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Ambassadors for Peace

In Memoriam: Rabbi Dr. David Z. Ben-Ami

A Life of Building Bridges of Understanding

Rabbi Dr. Ben-Ami devoted his life to the furtherance of interfaith and interracial cooperation, human rights, the family, and the well-being of the aged. In addition, he promoted education to enhance the values of American democracy and the protection of religious freedom. It gained him recognition by many of his religious peers, public and private institutions, and leaders in the political sphere, including American presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George Bush.

Though he served as spiritual leader and founder of congregations in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, the cause of civil rights in America took him south to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. There he befriended many white clergy of other faiths who had come from the north to help register black voters. White extremists threatened the Ben-Ami family with burnings and hangings, but Rabbi Ben-Ami and his family stood firm with the civil rights leaders.

In the 1970s the rabbi turned his attention to the issue of religious freedom, founding the American Forum for Jewish-Christian Cooperation with Rev. Jerry Falwell as his co-chair. This organization promotes the common ground of those great religious traditions and builds bridges of understanding among all religions, races, and nationalities.

Rabbi Ben-Ami was a humble man, honoring others and bringing them together to strengthen the unity of our religious and political communities. He was a man of not just words and wisdom but also deeds.

At an American Clergy Leadership Conference at a mosque in New Jersey where he embraced the imam, a Palestinian whose family was displaced from their homeland, he renamed his organization the American Forum for Jewish-Christian–Muslim Cooperation and began working for the reconciliation of the three Abrahamic faiths. As an Ambassador for Peace, he joined the Middle East Peace Initiative and met with leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories to work for reconciliation.

The rabbi’s father, born in Berlin, Germany, was jailed in 1937 and tortured for a year. His mother’s brother who lived in the United States sponsored them to come to the U.S. However, his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all but one of his cousins perished in Nazi Germany.

In reflection on those days in Germany, the rabbi noted, “The churches are supposed to preach brotherhood—but where were the Lutheran, Catholic, and other Christian churches? There were a few exceptions, such as nuns who hid Jewish children and theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller.”

The rabbi saw the U.S. as the bulwark of tolerance: “This remains the last hope for humanity, because here not only do people respect each other but we celebrate each other.”

Rabbi Ben-Ami is survived by his wife Evelyn, two children, and two grandchildren. Their youngest son passed away two years ago.

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