Each time she heads for her office at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz said, she is inspired by two photographs on the wall. Both depict a predecessor of hers as TBA religious leader, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became deeply involved in the American civil rights movement.
One picture is of Prinz standing beside the Rev. Martin Luther King, the other is of him addressing the March on Washington in August of 1963.
“Rabbi Prinz taught that the worst problem was silence,” Dantowitz said. “If we don’t stand up to make a difference in the world we contribute to the evils. ‘Neighbor’ is not a geographical term; it means the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
Dantowitz was one of three interfaith leaders to address a Nov. 6 conference called “Can’t We All Get Along? The Step Beyond Dialogue” at Jubilee Hall on the Seton Hall University campus in South Orange. The title references the question raised by Rodney King, an African-American man caught on video being badly beaten by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991. All four policemen were found not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive force, setting off one of American history’s deadliest race riots, in which 55 people were killed.
The program was sponsored by the Dr. Marcia Robbins Wilf Lectures for the Sister Rose Thering Fund. Thering, who died in 2006, was a strong, longtime advocate of Christian-Jewish relations and a fierce critic of her church’s behavior during the Nazi era.
Dantowitz, an active campaigner against gun violence, said it “presents a present danger regardless of one’s faith. Gun violence is a local, national, and international issue.”
She pointed to one of the reasons America lacks strong gun control laws: “I suppose we could hold Congress up as a model of how we can all not get along.”
She urged working on a grassroots level in local communities to hold gun manufacturers responsible for sales to criminals and to ask police departments to purchase “smart guns” that can be fired only by their owners.
“The power of many people working town to town and state to state can make a difference,” Dantowitz said.
Turning to the international crisis of Syrian refugees, she told the audience that “the Torah tells us 36 times to welcome the stranger…. We know what it means to be as stranger, for most of our families were strangers, too.”
Citing Pirkei Avot, Dantowitz said, “It is not up to you to complete the work [of healing the world] but neither are you to abstain from it.”
Following Dantowitz, Anisa Mehdi, a journalist who teaches documentary film at Seton Hall, spoke about being “the other” when she was growing up in a Christian/Muslim interfaith home in Flushing, Queens. Her father, an Iraqi-born Muslim, had a strong sense of social justice and felt a need to defend the Palestinian homeland.
“This did not make him very popular in the community and did not make his children very popular in school,” she said.
Mehdi said she and her siblings were bullied in school and asked whether they kept a camel in their backyard and bombs in their backpacks.
Despite such attitudes, her family managed to forge relationships with others because of religion. “Religion brought us together,” she said. Her father went to church on Christmas, her mother accompanied him to a mosque on the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, “and we all loved the seder…. Religion was a place of safety.”
Using a Hebrew phrase, Mehdi said it was imperative that Americans find a way “to be rodef shalom, to be seekers of peace, and to advance interreligious understanding.”
A third panelist was Joseph Montville, director of the Program on Healing Historical Memory at the School for Conflict Analysis & Resolution at George Mason University in Virginia. He cited the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah in his remarks.
“Learning to do good, seek justice, aid the oppressed, uphold the rights of the orphan, and defend the cause of the widow,” Montville said, noting that these same words are echoed in the Koran and Christian Bible.
“These are very serious times,” said David Bossman, executive director of the Thering Fund, as he welcomed the 100 people assembled. “We need to learn lessons from the Holocaust and from the past in addressing our own society…. Don’t we all have a stake in effectively coming to grips with how best to live safely and work effectively for a better society?”