Clergy from four faiths gathered at a Short Hills synagogue to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in a spirit of optimism and unity.
Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Temple B’nai Jeshurun welcomed an imam, a Catholic priest, and an Episcopalian bishop to his Reform synagogue in Short Hills on Sept. 24.
Their genial conversation, punctuated by occasional laughter, will be broadcast by WNET on Sunday, Oct. 2, at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
“What we see on television represents a minority of our peoples,” said Gewirtz. “A minority of each of our peoples are violent and they scare the daylights out of us. The question is, do we get paralyzed by it or do we still have faith in each other?”
The hour-long forum was moderated by Jon Meacham, executive editor at Random House and editor-at-large of WNET Public Media, who asked panelists about “the divide” among their faiths.
Bishop Mark Beckwith of Newark’s Episcopal Diocese decried “the increasing incidence of religious fundamentalism that each of our traditions has in greater abundance than any of us would care to appreciate.
“Religious fundamentalism is rigid convictions of certainty and this notion that God is on their side,” he said. “My experience is the only side God has ever been on is God’s side.”
“A better word would be ‘extremism,’” said Imam W. Deen Shareef, convener of the Council of Imams in New Jersey and a senior adviser to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
“In this country extremists have a voice,” lamented Father Edward Beck, a religion correspondent for ABC News. “They operate on fear. Most of us think the opposite of love is hate, but the opposite of love is fear.”
Shareef fielded a question by Meacham on the role of mainstream Muslims who reject the extremists in their midst.
“You will not see them on CNN; you will not see them on MSNBC,” said Shareef. “Why? Because they are not sensational. What they have to say is rational. What they have to say is reasonable. What they have to say has something to do with the feelings and the conscience of a human being.”
Stepping softly around issues related to the Arab-Israeli dispute, the panelists agreed that all sides have suffered during the long years of conflict.
“There is a mistrust that ‘If I relinquish a little, you are going to take all.’ I think that is what is at the heart of the dispute,” said Beck.
“We see Palestinians and Israelis continuing to struggle with the ability to live together on these sacred lands,” agreed Shareef. “We need to examine where these dispositions are coming from. The dispositions are not coming from the faith traditions we are talking about. The dispositions are coming from somewhere else that is causing human beings to react in a way that loses sight of other human beings.”
Pledging “to be very honest here,” Shareef addressed the several hundred audience members gathered in the synagogue’s sanctuary.
“You have a land where the Palestinians live,” he said. “To say that they have no right to have a place to live where they used to live already is unjust.
“You have Israelis who actively moved into that area, and unfortunately, Palestinians were removed so that they could live there. It would seem to me there must be an equitable approach to how this land is divided.”
Gewirtz said he has visited Israel at last 20 times and has also traveled to the West Bank and Gaza.
“We are more scared as Jews, Christians, and Muslims about what goes on there than the people who actually live together,” he said.
Meacham also asked the panelists about the role of women in their faiths.
“I get off easy,” quipped Gewirtz, pointing to his congregation’s assistant rabbi, Karen Perolman.
“I think we have a ways to go,” said Beckwith. “The illusion is the Catholic Church is largely run by men. The reality is the women really run the church, but we just don’t have faith in them. It just looks like the church is all old white men.”
“Because that’s what it is,” quipped Meacham.
“I resemble the remark,” said Shareef.
Shareef challenged a perception that women are oppressed within Islam.
“Islam is the first religion to state that women can inherit from their ancestors, which existed in Islam before it existed in Christianity,” he said. “We are getting a bit of a bad rap in terms of how women are treated. We are all struggling to better understand how we can treat our wives, our mothers, our sisters, and I think we can do a better job.’
Beck noted that the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States is Katharine Jefferts Schori.