Divinity School Student Sponsors $100,000 Essay Contest

When some Harvard students heard about Mel Gibson’s most recent film, they joined the growing controversy surrounding it with heated words in House dining halls or over open e-mail lists. But Gibson’s contentious The Passion of the Christ has inspired Elizabeth A. Goldhirsh, a 25 year-old student at the Divinity School, to put her money where the mouths were, offering $100,000 of her own trust fund as prize money in a new theological essay contest.

Goldhirsh says she decided to start the contest this past spring to bridge religious gaps, funding it with money she inherited from her father, who died last summer from a brain tumor.

“I saw what was happening in the weeks leading up to the release of The Passion of the Christ,” Goldhirsh says. “There were a lot of points of common ground between Judaism and Christianity that I thought people were really ignoring.”

The contest, which seeks essays on topics relating to the parallels between the two religions, offers questions in three general areas—faith and Bible, history, and current events. Goldhirsh founded the contest in conjuction with her new initiative, Reaching Common Ground.

Her father, Bernard Goldhirsh, made his fortune after founding Inc. magazine, which he sold for an estimated $200 million in 2000.

Goldhirsh’s mother also died of cancer five years ago. She says that she has derived much of her inspiration for Reaching Common Ground from the memory of her parents.

“I felt that one of the main lessons that I learned from my father was to follow your passion and one of the main things that I learned from my mother was that in the end love is all that matters,” Goldhirsh says. “I thought that they would have really wanted me to do something in response to all of the debate over The Passion.”

Goldhirsh also says that the death of both of her parents at a relatively young age made her realize the immediacy in ending religious conflict.

“You really see how short life is,” Goldhirsh says. “My mom died when she was 51 and I am 25, so you don’t know much time you have and it is important to bring people together.”

Goldhirsh, who is Jewish, says that while she is not highly observant, she does identify closely with the cultural aspects of the religion.

“In my mind knowing about the heritage is just as important as the religion,” Goldhirsh says.

The contest is open to students of all religious backgrounds who are 16 to 22 year of age and legal residents of the United States. The grand prize winner will receive $25,000 in cash prize.

Goldhirsh founded Reaching Common Ground in partnership with The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS), a non-profit organization that focuses on increasing interfaith understanding.

The essays will be judged by experts from the ICJS on their ability to accurately represent multiple points of view, range and depth of knowledge, creativity and literary merit.

The contest, which opened on April 16—just after Easter and Passover—will conclude on July 30 when final submissions are due.

Of the 27 total winners, 12 will be selected as ICJS fellows and will attend a two-day seminar next year.

According to Goldhirsh the response to the contest so far has been excellent.

“We have had a great response,” Goldhirsh says. “I think we have had over 500 essays submitted, and we have had a lot of media attention.”

Goldhirsh says that she hopes to make the contest an annual event, and hopefully expand it to include other religions in the essay topics.

She says that she is currently studying Arabic at Harvard Summer School and hopes to incorporate Islam into the contest next year.

“I know a lot more about Christianity and Judaism than I do about Islam so it will be a learning experience,” Goldhirsh says. “It is definitely going to be a challenge, but it is something I am really excited about.”

Goldhirsh also says that she hopes to expand the scope of Reaching Common Ground as an organization and possibly pursue projects in the Middle East.

“There are so many ways to find common ground even when it seems like there are so many differences,” Goldhirsh says.

—Staff writer Evan M. Vittor can be reached at evittor@fas.harvard.edu.