The social hall of a Methodist Church on a Sunday morning after services isn’t the likeliest place to find a Ramaz-educated observant Jew. For Clifford Wolf, however, most Sunday mornings find him attending services at one of Westchester’s many churches.
As a co-chair of Westchester AJC’s Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast and Interreligious & Intergroup Relations Committee (IIRC), as well as a member of the Westchester Jewish Council, Wolf is determined to do whatever it takes to break down barriers and encourage honest conversation among those of different faiths and traditions.
And before Wolf embarked on this multi-year project of visiting churches during services, given his background, he sought the approval of both an Orthodox and Conservative rabbi. Both gave their blessings.
“I’m not doing this to become Christian,” said Wolf about his regular church going. “I’m doing it for kiddush Hashem,” the sanctification of God. He explained that his “role model was my cousin, the late Lenny Zakim.” Wolf said that Zakim, who died at age 43 was one of the first Jewish people ever to be knighted by a pope” John Paul II for his role as regional director the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office. In 1999, Zakim, Wolf said, had a major new bridge in Boston named after him, “because he built bridges among diverse communities.”
So Wolf, a Mamaroneck resident who is an investment officer for a private equity real estate fund, has devoted himself to various projects, through the Westchester AJC, which seek to promote respectful and meaningful interfaith experience and dialogue. Besides the Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast, which was originally launched in the aftermath of 9/11, Wolf also works with the IIRC on programs that schedule regular visits to various houses of worship to understand different practices and beliefs; specific programs to explore Catholic-Jewish relationships, and opportunities to read sacred texts together. One of Wolf’s pet projects is running a traditional Passover service, with a traditional Haggadah (not an interfaith text) for Christians at the Mamaroneck United Methodist church a few days before Passover
“When he joined me as a co-chair, he was instrumental in making the breakfast available to more interfaith leaders and making sure we invited more and more religions and ethnicities to take part in the process,” said Caren Ellis Fried, co-chair of the IIRC. “AJC’s mission is to build bridges, and Cliff is very good at relationship-building.”
There are practical, and local, benefits to this work, said Wolf. When a church burns down, others in the group reach out to help, or when a rabbi has an issue with a public school practice or calendar, the group will make appropriate introductions to help find solutions.
Added Stephen Gill, a Christian who is currently a member of a Methodist church, and another co-chair of the diversity breakfast, “We’re not dancing around on eggshells.”
Gill works closely with Wolf on a program known as “Courageous Conversations,” where Christians and Jews meet in one another’s homes to have serious discussions about difficult issues. “We talk about Palestinian issues, about the new pope, about prayer. Nothing is off the agenda. We’re not trying to convert anyone. It’s characterized by trust and respect.”
One of Wolf’s main motivations is developing the kinds of relationships in the Christian community that make ongoing conversations, often about delicate and potentially fraught issues — like the Palestinian cause or economic divestment from Israel — more likely to be real dialogues.
“There’s so much ignorance we each have about each other,” said Wolf, who has also studied the New Testament. “It’s a question of understanding where each of us is coming from.”
Susan Andrews, general presbyter at the Presbytery of the Hudson River (the Presbyterian Church) who was an honoree at the 2012 Diversity Breakfast, said, “Cliff is the most curious person I know in terms of religion and beliefs, their differences and similarities. He’s very honest about his own beliefs. He’s a friend. He pushes me really hard. He listens when I talk about the plight of Christians in Palestine. He also listens and is willing to change his mind. He’s just a marvelous human being.”
Said Wolf, “This is how I give back to the community. Not many Jewish people are knowledgeable about the Tanach and the New Testament. I’m going into churches regularly to explain about Judaism. I don’t hide my Judaism. My end goal is kiddush Hashem, tikkun olam, and peace in the Middle East and the world. My own spirituality grows from doing this.”
For more information, or to register for this year’s Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast, Nov. 21, please contact the AJC at (914) 948-5585, the Westchester Jewish Council at (914) 328-7001 or www.ajc.org/westchester/diversity2013.