Article by Sean Maher

SAN MATEO — Religious tolerance is no longer enough. In an antagonistic, confrontational age, followers of any given religion have much to gain and much to contribute by the earnest exploration of other traditions, according to Penny Nixon, senior minister at the Congregational Church of San Mateo and columnist with the San Mateo County Times.

At Nixon’s church, the guiding principles of diversity and open-mindedness have led to the launch of an interfaith study program that includes studies of Islam, Sikhism, Baha’i and Native American faiths — and even a rabbi-in-residence.

“I think honoring and respecting other religions will not only deepen your own tradition, whatever that might be, but also make progress toward peace,” Nixon said. “Part of the goal is to help people understand the highest ideals of each religion. They’re actually very similar, although we may get to them differently.”

The rabbi in question is, in fact, not exactly a rabbi. Jhos Singer, who has served as the head teacher and service leader for El Granada’s Coastside Jewish Community since 2000, is technically a maggid, a title best translated as “preacher,” he said.

“There are a lot of what I call big Jewish ideas that don’t translate well into English and other languages. For example, ‘shalom,’ probably the most widely known Hebrew word outside of the Jewish community, doesn’t mean hello or goodbye or peace. It means something much bigger than that,” Singer said. “So every Monday I’ve been taking a big Jewish idea and exploring it with these Christian congregationers in a class.”

For example, Singer said, the Jewish concept commonly translated as “repentance” conjures comparisons to the Christian concept that goes by that name, but means something very different.

“It explores this idea of humanness and godliness that come together in a way that is awesome,” Singer said. “It more means to shift, the change, to depart, to torque. We’re talking about a response to life’s challenges that keeps us authentic and true and real: a much different idea than repentance.”

With the Jewish high holidays just recently passed, Singer also explained a practice in which a Jewish community will voice, as a group, confessions for the individual sins of each individual within that community. The idea, Singer said, is to take on each individual’s sins as if every person in the group had committed them.

“I was explaining this to the class last week, and this one gal — she’s really smart and she’s got a little glint in her eye when she asks me questions — she said, ‘So you don’t accept the sacrifice that Jesus made. You actually stand up and do it yourself: you say, I will take on myself the whole sin of this community, is that what you’re telling me?’ I thought it was a beautiful and powerful question.”

“I understand there’s this one aspect of Christianity that says somebody gave their life on this world to make up for all the things you lack and all the things you do wrong. They’re in a constant state of amazement that someone would do that, and they’re acknowledging the Jewishness of Christ. That was a beautiful nub of our differences and our sameness.”

Nixon began putting together the programming a few months ago after members of her congregation expressed their own interest, she said.

“I think it’s a stretch for some, but that’s probably a good thing,” Nixon said. “We grow from being outside our comfort zone. Generally, though, people have been very open minded, which is also a guiding principle of our congregation. I think, overall, people have been very openhearted and open-minded, and have experienced a great deal of appreciation.”

For more information on the program, visit or call CCSM at 650-343-3694.