Diversity in Religious Communities: Remarks at the Interreligious Women’s Parliament

Dear Heidi, dear spiritual leaders, dear fellow people who care about making the world a better place — ladies and a few gentlemen — thank you so much for inviting us here today to the House of Religions for this Women’s Interreligious Congress! It is such an honor to be here among you!

First, I would like to introduce you to my husband and my kids. This is Eric LeVine, an entrepreneur, a social services volunteer leader and a stay-at-home dad. He was also just appointed by President Obama to serve on the United States Holocaust Museum Memorial Council. Without him, I would not be able to do what I’m doing as Mom and as the United States Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. I also want to introduce you to our children, Sidney and Talia. They are the lights of our lives and are here because spirituality, diversity and diplomacy are incredibly integral parts of our lives.

I especially introduce my husband to you because, while this is a conversation about women’s voices and women’s interreligious cooperation, men are critical to how we achieve diversity and to how we ensure that women’s voices are heard. We can’t make the change that we need alone!

It is humbling to be here in front of you today because of how amazing you each are. The work you are doing is so important, so powerful, and so impactful! I can’t wait to see how it flourishes and grows over time – especially with this network of support you are building with this group across religions and across communities.

Over the course of my talk today, I want to do three things:

  1. discuss why women’s voices matter
  2. Share my own experience as a woman building religious community, and
  3. Identify how, through interreligious collaboration, our differences can knit us together even more strongly than when we’re standing alone.

So – Why does diversity matter?

One of the big focus areas for the Obama administration has been diversity – whether, it’s religious diversity – as beautifully celebrated here today – or gender diversity, sexual orientation diversity, racial diversity, socioeconomic diversity, age diversity or more.

In fact, it has been a topic that my husband, Eric, and I have been discussing with many groups here in Switzerland – especially around gender diversity.

But when we preach the gospel of diversity, we always start from WHY. Why does diversity even matter?

As First Lady Hillary Clinton shared back in 1995 at the Beijing Conference on Women, women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. At the time, equating these two things was a radical concept. And since then, President Obama also shared that LGBT rights are human rights. Basically – diversity and equal rights are human rights. We also have major philanthropies reminding us about the importance of equal rights. Almost every day when we would drive near our home in Seattle, we were reminded of this point on equality because we would drive past the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and we would see the quote that drives their work written on their building: “Every Life Has Equal Value.”

However, as compelling as quotes like that are for all of us in this room and for human rights-oriented groups around the globe, that might not be the value proposition that motivates everyone into action.

So an additional way to think about and argue for women’s voices at the table and in leadership is that diversity makes us better and drives better performance. In the corporate arena, study after study show that companies with more gender diversity in their executive ranks and boards perform better. Groups are more creative and productive when they are diverse. Plus – when you consider that 80% of those who buy consumer goods are women, it sure is good to have women feeding in ideas and being a part of the decision process. But note that diverse groups don’t always feel harmonious. Instead, they can feel contentious. But members of those groups should rest assured that they are more likely to have better results, despite the roughness.

But having a diverse group isn’t just about having a token woman in the room. It’s key to have a critical mass of women at the table and to have a critical mass of diverse voices in the room. That way – people can feel supported and will be more likely to speak up as opposed to feeling voted down or having to gird themselves for battle each time they raise a different view. There was a New York Times article last week that talked about the women working in the White House banding together to employ a technique called “amplification.”

Have any of you been in a meeting where you brought up an idea and one of the men subconsciously commandeered the idea – making it his own? I know that I’ve experienced that and, at the time, felt awesome because at least my idea was getting traction – whether or not I was associated with it upon implementation. What the women in the White House did was that, when one woman on the White House staff would give input at a meeting, other women would repeat and attribute that idea so that each idea received support from at least three people at the meeting. This, then, ensured that the women’s voices were truly heard in the meetings.

These are useful examples of gender and broader diversity now getting momentum in the corporate and political arena, but gender and diversity are also being recognized for their importance in the security and community arena.

This past summer, at a Senate hearing on foreign aid, United States Senator Lindsay Graham shared that “The biggest threat to radical ideologies is a small schoolhouse educating a young girl.”

He is so right! We know that educating young girls is the single best strategy to improving economic conditions in poor villages and towns.

We also, know, sadly, that women and girls are frequently the victims in global conflicts. Thus, to both be able to empathetically address the needs of the conflict victims and to resolve those global conflicts, as well as to recognize the important role that women and girls play in building economic stability, women need to have a prominent role in peacebuilding and conflict prevention. This is what led the United Nations Security Council in 2000 to unanimously pass Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, highlighting the importance of women in navigating conflict and peace.

More recently, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, founded with prominent grants from the United States, Switzerland, and others to prevent violent extremism at a grassroots level, has placed women’s empowerment at the center of its policies and project-funding.

So – overall – women’s voices matter because of our ability to think and act differently, our ability to connect with men AND women, and our positive contribution to the world.

I myself have witnessed over and over how strong, resourceful women can steer their communities towards progress. In my case, I dedicated much time, thought, and energy to various initiatives aimed at driving positive community change. Well before I ever became the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, I made community building a passion of mine by co-founding The Kavana Cooperative, an independent and nationally-recognized Jewish community in Seattle that aims to unify all walks of Jewish life by using kavana – meaning “intention” – to create a personally meaningful Jewish life. Our members are young and old, parents, singles, LGBTI persons, religious and non-religious.

It was 2005 when we came up with the plan because I wanted a better solution to meeting my own family’s spiritual needs of. My co-founder and the Rabbi for the community is Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum. What we built – and is is still going strong now 10 years later — is a community that brings people of different religious views and lifestyles together to create meaning and purpose, and emphasizes respect and support for different paths to leading a meaningful Jewish life. As part of our community engagement, Kavana runs family and youth learning programs designed to forge a stronger Jewish identity, starting with classes in pre-school and continuing onto elementary and high school. Other programs include a partnership with a conservation center to educate the community on food sustainability, with the organization delivering uncollected harvest crops each fall to local food banks to assist the disadvantaged.

Having a diverse board – blending men and women as well as people with very different backgrounds and personal situations – and having women’s compassion and creativity in leadership has allowed Kavana to truly thrive and be among the most innovative Jewish organizations in the United States.

Kavana, however, has not been alone in pushing the innovation threshold for spiritual Jewish communities in the United States. Just this past year, Kavana, along with six other innovative communities – four of which are led by women – created the Jewish Emergent Network in order to share best practices, key learnings, and to get joint funding for additional innovation resources. By coming together and celebrating both the similarities and differences between our communities, the profile of each has become even stronger.

Given my love and enthusiasm for faith-based outreach, imagine my delight now as an Ambassador to be able to both participate in external gatherings and to host my own events that align with my country’s promotion of religious freedom at the Embassy. Together my husband and I have hosted numerous faith-based events over the last two years since moving to Switzerland, including Iftars, interfaith lunches, and interreligious Passover dinners. Each time, we have been amazed and inspired by the enlightening, thought-provoking, and very warm gatherings we’ve had with conversations that continue to teach us so much, not just about the world we live in, but about ourselves, too.

In addition to teaching us about our commonalities – be they our values, our organizational structures, or our theological narratives — these interfaith dialogues have also taught us to appreciate and celebrate our differences. Sadly, we live in times where many people are not connecting and listening to those who are different from them and where ungodly acts of hatred and violence are repeatedly and ruthlessly perpetrated in the name of religion. More than ever, we must stand united to defend our freedom of faith and turn to interfaith dialogue to strengthen our social cohesion in the face of those seeking to divide us by religion or race.

Based on my own government’s observations on foreign affairs, there is a clear connection between religious freedom and social stability, and where there is an absence of freedom of faith, there is a greater chance for religious extremism and violence to take hold. A growing number of political and social studies, such as by the Pew Research Center, corroborate these findings, showing a distinct correlation between government restrictions on religion and social hostilities. This is why it is so crucial to protect freedom of religion and to engage in interfaith dialogue. It’s about building bridges of understanding. And the more we do this, the more we will realize that despite our outward differences, we really have a lot in common.

As President Obama once said, “We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.” And above all, we all share similar hopes and dreams: to be respected and included, to live peacefully and successfully, and to give our children the best possible opportunities in life. In fact, when I think about what we built with Kavana, one of our key inspirations was Rick Warren’s Saddleback church and his model of hospitality and intra-community affinity group creation.

I know, very personally, how much energy it takes to create, sustain and nourish a religious community. But we can draw our strength from the knowledge that we are building platforms of love and healing that truly make our communities and the world a better place! I also know that creating community and then reaching out to connect in an interreligious forum frequently pushes us far beyond our comfort zones. I’ll tell you – whether it was back when I was involved in Kavana or whether it’s today as the United States Ambassador – every day, I go beyond my comfort zone! But it is so worth every ounce of energy – nervous or otherwise – that we put into these actions. Just two weeks ago, Eric and I attended the 10th anniversary of the Kavana Cooperative. We danced, sang, and learned with our community. And we saw how our work helped those families have more meaningful and more joyous Jewish lives. And on an interreligious basis, the cooperation we build, breaks down walls and stereotypes, and builds bridges and brings even more warmth and understanding in the world.

We, as women leaders – along with men who understand the importance of diversity – have a lot of work ahead of us, but we are stronger when we face and embrace that work together. I salute you for your proactivity in coming together, for standing up and making your voices heard, and for devoting yourselves to building stronger, more resilient, and more tolerant communities. Let’s work together to make our common hopes and dreams a reality for all: Zusammen!

Thank you.