Laurie Zoloth, new leader of the University of Chicago Divinity School, believed to be the first Jewish dean of any non-rabbinic divinity school, wants her program to look “outward” more, be a better “neighbor” to the inner city and have a new focus on international research.

Zoloth, 67, has “a background in English and Jewish studies and a Ph.D. in social ethics, which means I think about questions of justice and allocation . . . how to make the world better, how to make it more fair.”

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Started in July at U.of C.’s Divinity School.

“We have a pastoral program . . . intended to teach and train people who want to be ministers or rabbis or imams . . . We give them the basics, and then they go and specialize in their area of expertise.”

There’s also an “academic part” of the school for those wanting to “study religion and all of its many meanings and manifestations.”

The Divinity School is “not defined as a Christian school . . . We study five different religious traditions,” including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, as well as Christianity.

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Zoloth wants the “Div” school to “look outward” more, “be better neighbors” to the inner city, “really take account” of what it means to be on the South Side, examine “our responsibilities” in addressing social ills, even street violence.

Zoloth’s school applied for a federal grant to fund research that would explore “sin” and “violence” and how varying religious “texts address those things — no one wants to talk about . . . sin and grace . . . forgiveness . . . but to speak in that language might have some answers to the extraordinary cycle of killing that we’re seeing.”

It’s unclear so far whether or how findings might trickle to the streets. “That’s the kind of conversation that hasn’t happened yet because the conversation’s been in terms of . . . political structure . . . economic . . . more police, more work . . . I want to tug at that string and see what would happen if we thought about sin and grace along with . . . violence and repair.”

It’s important “at least getting people talking.”

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Another project: shaping the school into more of “an intellectual center for international scholarship about religion,” including extremism.

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Zoloth was raised in Los Angeles in a “secular home,” with parents who “believed in Jewish culture and raised us to know we are Jews. But we knew very, very little about the details of the tradition . . . the practices.”

After her first kids were born, “I realized that, if I didn’t raise them as a Jew, the entire chain . . . of thousands of years of tradition would just be lost . . . I needed to learn enough to be a good mother and a good teacher to my children and . . . wanted them to have bar mitzvahs and to know what the Jewish heritage was. And then they could decide how they’d practice it.

“I have five kids, and they’re almost all grown up. One of them is a student here at the University of Chicago.”

Today, Zoloth belongs to an Orthodox Jewish congregation.

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“I spent many years working as a nurse in neonatal intensive care” and also did “trade union organizing as a part of being a nurse.”

“Became interested in the dilemmas that began to emerge in modern medicine . . . ‘What should the end of life look like?’ ‘Since we can save almost any life, should we?’ . . . ‘Who should get the expensive medicine?’ . . . All interesting questions that came from medicine,and then people turn towards either philosophy or religion to come up with substantial answers.”

Now known as an expert in bioethics, a field wrangling over everything from stem-cell research to euthanasia.

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Finances drive many decisions in medicine.

“Religion offers arguments that are not about money; they’re about the meaning of human life . . . I think it’s very important to maintain those arguments . . . and say they’re just as important” when dealing with these “hot-button” issues.

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How does Zoloth view God?

“I’m Jewish, so it’s very complicated,” but God is not “a big guy with a beard in the sky.”

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“In Jewish tradition, the messiah comes not to redeem the world but the day after the world has been redeemed . . . by human action.”

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“The world needs more peace, and there are some people I know who think that religion makes it impossible to ever achieve peace.” But religion also can give “worth to the people who are the most vulnerable.”

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Does she have a favorite bible passage?

“I’m very fond of: ‘Justice, justice thou shall pursue.’ . . . One of the challenges in the modern world is we live in a world that’s so broken . . . so unjust . . . the depths of poverty and despair in south Chicago and west Chicago . . . So I’m interested in all the verses that talk about the way that you should set up a just economy . . . and society.”

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“In Hebrew scriptures, there’s this idea that you set aside cities of refuge for someone” who kills someone accidentally or “without premeditation,” so “they can go to a safe place, so that the revenge cycle can be stopped.

“Now, that’s a very interesting idea because so much of what’s going on in our city is a terrible cycle of revenge.”

Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times, with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.

Laurie Zoloth, dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

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