsville home to Towson dissuades her from learning more about her spiritual beliefs relative to other religions.

“Some people ask how I can still be a Catholic and study [at ICJS],” she said. “I just find a wonderfully open exchange of ideas and exposure to other points of view here.”

And that is at the heart of the Towson-based organization’s mission.

The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies was founded in 1987 by a group of Baltimore business leaders who wanted to develop relationships between people of different faiths to confront anti-Semitism, according to Heather Miller Rubens, ICJS executive director and a Catholic scholar of the nonprofit that raised more than $5 million from its Legacy Campaign between 2014 and 2018.

“We’d like to make Baltimore a model religious city,” said Rubens, who took over her current position in 2016 — the same year that the name and logo were changed to reflect the inclusion in the organization of Islamic studies, scholars and board members.


Rubens said the institute actually expanded its mission to include Islam in 2013, three years prior to the name change.

She added that fear involving Muslims in the community was apparent both ways. “The Muslim community was afraid as well,” she said, emphasizing the need for the organization to counter Islamophobia with the same vigor with which it opposes anti-Semitism.

Irfan Malik, 65, said he had been involved with various interfaith groups in Baltimore before joining ICJS as a trustee and, currently, as vice president.

“My [Muslim] friends are impressed that people at ICJS are doing much needed scholarly work between the three religions,” said Malik, who attends the Dar Al-Taqwa Mosque in Ellicott City.

Yet the transition in adding Islam to the organization has not always been seamless.

“It’s not an easy task when you bring in a third partner to join two more established religions with hundreds of years of history in this country," Malik said. “There are a lot of challenges because there is a total lack of knowledge of Islam amongst non-Muslim people who might unknowingly say something not politically correct or factual.


“At ICJS we are doing the best to promote meaningful conversations. Like in any new marriage, it can take an adjustment from all sides.”

The organization has developed other ways to promulgate religious tolerance, including through the ICJS Religion Teachers Network, founded six years ago by Friends School English and art history teacher Amy Schmaljohn and Boys’ Latin history teacher Eric Whitehair.

Schmaljohn and Whitehair formulated the plan after they met while attending networking sessions of the Association of Independent Maryland & DC Schools.

When they approached ICJS about hosting a gathering of teachers, “ICJS enthusiastically said yes,” which led to bigger and better things, Schmaljohn said.

“ICJS’ interest in a teachers fellowship was enough to bring it to another level,” she said.

The basic idea is to build a cohort of leaders with a greater degree of understanding of the human experience of religion, she said, with a secondary impact of learning more about religious diversity in public and private schools.


“We intentionally work with Baltimore City public schools,” she said, adding that those schools are sometimes isolated in “silos,” meaning that they might not be exposed to a meaningful exchange of viewpoints.

Current teachers fellowship members from local schools include Loyola Blakefield’s Brendan Bailey and Selma Vives Ciccarone, Isaiah Buchanan from Gilman, Friends School’s Travis Henschen, and Elizabeth Keady and Maureen Longo from Notre Dame Preparatory School.

“The ICJS scholars who work with us have made a commitment to the citizens of Baltimore, and we’re the better for it,” Schmaljohn said.

Another important ICJS program, Imagining Justice in Baltimore, is an essential part of the organization’s mission of advancing the quality of life in Baltimore, said Fatimah Fanusie, director of the ICJS Civic Leaders Fellowship.

“I see our city and its surrounding neighborhoods as a sort of shared freedom space,” she said. “We are all connected in this area, whether we live here, work here, shop, play or pass through.

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“Justice is not just the result of a court case or even about the legal system. It is about asserting that we have innate, God-given value as human beings.”


She added that by bringing together community leaders from varying religious orientations, the program is helping those leaders develop strong relationships and cultivate insights to make the principles of justice, freedom and equality more concrete.

“Baltimore has a phenomenal legacy in American history dating back to the 18th century,” Fanusie said. “It’s a treasure when you think about it, and we aim to help the city continue to progress so that our future generations can benefit from our work here.”

Other outreach initiatives or events have featured a partnership with the Muslim Community Cultural Center at an interfaith Iftar attended by Imagining Justice in Baltimore fellows, business leaders, teachers and clergy, as well as panels and lectures on Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

ICJS also held a discussion with Josh Seftel, director of the Secret Life of Muslims — a web series satirizing Islamophobic stereotypes — and partnered with the Washington Theological Consortium to host a weeklong Emerging Religious Leaders immersion program that welcomed Christian and Jewish seminarians from around the United States.

“Our vision of success is for people to have a dialogue about religion by really listening to each other, even with people with whom you disagree,” Rubens said. “That’s something that would define a healthy city.”

The ICJS Manekin-Clark lecture series showcases cultural and religious trends. Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America,” will speak on Monday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m., at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.