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Russell Simmons and Rabbi Team to Reconcile Communities

Foundation for Ethnic Understanding unites Jews, Muslims, and African-Americans

As a music mogul, Russell Simmons will forever be associated with Rick Rubin, with whom he founded the seminal hip-hop label Def Jam in the early 1980s. But as a philanthropist, he’s forged a partnership that’s arguably just as close, and longer lasting, with Rabbi Marc Schneier, with whom he runs the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

After being honored by Schneier’s synagogue in the 1990s, Simmons was so impressed with the work that the rabbi’s foundation was doing to encourage dialogue among the African-American, Jewish, and Muslim communities that he offered to become the org’s secretary.

Shortly after, in the wake of the Million Man March, Simmons sought to organize a meeting among such Jewish leaders as Elie Weisel, Israel Singer, and Schneier, and a coalition of black figures that included the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Schneier was the only member of the Jewish delegation to show up.

“[Louis Farrakhan] quoted the rabbi 20 times — it’s on tape. I’ll never forget that. One little meeting, and he’s quoting a rabbi over and over.”
Russell Simmons

“It was in the paper. Everyone was mad,” Simmons recalls of the meeting. “[Schneier] was secretary of the World Jewish Council at the time, and everyone was like, ‘You took that meeting?’ The next day, there was a hip-hop summit with Will Smith, Puffy, Eminem — everyone — and the keynote speech was delivered by Farrakhan. He quoted the rabbi 20 times — it’s on tape. I’ll never forget that. One little meeting, and he’s quoting a rabbi over and over.”

After years of work together, Simmons — now serving as the foundation’s chairman — and Schneier traveled to Israel in 2012 to organize what he called the “holy grail” of their work, bringing together chief Ashkenazi rabbi Yona Metzger and Jerusalem’s grand mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein as part of the foundation’s “twinning” program between synagogues and mosques. “We Refuse to Be Enemies” was recently adopted as the program’s slogan.

“It seemed impossible,” Simmons remembers. “But doing that showed me that if there’s a will, there’s a way. People might tell you otherwise. Even Shimon Peres — it sounded crazy to him. And I said, ‘Why not?’ Smart people may know better. But if you’re stupid enough to have faith in it, why not?”

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