Marans broadens his commitment to interreligious dialogue, takes major AJC post

Marans broadens his commitment to interreligious dialogue, takes major AJC post

Rabbi Noam Marans, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and Rabbi Gary Greenebaum prepare to watch the Oberammergau Passion Play. Courtesy American Jewish Committee

Rabbi Noam Marans got a crash course in interreligious relations when he came to Ridgewood in 1985.

“I was raised in an insular Jewish environment,” said the rabbi, who served as spiritual leader of the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center for 16 years.

“But when I came to Ridgewood – which had one synagogue and many churches – my focus changed, and my rabbinate benefited immensely from that change. You can learn a lot about your own religion from understanding other religions.”

Marans, newly appointed director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, said his years as a Bergen County rabbi introduced him to interreligious dialogue, which he now has the opportunity to pursue on a national level.

The Teaneck resident, who said his main role at the AJC is to “find common agendas for cooperation between Jews and other religious and ethnic groups,” pointed out that he learned a lot from his years as a pulpit rabbi.

“It’s all about relationships,” he said. “That is true on the national level as well. AJC invests in building relationships – diplomatic, interreligious, interethnic – so that when there are challenges between us, we already have the relationships that can address those challenges.”

Among his proudest achievements in Ridgewood was the creation of an annual interfaith Holocaust remembrance service, an idea he attributes to the local Methodist minister.

“My Methodist minister friend suggested the idea and convinced the Catholic priest and me to join together in doing this. It was a transformative process for Christian-Jewish relations in Ridgewood and became a model for other communities,” he said.

The service, which he described as “a joint effort of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to find a way to learn together and commemorate the tragedy of the Holocaust,” rotated between the synagogue and local churches. A different minister spoke at each service, with Marans mentoring the speaker beforehand. The shul also participated in interfaith services marking Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Day.

Marans joined AJC in 2001 as associate director of contemporary Jewish life. In May 2009 he became associate director of the newly merged departments of interreligious and intergroup relations.

Interreligious and intergroup work are “directly related,” he said, explaining the reason for the merger. “Many relationships float between the two.”

For example, he said, AJC’s work in Jewish-Latino relations has demonstrated that “relationships with Latino political organizations and Latino religious groups complement one another.”

He noted that the AJC’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism has received a grant from the Ford Foundation both to strengthen intergroup relations in general and to enhance Latino-Jewish relations through joint advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform.

One of Marans’ most significant accomplishments at AJC has been engaging the directors of the controversial Bavarian Oberammergau Passion Play in a dialogue leading to significant changes in the production.

With the goal of “mitigating the historic anti-Jewish elements” of the work, he traveled to Germany several times, the last time, earlier this year, joining New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan in viewing the play.

Marans, who is particularly interested in the period during which Christianity emerged, said a major contribution of AJC has been in “clarifying that Jesus was born, lived, taught, and died as a Jew, changing the narrative to a debate about the future of Judaism in the first century C.E. as opposed to a conflict between Christians and Jews, which cannot have been possible during Jesus’ life.

“Oberammergau is a test of the accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council and of Nostra Aetate,” he said, which declared that Jews are not collectively guilty of the death of Jesus. “It demonstrates how challenging Christian-Jewish relations were, how much improvement there is today, and how much further we have to go.”

AJC has also established relationships with mainline Protestant leaders, primarily “to engage them as they address their relationship to Israel,” Marans said. “We’re working hard to convince our Christian partners to address the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a balanced way and to avoid casting the conflict in religious terms,” he said. “Combating the delegitimization of Israel is a central priority of AJC, and in our interreligious and intergroup work we can make a difference because religious thinking still holds great influence in the American and global mindset.”

Marans said Jewish engagement with Islam is a significant challenge in the 21st century. “AJC recognizes the need to distinguish between Muslim extremists and moderates and is committed to strengthening the hands of the moderates,” he said. “We look forward to finding a way to engage Islam in the way that the Jewish community has engaged Christianity during the second half of the 20th century.”

The big challenge there, he said, is that there isn’t a centralized Muslim authority, as there is in the Catholic Church.

“When the Jews began to dialogue seriously with the Catholic church and the church changed its views, there was a vehicle for disseminating those views,” he explained.

In his new position at AJC, Marans – who earned his undergraduate degree in political science at Columbia University and rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary – succeeds Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who is retiring from AJC at the end of the year.

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