Promoting tolerance and building bridges

Promoting tolerance and building bridges

Clarkstown supervisor George Hoehmann’s ‘Faith Matters’ gets NY Emmy nomination

Mr. Hoehmann reads to schoolchildren.
Mr. Hoehmann reads to schoolchildren.

George Hoehmann of Nanuet has worn a number of professional hats.

He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and worked in the active ministry for a few years, but eventually left that role and began a career in not-for-profit administration. He worked with people with disabilities for 21 years, becoming CEO of an agency that served that population.

While he was working in the nonprofit sector, Mr. Hoehmann got involved in advocacy in Clarkstown. (Nanuet is a hamlet in Clarkstown.)

“The town had a senior citizen complex that wasn’t being managed all
that well,” he said. “So I started to become tangentially involved, and eventually that led to me serving on the town planning board.” A few years later, in 2009, he was appointed to the town council.

Ultimately, he just thought the town could do better. So he ran for supervisor. “It was a contested election, and I didn’t expect to win, but I threw my hat in the ring,” he said. He won and took office in 2016. Since then, he has been re-elected three times and now is in his fourth consecutive two-year term.

And he’s an adjunct professor at both Bergen Community College and Montclair State University, where he teaches theology, philosophy, and ethics. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” Mr. Hoehmann said. “There’s nothing like being able to connect with students in a way in which you gain insight and they gain insight at the same time.”

As town supervisor, he visits local schools. “I always look for opportunities to connect with our young people,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent on local leaders to do that.”

Now he’s also a New York Emmy award nominee.

Mr. Hoehmann is the executive producer, host, and moderator of the local television program called “Faith Matters,” which airs on the Altice cable system and on YouTube. “It’s an interfaith program that promotes tolerance,” he said. “We bring on local religious leaders of different faiths and we talk about issues within the community and about the shared heritage.”

Each episode of “Faith Matters” features a conversation between the Reverend Richard Hasselbach, who leads Clarkstown Reformed Church in West Nyack; Rabbi Paul Kurland, the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Shalom in Nanuet; and Mohammed Ziaullah, a member of the board of trustees at the Islamic Center of Rockland in Valley Cottage. (Like Nanuet, West Nyack, and Valley Cottage are hamlets in Clarkstown.)

“It’s easy to dehumanize and call people names,” Mr. Hoehmann continued. “So giving a face, and a voice, to a religion or group helps to combat ignorance and bigotry. We’re trying to bridge a gap across religious groups and across ethnic groups.”

In a still from “Faith Matters,” from left, George Hoehmann, Mohammed Ziaullah of the Islamic Center of Rockland, Rabbi Paul Kurland of Congregation Shir Shalom, and the Rev. Richard Hasselbach of Clarkstown Reform Church sit around a table to talk. (Faith Matters)

He started working on the television program in 2020. “Really, it was because of covid,” he said. “We wanted to put a spotlight on the houses of worship in our local community, and to connect with our houses of worship.

“In my role as town supervisor, I’ve done a lot of work with our police department connecting with every house of worship in our community just to make sure they have done security audits and that places are safe.

“But there’s been an overall hardening and coarseness in the dialogue across the country, and I thought this type of program would be a good attempt at a local level to try and build bridges and improve communication.”

A new episode of “Faith Matters” is released about every three months. Six episodes have aired so far.

The second episode aired in March 2021 and was nominated for a New York Emmy award in the “religion — short or long-form” category last June. The episode featured a discussion about antisemitism in particular and anti-religious bias in general.

“The number of incidents has been dramatically increasing, so I really wanted to give voice to that and have an opportunity for our religious leaders to weigh in on it,” Mr. Hoehmann said. Emmy winners were announced in the fall, and the show ultimately lost out to a Fox 5 episode. “But it was an honor to be nominated,” he said. “As a local municipality we don’t have the resources that a major network like Fox 5 would have, and just the fact that the episode warranted a nomination shows the quality of the work we are doing.”

Why does he think that happened? “Each of the religious leaders spoke from the heart and talked about ways to combat bigotry and antisemitism, and I think that resonated with people,” Mr. Hoehmann said. “I know it resonated with lots of folks from the community here  — people from different local synagogues and from the local JCC reached out about the episode and thanked us for tackling this difficult topic.

“The good news is that although Rockland County is a very religiously diverse area, as Reverend Hasselbach, Rabbi Kurland, and Mr. Ziaullah discussed the concerning national trend on the episode, all three agreed that we’re not seeing a lot of incidents locally.”

“Faith Matters” also focuses on common issues. Episodes included discussions about how local houses of worship were faring during covid.

“One of the things we are trying to do is promote dialogue and commonality,” Mr. Hoehmann said. “It’s amazing to think when you have three major world religions that trace their lineage and heritage back through Abraham — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So we did a show on the shared heritage of the Abrahamic religions.”

The most recent episode focused on how the different religions grapple with the notion of evil and suffering. “We paraphrased the question Rabbi Harold Kushner grapples with in his famous 1981 book, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People,’ and discussed how the different traditions approach the question of why bad things happen to good people.”

In addition to combating hate, “Faith Matters” also has become a tool for building community. “The dialogue is great because you’re building community and friendships,” Mr. Hoehmann said. “I think ultimately that’s going to go a long way toward combating bigotry and hatred. And, more importantly, it’s just promoting community and people working together.

“Reverend Hasselbach, Rabbi Kurland, and Mr. Ziaullah have become really good friends and the friendship has begun to encompass their congregations,” he continued. “They have already coordinated some joint food pantry events.”

Mr. Hoehmann is excited about “Faith Matters” and the connections it’s generating, but ultimately, “dialogue needs to start with individuals,” he said. “I can do it as town supervisor, and ‘Faith Matters’ is a great program, but dialogue starts just with people trying to ask questions and trying to connect with others who they come into contact with.

“I think that if more people did that, it would be a lot harder for some of the unfortunate things that happen in our country to happen.

“Very often it becomes ‘they’ or ‘them’ — and we talk about that on the program. ‘They’ and ‘them’ are the most destructive words, and you see those words on social media all the time. So I would just encourage people to reach out on your own, connect with people on your own, and the more that we can build bridges, the better the world is going to be.”

read more: