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Flushing Rabbi honors all faiths in boro that has many

A Catholic organization is set to present Rabbi Michael Weisser with a peacemaker award. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

Next month a Catholic organization is giving out a National Peacemaker Award to a Queens rabbi who might have seemed like an odd pick when he was hired from Nebraska to take the helm of the Free Synagogue of Flushing in 2008.

On June 3, Pax Christi, a national Catholic organization dedicated to promoting peace and nonviolence, will dole out its National Peacemaker Award to Rabbi Michael Weisser, who was selected by the Flushing synagogue from a vastly different work environment in Lincoln, Neb.

For instance, the population of Queens is 10 times that of Lincoln, and the rabbi came to the most diverse area in the entire world from a city that is 86 percent white, according to the 2010 Census.

But with Weisser’s lifelong propensity to reach out to people of different faiths, it is actually a wonder it took him so long to get here.

“All religions, in my view, are aspects of one religion,” Weisser said in a recent interview, an opinion that has attracted criticism as well as accolades. “I think it’s just common sense. None of us have all the answers.”

Weisser attracted the eye of Pax Christi for his help in planning the Interfaith Unity Walk in Queens, an annual stroll through the borough with stops at houses of worship of many religions. Out of that walk, Weisser had the idea of creating an interfaith council of Queens, a body that exists in other boroughs.

“I thought it would be nice if we could do something more than once a year,” he said.

The council is still in its planning stages, but interfaith outreach is something that has always come naturally to Weisser.

The rabbi recalls the day his views on interfaith relations were solidified: He was sitting in a planetarium as a picture of the Milky Way appeared overhead.

A voice filled the room, describing the galaxy as one of hundreds of billions of such galaxies in the known universe. A beam of light traveling at 186,000 miles per second would take 120,000 years to cross it at its narrowest point.

“Part of these religions is believing in a god who created that,” he said. “How could that creator possibly be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc.? How could that possibly be?”

Weisser believes that God is so enormous that there are myriad ways to try and comprehend what is going on. Weisser accepts nearly all faiths as valid forms of worship, provided that they do not cause physical or mental harm to anyone they disagree with.

But that does not mean he agrees with everything they do, especially in Judaism.

“The ultra-Orthodox and I disagree on almost everything,” he said.

But Weisser is famed for his ability to accept others.

He once converted a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, who had been threatening his family in Nebraska, and was named person of the year by the Nebraska National Association of the Advancement of Colored People and Man of the Year by the Nebraska American Civil Liberties Union.

He held a coat drive in his synagogue that catered toward a largely Muslim crowd and drove scared Muslim women to work in the wake of 9/11.

He currently gives free space to a Chinese dance troupe in his synagogue and teaches meditation with roots in Hinduism.

“We do formalized stretches and end it by saying, ‘Namaste,’” he said. “Does that make me less Jewish or more open?”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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