Even at a tender age, Abby Scherr says she always knew that her uncle, Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, was a special person.
“I admired Uncle Marc because I knew he was doing something important, even though I didn’t know exactly what he did,” says Scherr, a Pikesville native who lives in New Freedom, Pa. “When I was a young girl, my mom and I would drive him around to his different [speaking] gigs. I just loved being around him as much as possible. After he died, I was so moved that I became active in social justice causes as well.
“He was my hero — and he still is.”
A Baltimore-born interfaith leader, humanitarian and social justice advocate, Rabbi Tanenbaum is the subject of a new biography, “Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice and Religious Reconciliation” (Skyhorse Publishing).
Authored by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober, the 416-page book chronicles the life and career of Rabbi Tanenbaum, from his work as director of interreligious and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee to his involvement in the landmark Second Vatican Council.
“Confronting Hate” also explores the rabbi’s relationships and interactions with such seminal 20th century figures as Rev. Billy Graham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Jerry Falwell, groundbreaking TV writer/producer Norman Lear, and American presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush.
“More than a biography, ‘Confronting Hate’ serves as a call to arms, inspiring and informing those who seek social justice in today’s troubled world,” writes Harvard University professor and “Finding Your Roots” TV host Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Lear describes Tanenbaum as “a man of peace and fellowship with the fiery heart of a warrior who would fight to the death for his beliefs. I could express this quality a thousand ways, but they would all add up to the unique man and giant among us who was Marc Tanenbaum. Hate had no more fierce an enemy than Marc.”
While Newsweek called him “the American Jewish community’s foremost apostle to the gentiles,” New York Magazine once characterized Rabbi Tanenbaum as “the foremost Jewish ecumenical leader in the world today.”
Notably, Rabbi Tanenbaum worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights and the Soviet Jewry movements. Known as “the Human Rights Rabbi,” he died of heart failure in 1992 at age 66.
“He preached Jewish identity but not Jewish insularity, and saw the importance from theological, political and pragmatic perspectives for Jews to be outward rather than inward facing,” says Rabbi Tanenbaum’s widow, Dr. Georgette F. Bennett, founder and president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York.
Rabbi Tanenbaum was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Catholic Church’s Nostra aetate statement issued in 1965 by Pope Paul VI. The statement emphasized that Jews should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus, which was the basis for two millennia of anti-Semitism and hatred.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, says that Nostra aetate “was on the face of it a minor theological gesture, yet it brought about one of the greatest revolutions in religious history. Today, as a result, Jews and Catholics meet not as enemies but as cherished and respected friends.”
Howard I. Friedman, former president of the AJC, says Rabbi Tanenbaum’s legacy is the enhanced relationship today between Jews and Christians.
“[We] learned about a different kind of Billy Graham because of Marc,” says Friedman. “He didn’t just put [the evangelical Christians] down, which [was] the tendency of people on the moderate left to do.”
“Confronting Hate” also shows Rabbi Tanenbaum working closely with civil rights leaders such as King and Rev. Jesse Jackson to bridge the divide between African-Americans and whites.
In one particularly moving passage, Rabbi Tanenbaum joined Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel at Thailand’s border with Cambodia in 1980 to recite the Kaddish prayer for millions of Cambodians who perished at the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
The son of Orthodox immigrants from Ukraine, Rabbi Tanenbaum attended the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and Baltimore City College. He went on to study at Yeshiva University and received his ordination in 1950 from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Rabbi Tanenbaum’s sister, Sima S. Scherr, says she believes that her brother’s empathetic nature and sense of inclusiveness came from their mother, Sadie, while living on Light Street in South Baltimore.
“Marc used to sometimes bring bums to the house and give them sandwiches our mother made for them,” recalls Scherr, who lives in Pikesville.
After brief stints in journalism and public relations, Rabbi Tanenbaum became director of the Synagogue Council of America in 1952. Eight years later, he started working at the AJC.
In addition to his career in the organized Jewish world, Rabbi Tanenbaum served as a consultant to NBC in the late 1970s during the making of the TV network’s landmark miniseries “Holocaust.”
“He was driven by core Jewish values,” says Dr. Bennett. “First, that every human being is made in the sacred image of God and deserves dignity and respect. And second, the biblical command not to stand idly by while there is human suffering.
“We didn’t establish the Tanenbaum [Center] as a memorial to Marc, but rather as a way to build on the work he’d started.”
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore- based freelance writer.