Limited Diversity at Emory University?

The beneficial interplay of ideas. The challenge of relating to the other. The mental sharpening of genuine dialogue. And I like a definition found on Wikipedia: “The political and social policy of encouraging tolerance for people of different backgrounds.”

That’s what diversity is supposed to be about.

I am an Emory University alumnus, a Master of Theological Studies, Magna Cum Laude, 1998, from the Candler School of Theology. And I am a rabbi of a Messianic Jewish Synagogue.

Through a personal contact, someone who heard me giving a lecture, I was invited to participate in a Festival of Faith at Emory University. The idea of the festival was to allow various religious and spiritual groups to display their offerings in an environment of diversity and unity. It was a day to lay aside differences and emphasize commonality.

About an hour into the event, with dozens of religious groups present, and a decent milling about of Emory students, Emory hospital staff, and some faculty and staff from the university, I was approached by Rabbi Victoria Armour-Hileman, from the department of religious life.

Before I get critical, I want to say that I enjoyed my conversation with Rabbi Armour-Hileman. We connected as human beings and enjoyed some dialogue that was instructive from both sides.

But at a diversity event, the good rabbi said to me, “If I had anything to do with this event, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a table here.”

Hmm, interesting. There were plenty of groups present that you might call controversial, or at least some people would. The Hare Krishnas were handing out Baghavad Ghitas and ululating, “Hare Krishna, Hare, Hare.” This is interesting because I had been singularly warned not to attempt to proselytize at this event, something I had no intention of doing. Yet the Hare Krishnas were evangelizing like Elmer Gantry. And there were several lesbian Christian ministers. And there were myriad groups based on some form of Buddhist meditation. The Tibetans were there promoting the Dalai Lama. And one group had dozens of books and DVD’s with the face of an Asian woman who is their “Supreme Teacher.”

Amid all the unusual and diverse groups, it was apparently Messianic Judaism that should not have been allowed to participate. During the conversation I brought up the possibility of worshipping some Friday night with Rabbi Armour-Hileman at a campus service. She told me I would not be allowed to come. Mind you, I had assured her that I would not mention to anyone that I was Messianic, but would come only to participate in the prayers. When she told me I would not be allowed to come, I told her that I was able to daven freely in Orthodox synagogues in Atlanta with the knowledge of the rabbis. I was not a trouble maker. Still, she said, I would be banned.

As an alumnus of an institution, one to which I only just finished repaying my student loans, I am embarrassed and dissatisfied with this kind of “tolerance” and “diversity.”

When I was a student, I attempted to start a Messianic Jewish student group. Theoretically all religious groups should be allowed to have representation. Dean of Chapel and Religious Student Life Susan Henry-Crowe denied our application and said we were not a valid religious group (her wording was almost precisely that).

I have news for Emory University: there are millions of Jews connected in some way to Jesus-faith. In an American Jewish community of five million people, some two million are intermarried or the adult children of intermarriage. Messianic Judaism is one expression of Jewish connection to Jesus.

Are we valid? What makes someone valid? What does it mean if someone deems your religious fellowship invalid? It certainly doesn’t mean diversity.

Later I spoke with the organizers of the Festival of Faith, lovely people. They were disheartened by the Religious Life Department’s intolerance. They assured me the President of Emory University was supportive of the Festival of Faith and its value of unity in diversity. I asked, “Do you suppose the University is aware of the Department of Religious Life’s attitude toward some groups?”

Now, mind you, I could understand a private university restricting or curtailing misbehavior and annoying proselytism. I could imagine that, although the Hare Krishnas were at the time engaging openly in what might be called annoying proselytism. But the Department of Religious Life’s discrimination against Messianic Jews is a fortiori, based on some predetermined notion in their minds about who we are or what we represent.

I can only hope that this intolerable situation will change. Who knows when there might be other opportunities for Messianic Judaism to be included at campus events or in student life? We would simply like to have our place alongside others.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Limited Diversity at Emory University?

  1. robyndevorah says:

    This reminds me of a story I heard a few months ago. Apparently, a prison would not provide kosher foods to Messianic Jewish prisoners, because they were not practicing a “real” religion. (I’m assuming that they did provide kosher foods to non-Messianic Jews.)

    I also heard a more encouraging story. One of my congregation members told me about how she had visited a Reform synagogue for some food and dialogue. When one of the Reform congregants found out she was Messianic, she wanted nothing to do with her. But, when my friend explained that, because of her beliefs, basically *no one* wants anything to do with her, (i.e., the church or mainstream Judaism), the woman apologized and welcomed her into the fellowship.

    So, anyway, your account is discouraging, but also encouraging, in that it gives us a challenge. It shows us what we need to do on behalf of God’s people who are involved in Messianic Judaism.

  2. Derek:

    So much for academic freedom! Rabbi Victoria Armour-Hileman needs to explain her views in light of her statements to The Emory Wheel on 4/14/2008:

    “I really like the life of the mind and being with people who are asking important questions,” she said.

    She said she sees two main tasks ahead.

    “One is to help people discover their own personal spiritual path, and the other is to create connections with people of other traditions,” she said. “Every little bit that we can do that brings people together across boundaries … creates conditions for a more peaceful loving world.”

    I guess the important questions & connections to other traditions do not include MJ!

  3. rightrudder says:


    I know that I haven’t been attending your Bible study too long, but I am pretty sure that you teach the Bible. I don’t understand why anyone would have a problem with that – especially if they teach from the same book. (?)

    I think the bottom line is that there are people out there who use the cloak of tolerance… towards their own group (self promotion) so that they can crush those who they disagree with.

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