Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a longtime executive at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and veteran of interfaith activities, received an unexpected call a year and a half ago from a Buffalo-based Islamic cable television channel. Bridges TV wanted him to host a Jewish-Islamic-Christian talk show.
Rabbi Hirschfield spent some time thinking about the proposal and checking out the network. He decided that Bridges TV was kosher and accepted the offer; the result is "Building Bridges: Abrahamic Perspectives on the World Today," which had a preview broadcast last week and its official premiere this week. The 18-part, 30-minute-long series is aired Monday and Thursday evenings on Comcast, Verizon and other cable and satellite providers.
"Building Bridges," which features Rabbi Hirschfield, a CLAL president, as permanent panelist discussing a variety of civic and spiritual issues with various members of the Islamic and Christian clergy around a coffee table, is the first such interfaith series sponsored by an Islamic network anywhere in the world, he says.
It sounds like the "God Squad," the pairing of a rabbi, Marc Gellman, and a priest, Thomas Hartman, which brings an ecumenical voice to television, radio and newspapers, but Rabbi Hirschfield likens his show to "The McLaughlin Group," the feisty political program hosted by John McLaughlin. But with better manners. Or, as the rabbi says, " ‘The McLaughlin Group’ with God."
"Building Bridges" is carried during a time of diminishing dialogue and increasing hostility between Jews and Muslims in this country. In Detroit, home to a large Muslim population, one Jewish leader urged a boycott of the premiere of the show last week. In Manhattan, a Shabbat discussion with a prominent imam hosted by the New York Synagogue’s Rabbi Marc Schneier two weeks ago was stonewalled by a disagreement over Islamic violence. And at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual meeting in Atlanta last week, National Director Abraham Foxman, in response to a question, said there were no moderate Muslims for Jews to dialogue with.
The guidelines for "Building Bridges" (no "denigration," no "personal attacks," no questions about each other’s "motivation") prevented such a breakdown, Rabbi Hirschfield says. The participants often disagree with each other on such topics as Jerusalem, abortion, and the role of religion in public life, but they are respectful to each other, he says. "I don’t expect a love fest. What I’m looking for is how we can disagree peaceably."
The show, the rabbi says, "creates a context for conversation."
Reactions among his Jewish friends, he says, ranged between "tremendous excitement" and "a certain amount of concern." And Bridges TV told him that it received 1,000 e-mails from its Muslim viewers. "All were tremendously positive."