It was nearly 20 years ago when a group of 2,000 South Bay Christians marched from the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes to deliver a gift of unbreakable glass to the Jewish Congregation Ner Tamid on Crestview Road.
The mile-long walk commemorated the anniversary of Kristallnacht, (The Night of Broken Glass) when in 1938, Nazis throughout Germany and Austria demolished Jewish homes, synagogues, schools, businesses and hospitals.
That Peninsula walk, made by those passionate about the power of interfaith relationships, was to symbolize love and acceptance as a contrast to the religious and racial intolerance of the Holocaust.
That crystal sculpture the group delivered, titled “Dawn” was unveiled after a poignant program in the synagogue. It remains on display there today. And, thus, the "Dawn Unity" interfaith group was born.
And that group's founder, Robert Rothman, two decades later, is still keeping the spirit of interfaith unity alive among Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations.
“There was extensive media coverage when it was all over,” Rothman said, recalling the Kristallnacht march. “It was a very powerful evening, and afterwards the planning committee didn’t want to disband.”
Rothman said he deliberated about what could be done to continue Dawn Unity’s message and he found comparative discussions were best.
They couldn’t duplicate the power of the march and presentation of the crystal sculpture of that November evening almost two decades ago, but he proposed a learning experience to include a panel of local clergy and academics to teach people in the community about each other’s religion.
A constructive, cooperative spirit was needed in these talks, thought Rothman, not a debate format.
“One of the great problems in the interfaith world is that each religion teaches people their own religion only,” Rothman said.
And, then, less than a year after marching that Dawn sculpture to the synagogue, the unthinkable happened. Intolerance and terrorism on American soil: Sept. 11, 2001.
More than 500 people attended that first Dawn Unity panel at St. John Fisher Catholic Church.
Rothman's mission for interfaith education grew as Americans struggled to understand Islam and their Muslim neighbors.
And, though the clergy members have changed over the years, the interfaith panels have continued.
Decades later, Msgr. David Sork at St. John Fisher and Rev. Jonathan Chute at Rolling Hills Methodist Church are original panel members.
The group has learned the best panel discussion is when the moderator has the least to say, and the panel has most engagement.
Topics the Dawn Unity team selects are insightful and draw a variety of community members. The group holds four panels and an interfaith bible lecture throughout the year, each at a different area location with different members of clergy.
One thing that hasn’t changed is making sure the discussions are not a debate.
“There is no right or wrong—the panel is just people who say what their tradition says or what they have to say," Rothman said. “In planning the subject matter, we try to have some scriptural content, something of a matter of current times, and something that is a feel-good type of thing.”
And he said that kind of subject matter has a certain power.
“I think that’s an important part of getting more people involved. More people show up if an event is in ‘their house’ so to speak. That is part of the marketing plan.”
Rothman didn’t arrive at the Dawn Unity crossroads without accumulating an impressive spiritual and technical resumé.
He has a B.S. in metallurgy from M.I.T. and a doctorate in material science from Northwestern University.
“I have always been a learner,” Rothman said. “When I retired, I liked the intersection of scripture, archeology and history. What really happens, what we really know, fascinated me.”
Rothman said he is completely self-taught on religious topics, and his interest in interfaith and tolerance stems in part to growing up in the small town of Rome, Georgia.
“Being a Jew growing up (the only one in my high school class) in the buckle of Bible Belt ... I feel like being encouraging to good people is a way to reach bad people who are ignorant," said Rothman. "We need people to know more before they form opinions. There is more commonality than some people realize with Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.”
In January, the Congregation Ner Tamid will host three panelists to discuss “Disputes in My Religion” concerning the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, the role of women, and the wide spectrum of cultures within each faith.
In March, a particularly salient subject will be discussed; “Searching for Civility in a Partisan World” to be held at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church. Four panelists will discuss the growing disrespect for differing points of views, and how such a trend can be reversed, Rothman said.
Dawn Unity Group also has a YouTube channel where recent panel discussions can be accessed as: dawnunitygroup.
Rothman said he feels an obligation to continue Dawn Unity.
Getting people involved with interfaith discussions is especially pertinent in today’s divisive world.
“I would like more to attend, give us a try and get involved, there’s no charge, and it’s a 90-minute presentation with free cookies at the end,” Rothman said. “Just pick a topic and come learn about it.”