“More than a quarter century after his passing, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum belongs to the pantheon of heroes who transcend time and space. His life, his legacy, and the lessons he imparted are sorely needed for this unstable time. He showed us, by example, that human responsibility means the ability to respond to human suffering.”
Thus ends the last chapter of the recent biography about the life and work of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation. Written by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald Strober, the book was published in June.
On Sept. 18, the JT sat down with Rabbi Tanenbaum’s widow, Dr. Georgette Bennett, in a quiet room to the side of the main sanctuary of Church of the Redeemer on Charles Street in north Baltimore City. Abby Scherr, Rabbi Tanenbaum’s niece, helped organize the lecture at the church. “I met Reverend Ware,” said Scherr, “and he suggested having it there. Because of Marc’s interfaith work, it was perfect having it in a church.” Scherr continued, “Marc has never been recognized for the work that he did. His work was recognized throughout the world, but never in the city where he was born.”
Dr. Bennett made a special trip to Baltimore to talk about the book and about Rabbi Tanenbaum’s legacy. She had just recently interviewed with WYPR’s Sheilah Kast, during which Dr. Bennett spoke about the three main driving forces behind Rabbi Tanenbaum’s commitment to social justice and coalition building — notions deeply rooted in Judaism. The notion that “every human being is made in the sacred image of G-d and thus intrinsically worthy of respect and dignity”; “Thou shall not stand idly by while the blood of your brother cries down from the earth”; and tikkun olam, the “obligation to perfect or repair the world.”
Dr. Bennett and Rabbi Tanenbaum had been married for just 10 years before his untimely death at 66 in 1992. Seven weeks after his death, his son, Joshua-Marc Bennett Tanenbaum, was born. Although he never met his father, Dr. Bennett said, it was important that he know and understand who his father was.
Dr. Bennett — an accomplished professional in her own right — is the founder and president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. The daughter of Holocaust survivors from Budapest, she graduated from Vassar and obtained a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. She was a network correspondent for NBC News and host of Walter Cronkite’s PBS current affairs series Why in the World? and created stories for 20/20, 60 Minutes and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
When asked why she had chosen to dedicate her life to keeping her husband’s work and vision alive, Dr. Bennett said: “Marc left this extraordinary world he had built in terms of creating and building on religions reconciliation. My goal was not to create a memorial to his work, but to build on his legacy. Although I was left with a tremendous sense of loss after he died, he left me with a full tank — he left me feeling loved and every day I was confronted by the work he left behind. I am honored to continue to build on it.”
Even though father and son never met in life, Rabbi Tanenbaum’s work nonetheless had a profound impact on life, inspiring him with a vision for a better world. “While raising Joshua,” Dr. Bennett said, “I wanted to make sure that Marc’s work became a blessing, rather than a burden. He attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel School from kindergarten through 12th grade and completed a year at George Washington University before deciding to transfer to the University of Melbourne in Australia. He did so because he needed, he told me, to find his own identity, a place where no one knew who his father was or who I was.
“What’s interesting is that once at the University of Melbourne, he majored in sociology and began to organize interreligious events. He told me he realized at some point that he did not have to run away or compete with his father’s legacy and that he could create his own legacy. His passions are finance and philanthropy and works with private equity and investments that have a social impact.”
During her interview with Kast, Dr. Bennett stated that her husband “was quick to call out anti-Semitism, but slow to accuse someone of being an anti-Semite,” explaining that Rabbi Tanenbaum believed in the basic goodness of human beings. “Marc was a realist. He harbored no illusions. But he knew how to listen, and he understood that deep listening was critical to understanding the positions that people take. He understood that you don’t get anywhere by shaming fear — you get on with it by listening to it, respecting it, no matter how odious.”
Dr. Bennett went on to explain Rabbi Tanenbaum’s ability to truly listen: “He knew how to listen very deeply to the fears that lay beneath the conflicts of the time and how to understand the concerns of the other.” When asked what she feels are the main fears behind the hatred in our nation today, Dr. Bennett listed three items: “One, the fear of the economic impact, two, fear of terrorism, and three, Islamophobia. These fears are driven by a part of the brain and he would encourage us to respect how visceral those fears are.”
At her talk, Dr. Bennett was introduced by Rev. David J. Ware before a crowd of approximately 100 people. Dr. Bennett talked about the important life events that helped shape Rabbi Tanenbaum — the stories from his immigrant father, Abraham, about anti-Semitism and pogroms in his native Russia; and about his father’s brother Aaron, drowned in the Bug River, in Dimidivka, Ukraine, by an angry mob coming from a Good Friday sermon. And she spoke of the impact of the generosity of his mother, Sadie.The Tanenbaums owned a grocery at 1850 Light Street and, although they struggled, his mother always shared food with people in the neighborhood.
In an excerpt from the book, his sister, Sima Scherr, recalls: “Every spring, as the Passover and Easter holidays approached, Sadie Tanenbaum would prepare extra food — matzo balls and other kosher-for-Pesach delicacies — and distribute them to their Jewish and Gentile neighbors alike, a gesture toward the less fortunate that had ‘quite an impact’ on young Marc Tanenbaum.”
Rabbi Tanenbaum spent a lifetime confronting hate and working to educate and to build coalitions to better address so much of the human suffering around the world. His biography encompasses his beginnings in Baltimore City, his coming of age as a yeshiva boy and later a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the work for interfaith dialogue for which he is known and the legacy he left behind.
“Words of hate empty others of their humanity,” Dr. Bennet said in her remarks. “Throughout world history, we can see the roots of genocide that began with leaders spewing hate speech. Dogmas can separate us, but shared values can bring us together.”
She encouraged attendees to read Confronting Hate to learn more about the techniques developed by Rabbi Tanenbaum in his life’s work.