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Young Donor Puts Passion for Debate Into Philanthropy

A 25-year-old Jewish philanthropist has launched one of the nation’s most generous student writing contests with a whopping grand prize of $25,000, in the hopes of altering Christian-Jewish relations following the recent debate surrounding Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Introduced last week in full-page advertisements in many national newspapers — including The New York Times and USA Today — the contest is soliciting religious-themed essays that illustrate the shared history and religious values of the two faiths. According to organizers, the goal of the contest, called “Reaching Common Ground,” is to educate the public on the subject and to produce future leaders in interfaith relations.

The Boston philanthropist, Elizabeth Goldhirsh, is funding the initiative with a portion of her personal inheritance as a recent heir to a magazine fortune. A Masters student at Harvard Divinity School, Goldhirsh has taken off the spring semester to organize the contest.

“I came up with the idea following dialogues about ‘The Passion,’ and I saw that no space was being made to emphasize the common ground shared by Christian and Jews,” said Goldhirsh in an interview with the Forward. She added that she believed the discussions centered on divisive topics and often neglected to mention points of connection, such as the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples and the sacred value both faiths ascribe to the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.

As a theology student who holds a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University, Goldhirsh felt that a national writing contest to raise awareness of her beliefs was ideal.

“We also wanted to take the opportunity while the subject was still in public discourse to talk about it,” she said.

“Reaching Common Ground” is open to American citizens ages 16 to 22. All applicants must submit a maximum 2,500 word essay answering one of the contest’s three questions on faith and the Bible, history or current events. The essays will be read and judged by at least one Jewish and one Christian scholar. In November 2004, the judges will announce the names of 27 winners; the recipient of first prize will receive $25,000, and the other 26 winners will be awarded checks from anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000 each.

Goldhirsh, who will be giving away a grand total of $100,000, said that she decided to invest lavishly in the prizes to encourage widespread participation and lend gravitas to the competition.

The contest is being run in partnership with the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, a Baltimore-based organization that works to foster interfaith dialogue. The institute is responsible for judging the essays and running a follow-up fellowship program for 12 of the 27 winners, which will include two educational retreats

The institute made headlines in 2000 when, as part of its National Jewish Schoars Project, it helped produce “Dabru Emet,” a document detailing ways in which Christian and Jews could relate to each other. Some Jewish scholars and rabbis criticized the statement and its approach, claiming that by emphasizing the faiths’ similarities, it was glossing over significant theological distinctions between the two religions. The institute hopes to avoid any such criticism of the writing contest.

“We don’t want to overemphasize the differences or the similarities,” responded Christopher Leighton, the director of the institute. “What we need is the right kind of balance.”

Goldhirsh said she hopes the contest will become annual and possibly even expand to other regions and religions, such as to Israelis and Palestinians. The contest’s future prospects will be determined by this year’s success. Organizers are expecting approximately 1,000 entries, though they recognize that they might receive thousands more. The contest’s Web site, reachingcommonground.com, has already received thousands of hits.

Goldhirsh, whose father, Bernard, founded the successful Sail and Inc. magazines, lost both parents in the span of four years. Her mother died in 1999 of stomach cancer and her father in 2003 of brain cancer. She and her younger brother, Benjamin, serve as directors of the Goldhirsh Foundation, which her father founded with $50 million to support stomach and brain cancer research.

“I feel strongly that life is really short,” Goldhirsh said, “and it’s really important while we’re here to find things we share with each other.”

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