Interview with Yaniv Shmukler
Israel-born Yaniv Shmukler explains his commitment to interfaith engagement as part of Rachel Koehler’s “Dynamics of Interfaith” podcast series.
Yaniv Shmukler is Jewish and offers insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being from Israel himself. He is relatively new to the CIC’s board, but not new to the idea of interfaith dialogue.
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Yanic Shmukler Interview
Rachel: Today we have Yanev Shmukler. I’d love to just start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you interested in the Center for Interfaith Cooperation.
Yanev: Sure, well my name is Yanev. I am a lawyer here in Indianapolis. I just graduated from law school last year. I went to IUPUI for both undergrad and law school, majored in Spanish. I’ve been really interested in interfaith work since I was a kid. When I was in high school, I founded a club called the Coexist Club, which was just people from different backgrounds talking about their religions, and when I was in college, I was the president for the Jewish Student Organization, and in that role, I did some interfaith events, especially with the Muslim Student Organization, so we hosted a couple of these panels with rabbis and imams and one time
with a Father from an Orthodox Church. I got involved in the CIC through my involvement in the Jewish community. It was something that was recommended to me and to reach out to Charlie at the CIC and talk to him and get involved.
Rachel: Is it fairly recently that you joined the board? Am I correct in that
Yanev: Yes, it’s my first year.
Rachel: Well that’s super exciting, and I would love to learn more about just your faith journey and how that’s been and how you even got interested in interfaith because often that’s new and exciting and a lot of people don’t have interfaith on their radar.
Yanev: Right, well I was born in Israel, and we moved to the US when I was ten, and also my family is originally from the Soviet Union, so very complicated family history. So I guess going back to my parents and my grandparents, they lived under the Soviet regime which strongly discouraged and sometimes banned religion, so they lost a lot of their family’s traditions and practices. It’s been kind of a challenge for my family to get it back. For me growing up, I grew up in a very secular household. We still celebrated the holidays and were proud of our identity, but we didn’t really know how to do certain things. For example, sometimes when we have a holiday that we host at our house, my parents would ask me what to do because I learned more about the traditions, so that’s been a challenge. Since moving to the U.S., this Pakistani family moved next door, and I’m pretty sure they were the first Muslims that I met, and I became really good
with friends with the kid that was my age, and we’re still really good friends. I think to learn about his background and his beliefs really made me passionate about making sure everyone gets exposed to that because I don’t know maybe if I wasn’t exposed to that I wouldn’t care as much
about talking to people from other backgrounds.
Rachel: Definitely. How have some of those interactions helped form your own personal beliefs? Have they challenged them? Have they strengthened them?
Yanev: I’m a big believer in challenging and questioning all of your beliefs. I think the more you talk to people who have different beliefs, the stronger your own faith becomes, so I think it’s really important, and I tell everyone that you want to be challenged.
Rachel: Definitely. Have there been any really influential people along the way? You mentioned your neighbor. Have there been any others that have really impacted you?
Yanev: I would say, my wife. Up until a few years ago, I was still pretty secular. I wasn’t really involved in the synagogues or anything, but my wife really pushed to start going to synagogue, learning more, and so she’s really helped me discover another aspect of my identity that I wasn’t familiar with before.
Rachel: Yeah that’s neat, so what does it look like for you now as a Jew here in Indianapolis. Are there everyday practices that you do in regards to your faith or do you still have the secular component attached or what does it look like?
Yanev: Overall my life still is fairly secular. I do go once in a while maybe once a month or so to services, and I’m on the board with the synagogue. In that sense, I’m involved in the community sense. Other than that we celebrate the holiday. Other than that there’s not much.
Rachel: Cool. Are there any misconceptions that you come across in regards to Judaism that you may want a listener to better understand?
Yanev: It’s more of a misconception about I guess Jewishness or the Jewish people. A lot of people think that it’s just a religion, but really it’s a lot more than that. It’s a group of people, a civilization in a sense, a tradition. You can be Jewish and not believe in anything, anything in Judaism or anything at all so that’s a big misconception. A lot of really famous Jews like Albert
Einstein were agnostic or atheists so that’s something that’s a big misconception.
Rachel: Interesting. Yeah, I feel like before I started learning more about the Center for Interfaith Cooperation and really interacting with differences. That was a huge misconception that I had. Definitely. Have there been any memorable moments? I know that you just joined the board, but in interacting with different cultures what have you learned in different faiths, but what have you learned during that journey? Maybe even going back to your college years too.
Yanev: One of the memorable moments as a CIC board member was actually last week. It was the Interfaith Youth Forum. You heard about it?
Rachel: I did hear about it. Can you explain it? What it was a little bit?
Yanev: It’s a group of high school and college students who were interested in interfaith work, and they committed to go to different sacred spaces in the community and learn from leaders in those communities and to really tackle challenging questions about faith. I was extremely impressed last week when I heard them speak. Sixteen, seventeen-year-olds, eighteen-year-olds talking about really complex issues of violence and religion and things like that. It was really impressive. They knew way more than even the average CIC board member. More than me. so that’s cool.
Rachel: How can we attract more people to these conversations because I’m sure you realized on your college campus maybe I know I experience it here at Butler that the people who want to become involved and interact with different faith communities are probably going to do it or look and be interested, but how do you get those that don’t really look at faith or want to get out of their comfort zones and have those hard conversations? How do you get them involved?
Yanev: I think sometimes it’s hard if it doesn’t really affect your life to care what other communities are doing, so I think it’s important to explain how it could affect their lives and why it’s important to understand what other people believe and especially like a lot of the misinformation that’s spread around, a lot about Islam and Judaism on the Internet and media. I think it’s really important because that kind of misinformation can lead to violence and can lead to bad policies. To show how that can have an effect would be the way to do that, I think.
Rachel: Have you seen that your faith really incorporates interfaith and encourages it?
Yanev: I would say so. Respecting other faiths is really important.
Rachel: Good because I know that’s something. I’m in a class right now that looks at religious pluralism and Christianity, and how those two play together and of course there are some claims in Christianity that looks at a way to live out a truth and that you need to spread that truth beyond and so how do you stand firm in your own faith, but also celebrate the differences and encourage interfaith at the same time?
Yanev: So in the Jewish tradition spreading Judaism is not really part of it. I wouldn’t say that it’s discouraged, but it’s definitely not a principle of Judaism. Actually, there’s this thing that if you want to become Jewish, not every rabbi does this, but you have to knock three times. You have to ask once, and then you’ll be rejected after the second time to show that you really want to become Jewish, which is different from maybe Islam or Christianity where you just have to say or show that you believe it, maybe go through baptism or something and that’s it. So it is a little more complicated, Judaism. Yeah so I think that really helps with the interfaith aspect of it because people are not worried that we are only talking to them to convert them. So I think that makes it easier to have those conversations.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s a big struggle in Christianity for sure is trying to find that balance. That’s great that you can stand firm in your particular faith and also celebrate interfaith, as well. I was wondering and if you feel comfortable with us or not totally let me know, but if you could speak at all to Israel and Palestine and how you have engaged in that conflict and what you have felt as a result of that?
Yanev: Sure, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually has played a huge role in my life and a huge role in my interfaith work. Growing up in Israel, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was a really difficult time there. There was a lot of violence, and the city where I grew up was almost completely Jewish, so I didn’t, from what I can remember, I didn’t have any interactions as a kid with non-Jews in Israel, so that really made me aware later in life and reflecting back on that made me understand how people can be stuck in their bubbles. The only understanding I had of non-Jews was from what I saw on TV, what I read in books, but then coming here you know I had a multicultural friend group and neighborhood and it really opened my eyes to how important it is to know people from different backgrounds. Even now, even in college, and after college the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still affects my work. A lot of what I do is to try to increase dialogue between Muslims and Jews and Palestinians and Israelis about the issue and part of that is also in interfaith. I think interfaith dialogue can play a huge role in improving the way we talk about the conflict and bringing people together. It’s not going to solve the conflict, but it’ll make things better. So yeah.
Rachel: I’ve heard from several different perspectives that it’s claimed to be a religious conflict, but a lot of other factors are of course involved, so it’s not really.
Yanev: I don’t personally see it as a religious conflict almost at all. There is some aspect of a religious issue there with the Old City of Jerusalem, but that’s about it. Other than that which is an important issue, but other than that issue pretty much the rest of the conflict is not about religion at all. It’s about a bunch of different things including identity, competing claims on land, other things as well.
Rachel: I think that’s a common misconception for sure. What has the interfaith landscape looked like here in Indianapolis? Have you found that you’re still able to find definitely people within your own community but a wide variety of others, as well?
Yanev: Yeah for sure. I think it’s really good here in central Indiana. Aside from the CIC, I am also involved in the Fisher’s Multifaith Community for Compassion. Even in Fishers we have an interfaith as well or multifaith organization. There’s a debate about interfaith and persons of multifaith.
Rachel: What is that?
Yanev: So from what I understand some people interpret interfaith as a way to spread their faith, which I personally don’t see that way. But that was a concern for the organization, so they decided multifaith as a way of celebrating that there are a multitude of faiths is better. I personally don’t see it, but I understand that people have issues with the term interfaith.
Rachel: Interesting. I never understood that connotation.
Yanev: I probably didn’t explain it well.
Rachel: Yeah because I know that a lot of board members, of course, celebrate that diversity, too, so that nuance is really interesting.
Yanev: I think it’s really impressive in Indianapolis that so many different religious groups come together to work on shared goals and to learn from each other. We can always do better, but I think it’s really good.
Rachel: Yeah, through these conversations do you see more differences between each other or more similarities? What do those conversations look like?
Yanev: Definitely more similarities, but I think differences are a good thing. It’s not that we should shy away from our differences or only focus on similarities but talk about our differences and celebrate the differences I’ve noticed a lot of similarities about our traditions, and it’s interesting especially in the Abrahamic how similar they are. There are a few major differences, but a huge portion of it is almost exactly the same, but then we argue over these important but small differences, so it’s interesting.
Rachel: Yeah, have you had some travels throughout your life besides I know that you came from Israel, but have there been other opportunities that you have had to get out of this Midwest bubble.
Yanev: So two years ago, I believe, Philadelphia’s not that far, but I went on an interfaith service trip through IUPUI, so the participants were from all different backgrounds, Christian, Muslim, nonreligious, but it was a really cool experience because we got to hear from different faith leaders, and we at the same time got to do community service that was faith based, so we went to this church in downtown Philadelphia where we didn’t just serve meals to people experiencing homelessness. We sat with them and talked to them. So that was a really impactful experience. The place where we stayed was a basement of a church, which was interesting. We got to visit a really cool synagogue. I think it was really old from the revolutionary days.
Rachel: Well I’d love to just wrap everything up and hear in a succinct maybe two or three sentences what does interfaith mean to you?
Yanev: So interfaith means being open to learning from other people, from other backgrounds to be open to celebrating our differences and working together, figuring what our shared goals are, while still celebrating our differences and focusing on what can bring us together and how we can make our community better by working together.
Rachel: Well thank you so much for being here.