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Lauren F. Winner
Terms of Engagement
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, my grandfather was an active member of his local branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, best known for sponsoring National Brotherhood Week (the inspiration for Tom Lehrer's satirical song of the same name). The group aimed to foster interfaith understanding and, eventually, to combat racial prejudice. In a 1951 article on organizations that promoted civil rights, lawyer Joseph B. Robison noted, "Since [the NCCJ] adheres to the principle of refraining from action on any controversial question, the value of its work in an area in which all issues are highly controversial is open to question." But on the local level in Asheville, North Carolina, the group did foster understanding and feelings of fellowship among Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, and members of the group were able, by the early 1960s, to work together on issues of larger civic concern, such as the local implementation of civil rights measures.
The NCCJ was not far from my mind as I read Gustav Niebuhr's Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America, an engaging journalistic portrait of contemporary interfaith endeavors. Niebuhr showcases groups of Christians who helped guard Muslim buildings against vandalism in the weeks after 9/11; a Congregationalist church that, after realizing their own numbers were dwindling, gave their church building and land to the local Jewish community; Methodists in California who raised money for the rebuilding of three Sacramento synagogues that had been destroyed by arsonists; Jews and Episcopalians who helped fund the repair of a mosque damaged by American bombing in Afghanistan; Muslim and Hindu communities that intentionally "welcome the curious" to educational tours of their mosques and temples.
Much has changed, and much has not changed, since my grandfather's term as Jewish co-chair of his local NCCJ chapter. The demographics, of course, are different: the Immigration Act of 1965 guaranteed ...