Bridging the Gap; Rabbi Looks for 'Core' Interfaith Values

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Gap; Rabbi Looks for 'Core' Interfaith Values


Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, the first military chaplain to head interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is in search of the "moderate Muslim" voice. As the new director of an office that has gained prominence in U.S. interfaith activities over 50 years, he is also eager to work more closely with mainline Protestants, Hindus and even American Indians.

"I would say the Muslim relationships are the weakest," he said of the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) work. "Let's call it 'a challenge' but also an opportunity since September 11. Many of the Muslim organizations and institutions are in a state of flux, re-examining themselves."

On his second visit to Washington since taking the post in New York three months ago, the Navy line officer-turned-rabbi visited Washington's Catholic cardinal and the House of Representatives' chaplain, also a Catholic priest.

Jewish-Catholic relations are the strongest for the AJC, which has been active on that front since the 1960s when Vatican II recognized the Jewish faith as legitimate.

Mr. Resnicoff has heard about new groups

forming such as the American Islamic Congress, which is likely to be based in Boston. "I want to make a meeting, I want to learn more about that organization," Mr. Resnicoff, 55, said in an interview Wednesday after arriving at Union Station. "I will feel comfortable talking to anyone."

That comfort comes from serving 28 years in one of the most religiously diverse American institutions: the military.

Stationed in the Mekong Delta on a reconnaissance boat, Mr. Reshnicoff was made a "lay leader" of Jews by an Episcopal chaplain. Since his ordination, he has worked to offer soldiers who were Sikhs, Hindus, evangelicals or even Buddhists some semblance of religious accommodation.

He retired after 28 years on active duty in the Navy as head chaplain for military forces in Europe, most of Africa and some of the Middle East. A D.C. native, he was reared in Hyattsville.

"Chaplains are on the cutting edge of interfaith relations and church-state issues," he said. "In the military, we focus on free exercise of religion, since we take men and women away from their" local houses of worship.

But the challenges of diverse faiths on military bases, and God and man on the battlefield, may meet their match in some of the most contentious religious divisions in America.

Some Muslim groups have denounced the AJC for publishing books critical of Islam and reports that question the true number of Muslims in the United States, suggesting fewer than 3 million rather than the Muslim-reported 8 million.

New Muslim groups such as the American Islamic Congress and American Muslims against Extremism, forming in New Jersey, do offer new opportunities for U.S. Muslim-Jewish talks, said M.A. Khan, a Muslim scholar and director of international studies at Adrian College.

But Mr. Khan, who has been active in interfaith exchanges for almost a decade, said so-called Muslim and Jewish moderates sitting around a table is nothing new, and that Jewish groups often bolt when a Middle East issue hits the headlines.

"Who gets to decide who are moderate Muslims? The AJC?" said Mr. Khan, an advocate of democracy and pluralism in Islam. "We need to have a dialogue between Muslims and Jews who are the so-called extremists. That would be an achievement."

Similarly, the growing evangelical churches often spar with Jewish leaders about prayer and religion in schools. …

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