Oakland documentarian aims to heal religious rifts

Documentary producer Joseph Tieger has spent most of his life working for social justice.

Values rooted in Judaism helped propel the 55-year-old Oakland resident to become a civil rights organizer in the South in the '60s. They're also responsible, he believes, for sustaining his dream of a better world in the decades since then.

Tieger's most recent project is a seven-part public television series that strives to bring diverse groups of people together to heal the ailing community around them.

Called "Reaching Out," the half-hour programs will be broadcast weekly starting at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, on KQED Channel 9. Based on town hall meetings held in Oakland seven years ago, the shows trace participants from various racial and religious backgrounds as they try to overcome their differences and animosities.

The "Reaching Out" series is intended to be interactive; viewers are encouraged to watch and discuss the programs in groups. Tieger hopes people then will be inspired to form a "league of compassion" that attacks such issues as racial hatred, poverty and environmental problems.

Though Tieger had no formal Jewish education while growing up, "I think the very fact that I've done this project is a product of the fact that I'm Jewish," he says.

"There's something about being born in 1942 during the Holocaust and growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust that sharpens the necessity of working for human understanding and social justice."

Tieger thinks it's no coincidence that most of the Caucasians who went South in the early 1960s to fight segregation were Jewish. After graduating from Duke University, Tieger joined the cause in 1963. He was a field worker in North Carolina for the Congress of Racial Equality and later became a civil rights and anti-war lawyer.

"I think," says Tieger, "there's something about a covenant with God and with one's fellow man and woman" that underlies what he calls his "uncompromising stand" against oppression.

In 1986, Tieger produced a series called "How Then Shall We Live?" dealing with the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Jewish ties run throughout the "Reaching Out" series. Much of the $700,000 needed to underwrite the programs was donated by Jewish foundations and individuals, Tieger says.

The programs are hosted by Ram Dass, a lecturer and author on human compassion who was born Jewish and has explored his Jewish roots in recent years. Ram Dass, whose original name was Richard Alpert, was given a Hindu name by a teacher in India.

The shows include interviews with several religious scholars, including Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, considered a grandfather of the chavurah movement.

Schachter is asked in the opening program what advice he would give to an Israeli Jew about how to view Palestinians.

He responds by retelling a story of visiting the grave of ancestors in Hebron. Schachter says he entered the office of the imam of the mosque to ask permission to visit the site. The imam questioned Schachter's request, noting that the site was guarded by an armed soldier.

Schachter said he replied, "You and your family have been keeping this holy site for many years and it's only right I should ask permission." With that, the imam got up and embraced Schachter and gave him a special tour of the grave.

"It has something to do with respect and with understanding that the other one hurts," Schachter explains.

That theme of compassion runs throughout the series.

Tieger believes that people want to act on the troubles they see around them but are frightened to take the first step.

The solution, he says, is for people to talk openly about their own grief and suffering. In this way, he argues, they can become more understanding and compassionate toward others.

"It seems it's going to be so heavy to get involved in it, but just the opposite is true," Tieger says.

"Reaching Out" has a Web site at www.reachingout.org