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NYC interfaith commission tours Church headquarters, participates in BYU’s religious freedom review with Elder Cook


A few words are displayed over the ark containing the sacred Torah scrolls in Jewish synagogues: 

“Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed.”

Translated the words mean, “Know Before Whom You Stand.”

The message, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik — a senior rabbi from New York City participating in a panel at Brigham Young University on Thursday evening, June 16 — is that “we are all accountable for our behavior and, therefore, we have to stand strong in what we believe is right.”

Rabbi Potasnik is part of a unique group of New York religious leaders who visited Church headquarters this week, meeting with the First Presidency and other senior Church leaders; touring the Family History Library, the Conference Center and Welfare Square, and participating in the 2022 Religious Freedom Annual Review at BYU.

Read more: What Elder Cook and New York religious leaders say about religious liberty

“We have different forms of worship, we have different practices, but … there is enough place in our society for all of us to practice freely,” said Rabbi Potasnik, the vice president of New York City’s Commission of Religious Leaders.

The commission is a body of faith leaders from numerous traditions in New York City — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — who recognize the interface between religion and government, said Rabbi Potasnik. “It is not enough to pray for peace, we have to pursue it …,” he said. “We are not apart from society, we are a part of society.”

The commission has worked to reduce maternal mortality rates, influence prison reform, support the underprivileged, share a value- and faith-based voice with local governments and fight food insecurity in and around New York City. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said the interfaith collaboration is a model for how religion can make a positive difference.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of New York greets President Russell M. Nelson in the Church Administration Building on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of New York greets President Russell M. Nelson in the Church Administration Building on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Commission of Religious Leaders

The Rev. A.R. Bernard, the commission’s president, said that throughout history and throughout cultures around the world, there are three systems — the political system or government, the economic system or business, and the moral system.

“And the pillar of the moral system, besides education, are our religious institutions,” he said. “We are the conscience, the voice of conscience, within the soul of a society. We urge government and business to measure their judgments, as they legitimize power [law], distribute power, validate power, produce goods and services, and pursue self-interest. We urge them — with a very strong and powerful moral voice — to measure those judgments, those decisions, according to God’s perspective.”

The Rev. Bernard, founder of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, and Rabbi Potasnik were joined by four other commission members during the trip to Utah: the Rev. Que English, director of the Partnership Center of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York; Bishop Dr. Victor A. Brown, senior pastor of Mt. Sinai United Christian Church in Staten Island; and Elder David A. Buckner, an Area Seventy. Also participating with the group were Rabbi Diana Gerson, associate executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, and Annette Bernard, executive director of Community Affairs of the Christian Cultural Center.

Elder Cook hosted the group and moderated a panel discussion at BYU among the Rev. Bernard, Rabbi Potasnik, the Rev. English and Elder Buckner.

The panel explored how people of diverse faiths benefit communities, both through religious accountability and the practical services and social contributions that religions facilitate and encourage.

New York City, in many ways, is an example of the religious diversity that exists in this country, said Elder Cook.

“The United States is a land of immigrants. Many have immigrated here to escape persecution — including Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. There is a strong tradition, with historical constitutional underpinnings, to protect fundamental religious rights. This has been a great blessing in this country and has been recognized from the country’s founding.”

In introducing the panel, Elder Cook emphasized two of the benefits of religious freedom. First, he said, is the way religious accountability benefits secular society. Second is the multitude of good works that religion inspires people of faith to perform on behalf of others.

Attendees listen as Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moderates a panel of religious leaders at Brigham Young University in Provo on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Attendees listen as Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moderates a panel of religious leaders at Brigham Young University in Provo on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘Power in unity’

Elder Buckner was invited to join the commission in recent years because, he said, the other members understood that it strengthens the whole to hear all voices and include all lenses. The group immediately became family. “There’s a power in unity, but there’s a respect for individuality,” said Elder Buckner. Government and community leaders often turn to the commission’s trusted voices to work through difficult and tragic situations, he said.

For example, in July 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American, died in a chokehold by New York City police officers after illegally selling cigarettes. The issue had the potential of inciting mob violence in the city.

“We brought together all of the religious leaders to stand in solidarity,” said Rabbi Potasnik. “We said, ‘This is our city, this is our problem.’ And we cannot find a constructive conclusion unless we all speak with one another.”

Bishop Brown invited the Garner family and the police to meet together in a house of worship.

“When we pray for peace, peace is incomplete unless we pray for one another. I can’t just say I want peace for my people and ignore someone else’s people,” said Rabbi Potasnik.

The Rev. English said having a unified front is essential.

Reverend Que English, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Partnership Center director, talks to the media during a meeting with members of the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

The Rev. Que English, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Partnership Center director, talks to the media during a meeting with members of the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

There was a time when New York City leaders considered legalizing prostitution, she said. Knowing that legalization could lead to an increase in violence in the city and children who are trafficked in the business, the group — “pained to action” — determined to tackle the issue together. “To that end, we drafted a letter to the governor,” the Rev. English recalled. “Everyone signed it.” 

The commission was a lone voice that influenced the halting of the movement. The bill did not pass. “Why?” asked Rev. English. Because the group of rabbis, of reverends and of Latter-day Saints, came together with “one voice, which could not be ignored by government.”

‘What can I give’

Houses of worship need to “start thinking of ourselves as churches without walls,” she said. “Because if we can look at ourselves as a church without walls, then perhaps we can see the community. When we can see the community, we can see the need. Then we can begin to intentionally meet those needs.”

Elder Buckner said having a seat around the commission’s table does not mean everyone shares the same opinion. The power comes when those seated around the table each ask, “What can I give?”

“When government is there, the first thing you might want to do is say, ‘What can we exact in this one moment we have with the commissioner? What can we exact in this one hour we have with the mayor?’ You don’t hear that. Every single conversation is ‘Mayor, what do you need? How can we give voice to this? Where is it most appropriate for a religious, trusted voice to give comfort.’ And it elevates the conversation every time. It moves it away from the tactical, transactional religious engagement and moves it up to a higher level of purpose.”

The Rev. A.R. Bernard, Commission of Religious Leaders president and Christian Cultural Center founder, CEO and senior pastor, talks with Rabbi Diana Gerson, associate executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, before a lunch for members of the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

The Rev. A.R. Bernard, Commission of Religious Leaders president and Christian Cultural Center founder, CEO and senior pastor, talks with Rabbi Diana Gerson, associate executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, before a lunch for members of the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Offering advice to others wanting to form an interfaith council, Rabbi Potasnik said it is easy to replicate. “You have the talent. You have the people. When you have a belief system that is strong and good, you don’t back off, you don’t run.”

There was a magazine called Life. After Life there was People, then Us, then Self. What started with Life, finished with Self, he said.

Then referencing the Jewish tradition to read Hebrew from right to left, Rabbi Potasnik added that everyone can start with Self.

“As you know, it’s about all of us, as one people, trying to make life as meaningful as possible for all people. CORL is one example. You can create many others in your communities.”

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