Interfaith Dialogue Panel

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Two Politicians Discuss the Effect of Faith on Public Service

On Monday, April 15, 2019, the YU College Democrats hosted a discussion with two politicians about how their faith influences their work as public servants.

New York State Senator Robert Jackson represents District 31, which runs from Inwood to Hell’s Kitchen along Manhattan’s west side. New York City Council Member Ben Kallos represents the 5th Council District, comprised of the Upper East Side’s Yorkville, Lenox Hill, and Carnegie Hill; Roosevelt Island: Midtown East’s Sutton Place; and El Barrio.

In introducing the two men, Molly Meisels ’21S, president-elect of the YU College Democrats, described how the genesis of the event came from her discussions with colleagues about Muslim-Jewish relations, “knowing that that YU students would benefit from a frank interfaith dialogue which focuses on peace instead of strife.”

For both men, their impulse towards public service has direct links to their chosen faiths—Islam for Jackson and Judaism for Kallos. More specifically, their political efforts are grounded in principles of the acceptance of diversity and the need to approach common problems with compassion.

For them, the term “diversity” is open and broad, focused not on external differences but on the humanity shared by all. Jackson recalled how “many have said to me, ‘You don’t look like a Muslim.’ My response is, What does a Muslim look like? Muslims look like anyone in the world, the same as if I asked, What does a Jew look like? Like anyone in the world.”

Kallos is proud to attend a synagogue that describes itself as “egalitarian along gender, social and economic lines, and I try to keep my political work as open as well, taking what I can from the Talmud Torah to help with my decision-making.”

While both acknowledge the current polarized nature of American politics, they are optimistic about what politics can accomplish if people of good faith engage in actions of good faith. Speaking about homelessness, for instance, Kallos stated his belief that “if you focus on common issues that everyone is trying to deal with from a place of compassion, I think that it brings people together of all faiths because the homeless crisis affects all faiths.”

Jackson’s politics are driven by a simple core belief: “We are one. What happens to you happens to us as well. We are brothers and sisters of the human race. If we only live in our little bubbles and don’t go outside of that, we are not opening up our minds. We must do more than tolerate; we must respect and understand one another.” For Kallos, “We need to remember those instances when we’ve been discriminated against so that we can feel the experiences of those who are also discriminated against so that we can do better.”

Both men urged everyone in the room to run for office as a way of having a vote of confidence in the future. Given the recent shifts in the mood of the electorate that has allowed people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to become a political force, many things are possible that might not have been possible earlier on. “People need not worry about their religion,” said Jackson, “and if they think they can do well in public office, then they should go for it.”

Meisels was very pleased with the event. “Council Member Kallos and Senator Jackson were engaging, and the audience seemed to gain much insight from their narratives. We hope to be able to host more events like this in the future.”