By SHELLY BANJO
Wall Street Journal –
To John Loeb, looking at the past leads to better ethical choices today.
The former ambassador to Denmark and investment adviser is giving $200,000 to New York-based nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves to create a project promoting religious tolerance in schools.
Called Give Bigotry No Sanction: The George Washington Letter Project, the program is centered on a letter written in 1790 by George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., one of the oldest synagogues in the U.S. now known as the Touro Synagogue.
In the 300-word letter, Washington assures synagogue leaders that in the newly formed United States they would not be persecuted for practicing their religions.
Washington writes: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Mr. Loeb wants to incorporate this letter as part of a circuit of lesson plans and symposiums, the first to be held next month in conjunction with New York University. The letter will also be included as inspiration for a letter-writing campaign run by more than 3,000 teachers to talk about the importance of religious pluralism in a democracy.
If he program is successful in its first year, Mr. Loeb says he will renew the grant for two more years to a total of $600,000.
“This letter applies more today than ever,” says Mr. Loeb. “The idea of treating people equally and with respect is something that goes back to the beginning of this country’s history.”
Pam Haas of Facing History says this grant comes at a time when religious tolerance is at the forefront of the American psyche.
“Look at what happened with Park 51, where people were so quick to take sides without having a conversation about the nuances of what it all means,” she says, pointing to this year’s controversy over the Lower Manhattan Islamic culture center and mosque known as Park51.
Through the George Washington Letter project, Ms. Haas says, Facing History can help teachers raise these kinds of issues in their classrooms and “have a productive discussion, rather than a polarizing shouting match.”
For Mr. Loeb, this project is just one on a quest to educate the nation on George Washingon’s letter and religious plurality. Recently he completed the building and opening of the Loeb Visitors Center on the campus of Touro Synagogue where he currently serves as founder and chairman of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom
“We live in a diverse world and its more important than ever to teach people and remind them again and again about the importance of respect and how treating people equally is a value that began with George Washington himself,” he says.