On August 25 in New York City, environmental lawyer and former academic Dario Hunter will become the first Muslim-born man to be ordained as a rabbi.
According to various reports in the NYC media, Hunter, an openly gay
man raised by an Iranian
Muslim father and an African-American mother, will graduate alongside classmates who include a Catholic-born Brazilian and a British songwriter.
But so far, none of the graduating class has ever met in person: They have all studied via an online program led by Rabbi Steven Blane of the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute (JSLI).
A year ago Hunter left behind his academic career in the US and moved to Israel,
where he decided to study toward rabbinical ordination.
One-third of the members of Hunter's graduating class are converts to Judaism,
and their diversity of backgrounds reflects Rabbi Blane's belief in the need to train rabbis to serve the nearly 50% of Jews who are unaffiliated or in interfaith marriages.
Blane himself left his previous rabbinical position because he felt he needed to pursue a more progressive mission, and he resigned from the highly regarded Cantors Assembly in 2009 when he was threatened with expulsion for officiating at interfaith weddings.
He now trains rabbis and runs an online synagogue, Sim Shalom, which holds services for a global congregation every week.
Blane knows that a former Muslim becoming a rabbi will be uncomfortable for some, but the plurality of backgrounds of his graduating class fits perfectly with his belief in Jewish Universalism.
"I don't believe that Jewish people were uniquely chosen for a relationship with God – God doesn't choose a favorite child," Blane siad.
"Nearly 50% of the Jewish population finds deep significance in observing Holiday and life-cycle rituals, but doesn't feel like any traditional denomination reflects their views. There's a huge need for rabbis who can provide spiritual leadership that serves this large and important group."
For his part, Hunter sees his story as an opportunity to use faith to bridge the gaps between people.