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The Life & Times of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum: An ICJS Discussion with Georgette Bennett on the Legacy of a Baltimore Rabbi

“How does the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants make it his life mission to build bridges between the major religions of the world?”

On Oct. 14, ICJS Protestant Scholar Matt Taylor led a discussion with Georgette Bennett about the life and legacy of her late husband, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum. The discussion stemmed from the latest biography of Tanenbaum, Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation, written by Deborah and Gerald Strober. The book tells of Tanenbaum’s significant work on racial justice, interreligious dialogue, and refugee advocacy. This Zoom discussion delved deeper into Tanenbaum’s youth in Baltimore, his commitment to building bridges between those of different religious traditions, and his instrumental roles in the Civil Rights Movement and in Nostra Aetate and subsequent Catholic–Jewish relations.

Bennett, who founded the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding soon after Tanenbaum died in 1992, shared vibrant stories of her late husband, painting a clear and layered picture of his principled commitment to interreligious dialogue, social and racial justice, and action. Much like the Center named in his honor, Tanenbaum devoted his life to fighting against biases, prejudices, and myths that lead to violence in the name of religion.

Through sharing stories of Tanenbaum’s Great Depression-era childhood in Baltimore, Bennett shed light on how the Rabbi’s later interreligious and civil rights work had its roots in his early years. The child of Jewish Ukranian immigrants, surrounded by Christian immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy, Marc joined his mother in distributing groceries from the family store to neighbors in need each Christmas. “His mother instilled a sense of love for neighbors,” said Bennett, “and empathy for those struggling to survive and prosper.”

Bennett also shared the story of how, as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Tanenbaum met and befriended Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, then teaching at JTS. For the remainder of Tanenbaum’s life the two worked closely together, most noticeably in the Civil Rights Movement and in the Vatican Council II.

Tanenbaum was also instrumental in recognizing the changing interreligious landscape in the 1960s. In his work promoting Catholic–Jewish relations, he helped invite Heschel in as an advisor of the landmark Second Vatican Council. Both men helped advocate for and advise the Catholic bishops and cardinals on the document that ultimately became Nostra Aetate. According to Bennett, Tanenbaum “promoted Vatican II as a way to reverse historical teachings of contempt of Jews and antisemitism [and deeply] appreciated the risks taken by his partners” in engaging in dialogue that was often criticized as going against the grain.

“Marc had to engage in theology and dialogue because the question that drove him—that launched his work in Catholic–Jewish and eventually Evangelical–Jewish relations—was this,” Bennett said, “How could a gospel of love be such a gospel of hate when it comes to the Jews?”

From traveling to Southeast Asia with Bayard Rustin to offer solidarity to Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, his early work in Muslim–Jewish dialogue and coalitions, to debating Jesse Jackson in what became “an affirmation of solidarity between Blacks and Jews,” Tanenbaum’s steadfast commitment to creating a better and more just world often placed him front-and-center during turbulent times. His ability to engage in “deep listening” and find common cause with those of different religions, races, and worldviews, ensured that he could be trusted and depended upon. A lifetime of demonstrating and advocating for compassion and justice taught Tanenbaum that the work of interreligious dialogue and understanding is not easy, nor neat, but it is deeply fulfilling and urgently necessary. The relevance and importance of such a commitment should not be lost on today’s activists and idealists.