Pluralistic Perspectives Interreligious Engagement Takes Off at NASA

By Adam Zemel

A Rabbi, an Islamic Scholar, and a rocket scientist enter a (virtual) room…

When Dr. Celene Ibrahim was invited to deliver a second talk to the Islamic Study Group of the Employee Welfare Association for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, she saw an opportunity for interreligious engagement. “When the leadership of Goddard’s Muslim affinity group reached out to me in the late fall of 2023 to request another lunch-and-learn program, I immediately thought of the idea of partnering with the Jewish affinity group on an offering.” She suggested Rabbi Or Rose, founding director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning and Leadership of Hebrew College.

celene and or online

Dr. Ibrahim found her way to Goddard in the first place thanks to the efforts of Salman Sheikh, secretary of the Islamic Study Group, who has worked for NASA for more than three decades as an electronics engineer. Sheikh had encountered Dr. Ibrahim in a Youtube video from an event at Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college located in Berkeley, California. After contacting Dr. Ibrahim through her website, “I asked her if she would like to speak at an Islamic Study Group event on Women in the Quran.” They kept in touch after that first event, and when discussion turned to another lunch-and-learn program, Dr. Ibrahim suggested partnering with a Jewish affinity group. “I didn’t know any existed at Goddard,” said Sheikh. But when he saw an event in Goddard’s daily bulletin for a Hanukkah event, he reached out to the organizers, Leor Bleier and Jessica Knizhnik, and together they began to plan to host Dr. Ibrahim and Rabbi Rose.

“Rabbi Or and I have had the opportunity to facilitate programming together for such a wide variety of audiences,” said Dr. Ibrahim. “Given that we spend so much of our waking hours with our ‘work families,’ such programs can increase the sense of communal belonging.” They planned a session exploring the Abrahamic religious traditions, with the goal to “hold and facilitate a space for respectful exchange that emphasized qualities such as empathy, vulnerability, and courage.”

“I am so thankful to Dr. Ibrahim for her steadfast commitment to interreligious dialogue and learning at a time of deep division,” said Rabbi Rose. “She is a gifted scholar-educator, who models dignity and empathy in all her work. It was an honor to co-teach with her for members Goddard community, which is a diverse and vibrant group of outstanding professionals.”

“It was the largest ISG event in years,” said Sheikh. “I think the topic and political climate got it on the radar (and Goddard’s electric billboard).” More than eighty NASA employees from around the country (not just Goddard) participated in the online session, and Sheikh, Bleier, and Knizhnik have received a good deal of positive feedback from attendees. Dr. Ibrahim is excited for the prospect of continuing the work: “Fostering personal relationships across identity groups is one of the core strategies of interreligious engagement. [Our event] was very well received, and I hope that it planted seeds for ongoing lunch-and-learn collaborations.”

recommended posts

News Highlights “Empathy Now” featured in Newton’s Fig City News

News Highlights Rabbi Getzel Davis ’13 of Harvard Hillel featured on Interfaith America

Numbers Out of the Depths I Called