BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Dr. Georgette Bennett will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding next year. She singlehandedly founded the organization, which has become a revered resource for combatting religious bias and violence, after her husband, human rights activist Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, passed away. “At the time that he died, there were at least 50 conflicts that were being waged around the world that were based, at least in part, on religion … and I felt that nothing that I had been doing professionally was as important as building on his work,” she said.
In 2013, she launched the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, which came about through her work on the board of the International Rescue Committee. As a child of Holocaust survivors and a refugee herself, the plight of Syrians in that war-ravaged country resonated deeply with her and she sees the Syrians who come into the country as “solidly contributing members to American society.”
Although at this time in her career she could easily retire, her dedication to promoting peace keeps her inspired. “As a Jew, I take Leviticus 19:16 very seriously. ‘Thou shall not stand by idly while the blood of your brother cries out from the earth.’”
Tell us about your career path leading up to founding Tanenbaum. My career had been, up until then, a rather diverse one. I’m a sociologist by training and the first years of my career were spent playing college professor. But I was never really content with the ivory tower existence and always felt very driven to get behind the headlines and go where the action was. So after spending some time in government, New York City Police Department, New York City Office of Management and Budget, and doing work for the Department of Justice and police departments all over the country, I became a broadcast journalist. I did that for about 10 years. And from there, went into marketing and financial services. And then after my husband died, I went into the religion business. [Laughs] I’m putting it very crudely, but I don’t feel crudely about it at all.
How did you start your work with Syrian refugees? I’ve been on the board for directors of the International Rescue Committee for about 24 years since my husband died, because he was very much committed to that organization. So I offered to take his seat on the board after he died. And as you may be aware, it is one of the foremost refugee relief and resettlement organizations in the world. And in January of 2013, IRC issued a report on the Syrian Refugee Crisis. And it sat on my desk until March or May because being a typical overextended New Yorker, I didn’t have time to read it until several months had elapsed. But when I finally did read it, I was absolutely just shattered by the gale of this humanitarian crisis. And as a child of Holocaust survivors and as a refugee myself, because my parents and I were both refugees, I resonated very deeply with the suffering of the Syrian people. Now it may sound counterintuitive for a Jew to be saying that, given that Israel and Syria are technically in a state of war, but this is not a crisis that is confined to the region. This is a crisis that has worldwide ramifications. And it’s absolutely essential that we respond to it.
You visited a refugee camp there. What do you want people to understand about what you experienced? Yes, Zaatari, which is the second largest refugee camp in the world. And it is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan. I was quite surprised by what I experienced because what I experienced was extraordinary resilience of the people there. The most powerful impression with which I was left was the main street of the camp, which runs as far as the eye can see. And it’s a street that they call the Champs-Élysées because there used to be a French medical facility there. And this is a street that is lined on both sides with densely packed shops of every kind and cafes. And I thought that was quite extraordinary because these are all small businesses that were started by refugees in that camp. You see in Jordan as in a number of other countries, refugees are not permitted to work. It’s illegal for them to work. But they are permitted to work inside the camp. And so they do. They have created these businesses.
In your 10 years of broadcast journalism, what is a memorable interview you conducted?Probably the most memorable is when I got an exclusive interview with Frank Serpico while he was in hiding in the Netherlands. In the 1970s, there was something called the Knapp Commission which was operating in the New York City Police Department. And the purpose of it was to root out systemic and endemic corruption in policing. The person who was the whistleblower in terms of corruption was Serpico, who was a police officer. He was very reviled by fellow officers for doing that. His life was in danger because of having been a whistleblower, so he fled to Europe to hide. And I was able to get an exclusive interview with him while he was in hiding. He was famous for his disguises because he was an undercover officer at NYPD. And because he was very paranoid, probably rightly so, I was not given his address or phone number. I was told to go to a restaurant in the middle of a very rural area. And as I’m on the plane flying to Amsterdam, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if he doesn’t show up? I’m going to be totally humiliated.’ So I’m sitting in this inn with my crew and eventually this man in a hat and big coat comes over and that’s Frank Serpico in one of his disguises. So we started talking there in that inn in the middle of nowhere. And he said, ‘You know, I like you. I trust you. Let’s go back to my house.’ So we went back to his farm and we continued the interview there, including walking through his gardens. And we did part of the interview in his farmhouse where we both sat cross-legged on the floor opposite each other. While I was interviewing him, he was sitting there rolling joints. [Laughs] That’s probably my most vivid memory of all the stories that I did. I did not have any of those joints, by the way.