Just outside of Newark, New Jersey, Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz leads the Congregation B’nai Jeshurun as their senior rabbi. But he also takes part in a congregation of another sort.
Gewirtz is one of the leaders of the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace, an organization that formed from Gewirtz’s connection with the local Episcopal Bishop and one of New Jersey’s leading imams.
Gewirtz will discuss the impact such interfaith work can have on religious violence in a talk titled “Personal, Not Private: Making Religion Healthy” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Although the coalition works to bring people together toward a common goal, it is not meant to erase their differences, Gewirtz said.
“When people think they have a monopoly on what God’s truth is, that’s a danger sign,” Gewirtz said. “And I think if people are willing to understand [other’s] truth as different than theirs and that it may not be what they subscribe to, but it leads to the same end, then that is a healthy sense of religion.”
From the beginning, the coalition strove to discourage such monopolization by agreeing not to prosthelytize to one another’s congregations and respect each other’s lifestyle restrictions. With this respect established, the coalition used their faiths’ shared ideas to help reduce gang violence and drug use and to encourage employment and education in Newark.
“Being with people who are in some cases very different than we are and to work through our universal messages [allowed us to] help make the world a better place,” Gewirtz said.
One of the coalition’s biggest challenges has been accomplishing its goals without removing the support networks gangs and other organizations often provide, Gewirtz said.
“I am vehemently against Hamas, but you look at Hamas closely, something like 10 percent represents military [operations] which do horrific things, and the other 90 percent of it provides food and social services and education for kids,” he said. “So when you get rid of one, how do you make sure the other is provided? You can say the same thing for the Bloods and the Crips. Once you get rid of that network, then where do all these people go that Equally important to this belonging is interfaith understanding and communication across cultural groups, Gewirtz said.
“Think about how many Christians or Jews spend everyday time with Muslims, and eat with Muslims,” he said. “Yet there’s probably no one more that we cast aspersions on in this country. It’s a real problem because [Muslims] probably feel like it’s going to be a generation before they’re ever accepted as Americans.”
Though the coalition has seen a positive impact from their work, Gewirtz said he does not foresee a future without religious violence. Even so, he is not without hope.
“I don’t think that there’s an end to this violence because human beings have been manipulated to act in certain ways,” he said. “But I do think that if people can eat together, understand each other, listen to one another and work together, and all those people also have food on their tables and schools to go to and relationships that are meaningful, that people are going to be a lot less willing to give their own lives in a battle that is philosophical or theological in nature, because life right here is too good.”