Essay contest is meant to find religions' common ground

Competition puts focus on Christian-Jewish ties

April 17, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

A 25-year-old Boston philanthropist is teaming up with Baltimore's Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies to launch a $100,000 student essay contest designed to improve Christian-Jewish relations in the wake of Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ.

The contest, Reaching Common Ground, will solicit religious-themed essays that illuminate the common origins and spiritual bonds of the two faiths. The $25,000 grand prize makes it one of the most lucrative student writing competitions in the nation.

The competition was announced yesterday in a full-page ad in The New York Times, as well as in ads in regional newspapers across the country.

The philanthropist, Elizabeth Goldhirsh, an heir to a magazine fortune and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, said she started the contest because of her dissatisfaction with the national dialogue surrounding The Passion.

One of the highest-grossing movies in history, The Passion has generated intense debate over its depiction of Jews, with some Jewish and interfaith organizations saying it could foment anti-Semitism.

Lost in this discussion, Goldhirsh said, are the faiths' common bonds, including the shared belief in the Hebrew Bible -- which Christians call the Old Testament -- and the Jewish background of Jesus and his disciples.

"I just felt that in the weeks leading up to The Passion, reading all the news, no one was making room to talk about the common ground shared by Christians and Jews," said Goldhirsh, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

"I really hope to start a dialogue which is much more positive."

Contestants ages 16 to 22 must write an essay responding to one of three theological questions posed at www.reaching commonground.com. Goldhirsh said she is funding the prizes with a large sum to generate as much participation as possible.

Although the $25,000 grand prize is high for a student essay, it is not unprecedented among faith-related writing contests. The John Templeton Foundation offers a $100,000 grand prize in its worldwide competition, the Power of Purpose Awards.

The $61,000 Sophie Kerr Prize, awarded annually to a Washington College senior, is believed to be the largest secular undergraduate writing prize.

For the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, an interfaith coalition of laity and clergy, Reaching Common Ground is an unprecedented opportunity.

"The magnitude of this is unlike anything we've done before," said the Rev. Christopher M. Leighton, the organization's executive director. Leighton said the institute will gather top scholars to judge the contest, which he thinks could draw 1,000 entries.

Leighton also plans to use the contest as a platform for interfaith leadership development. Winners will attend weekend retreats where they can discuss issues and develop friendships. "This provides a way of finding a new angle to really think about issues that aren't going away and need the creative energy of young talent," he said.

Goldhirsh linked up with the Baltimore institute through a series of family and philanthropic connections, including Donn Weinberg, vice president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

She is the daughter of Bernard Goldhirsh, who founded Sail and Inc. magazines. Her mother, Wendy, died in 1999 of stomach cancer, and her father died in June of a brain tumor.

Goldhirsh said her parents' deaths gave the contest a certain urgency and helps explain why she pushed to get it off the ground less than two months after The Passion's opening in late February.

"There is nothing positive about losing your parents when you're 24," Goldhirsh said in telephone interview from Boston. Except, she said, the lesson that life is brief.

"You realize in the end, it's too short to not talk about what we share."

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