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A call for perceptiveness

A rabbi dedicated to interfaith understanding warns against seeing complex issues in simplistic terms.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2002

He was in Beirut when a truck bomb ripped apart the US Marine barracks there on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, claiming 241 lives. A Jewish chaplain for the US Sixth Fleet, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff rushed to the scene with his Catholic colleague, the Rev. George Pucciarelli. For hours, the two men worked to comfort those still alive but buried in the rubble, tearing up their clothes to wipe blood and dirt out of people's eyes and mouths.

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Somehow, the rabbi's kippa, or skullcap, was lost, but Father Pucciarelli cut a circle out of his camouflage uniform to make him a head covering.

"He wanted the marines to remember that Christian and Jewish chaplains were working side by side," Resnicoff says. "Somehow we both wanted to shout the message in a land where people were killing each other – at least partly because of differences in religion – that we could be proud of our particular religions and yet work together."

After 28 years in the military – which took him from Vietnam to the top job of Command Chaplain for all US forces in Europe – the retired Navy captain is now working to increase understanding between faiths in the United States.

Rabbi Resnicoff became national director for interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee shortly after Sept. 11. "I spoke at a governor's prayer breakfast on Oct. 30, and if I'd had a plan suggesting what we have to do, everyone would have marched behind me," he says in an interview. "It's a crucial time for interfaith relations."

A recent survey shows that Americans see religious diversity in the US as a strength, not a threat, but that most say they do not personally know people of other faiths or even know much about other religious beliefs. And while Americans are evenly split on their views of Islam, most expect a bigger armed conflict soon between Christian and Islamic countries.

"It's terrific if in America we have come to be comfortable with the presence of other faiths – that keeps us from fighting each other and is a great first step," Resnicoff says. "But we have to begin to talk and to listen."

With religious allegiances figuring more prominently in today's conflicts, it's essential, he believes, to develop genuine skills for relating to one another and to bring more perceptiveness to understanding religious tensions.

"In the chaplaincy, we got along so well because we worked together when people were scared, lonely, in pain, and so we came to know each other as human beings," he adds. "One of my goals is to make sure when Jews and others come together that we are developing relationships, not just dialogue – relationships will ultimately change the world.

"It's extremely important to reach out to moderate voices of Islam and make connections," he adds. The US military now has Muslim chaplains, and he has recently offered to share his experience in support of a new program to train Muslim chaplains at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.