Brother, Where Art Thou?

The origins and development of the interfaith movement in America

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The NCCJ quickly became the largest and most active organizational arm of the interfaith movement. The NCCJ was known for its educational programs, the most famous of which were the "tolerance trios"--groups comprised of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy who traveled together to lecture on goodwill and understanding among faith groups.

The original tolerance trio consisted of Father John Elliott Ross, Rabbi Morris Lazaron, and Dr. Everett Clinchy. Together, they covered 9,000 miles, delivering their message of tolerance to 129 American audiences.

Jewish Reactions

Jews met the Protestant-driven interfaith movement with both hope and a healthy amount of skepticism. Rabbi Hyman Enelow, of Temple Emanu-El, capsulized Jewish fears about interfaith efforts in a 1927 letter: "There are so many committees coming into existence for the diffusion of goodwill that I hope [Jews] won’t be killed with kindness before the messiah has arrived."

Was there a hidden Protestant missionary agenda behind interfaith? Were efforts toward cooperation really aimed at conversion?  These were among Jews' chief worries when it came to Protestant interfaith overtures.

Jewish motives were not to be taken for granted either. A radical Jewish subset of the interfaith movement advocated interfaith activity as the first step toward the establishment of a new universal religion.

In the end, however, the moderate and more popular view of interfaith affairs prevailed. With peaceful coexistence and cooperation as its goals, Jews joined the Protestants and Catholics in the NCCJ and other interfaith activities in large numbers. B'nai B'rith, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the National Council of Jewish Women were just of few of the many Jewish organizations that organized goodwill committees and contributed supporting funds to the NCCJ. 

In their contributions to the movement, Jews expressed commitment to religious tolerance, but their participation also served a more amorphous goal. By joining the two other major faith communities, Jews felt like an accepted partner in American culture.

The Movement Falters: The Holocaust

While the interfaith movement successfully promoted interfaith education through lectures and workshops in America, the movement failed to effect change when it mattered most--in the political arena during the reign of the Nazis.

The FCC and the NCCJ gave money, held rallies, wrote and signed statements of protest, and petitioned Congress and the president, but were ultimately unable to arouse significant Christian support on behalf of European Jewry. 

The Holocaust changed the course if interfaith dialogue, shifting the focus from combating intolerance to understanding intolerance. How did anti-Jewish aspects of Christian theology encourage demonization of Jews? Where did these attitudes come from? Could they be changed, and if so, how? These are some of the philosophical questions that became part of interfaith dialogue in the postwar period, and they continue to be debated today.

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Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of MyJewishLearning.com.