As Rabbi AllenFreehling of University Synagogue in West Los Angeles and a busloadof bishops and rabbis left the Rome airport for their hotel near theVatican, one of the bishops read aloud a document that would soonspark a firestorm of controversy around the world: the Vatican’sMarch 16 statement on the Holocaust, released just hours before. Thegroup had just flown in from Israel, where they had spent a weekworshiping together, learning about each other’s histories, andbeginning to understand, as only true friends can, what the otherbelieves.
It is in this context that the contingent — aninterfaith pilgrimage of 16 rabbis and bishops from across the UnitedStates — heard “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” a documentof repentance that much of the Jewish community has repudiated asweak at best, a historical cover-up at worst.
“We were able to address the document in a fairlyhonest and respectful way because of the bonds that had developed,”says Stephen Blaire, auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of LosAngeles.
The group met with the document’s authors, who”responded very openly,” says Freehling. “This was not apoint-counterpoint meeting, but one in which there was truly anexploration of ideas, and I think the authors were as interested inour reaction as we were in some of the explanations as to why thingstook the form they did.”
No new information came out of the meeting, saysFreehling, and the tenor remained diplomatic: “Don’t forget where wewere sitting.”
On the last day of the pilgrimage, the Americansattended the pope’s general audience, and, later, Pope John Paul IIrequested to personally greet the group.
The pope’s interest in the interfaith journeyisn’t surprising, given his record of pro-Jewish activity.
Even the document’s harshest critics are quick topoint out that Pope John Paul II has been, by far, the most favorablefor Jews in the papacy’s history.
“We’re at a time in the relationship between theworld Jewish community and the Vatican under Pope John Paul II whenunprecedented milestones have been achieved,” says the SimonWiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, who calls the document “mostunfortunate.” He points out that the pope is the first to visit aconcentration camp, to visit a synagogue and, quite significantly, tocome to terms with the State of Israel.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who called thedocument a show of “moral cowardice,” says that the pope’s record”just compounds my disappointment at the timidity of thestatement.”
He says that if the document is meant as arepentance, as the Vatican has said, it has failed. “They talk aboutteshuvah[repentance], but teshuvah requires confessing all sins and repentingfor them, not bobbing and weaving politically and theologically sothat you come out looking cleaner than, in fact, you were andare.”
Jewish expectations were much higher, especiallysince the document took 11 years to produce, says Elaine Albert,director of Israel and world Jewry affairs for the Jewish CommunityRelations Council.
“We’re very sad, after all these years of workingon this document, that these 14 pages actually do less and say lessand assume less responsibility than the current pope has done in lessformal documents and speeches.”
Rabbi Hier points out that the document praisesPope Pius XII for his actions in rescuing Jews in 1944 — when mostof Europe’s Jews were already dead and it was clear the Nazis wouldlose the war.
“The critical question is why, when it could havemade a difference in 1939 through 1942, did Pius XII sit on thethrone of St. Peter in stony silence,” Rabbi Hier asks.
But Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, Western regionaldirector of the American Jewish Committee, also a critic of thedocument, says that the treatment of Pius XII has to be understood”in terms of the infallibility of the pope. For one pope to condemnanother pope is unheard of. That doesn’t excuse it, but it explainsit.”
Greenebaum is also troubled by the distinctiondrawn “between Christian hatred of Jews, which the document termsanti-Judaism, and Nazi hatred of Jews, which it terms anti-Semitism.It wants to see the two as unrelated.”
But, Greenebaum says, “virtually every person whohelped manufacture the Final Solution was a baptizedChristian.”
Freehling argues that the document must beunderstood in the context in which it was produced — not as anapology to Jews but as a teaching tool for Catholics around the worldwho know little or nothing about the Holocaust.
“When you think about the route the documenttraveled in the Vatican before it ever saw the light of day,” hesays, “I think it’s very understandable why it came out in the formit did.”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom saysthat this is a classic example of what Abba Eban calls the Jews’inability to “take yes for an answer.”
“In terms of moral statesmanship, this should begreeted with a tremendous amount of satisfaction,” Schulweis says. Torebuff it, he warned, might “discourage the church in its right pathtoward deeper commitment to its own agonizing reappraisal of itspast.”
On the last day of the interfaith pilgrimage,Pope John Paul II requested to personally greet the American bishopsand rabbis, including Rabbi Allen Freehling, above.
L.A. 5758 Briefs
Shabbat, Up Close andPersonal
Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks has found away to bring Shabbat home — literally. Through the Reformcongregation’s Shabbat Bayit program (“Shabbat House”), 30 membersled Friday night services in private homes last month for 195families.
“It brings things down to an up-close-and-personallevel,” said Joan Davidson, a Spanish teacher who conducted KabbalatShabbat services and led a discussion on prayer in the host family’sliving room. Dessert and schmoozing, of course, followed the informalservices.
Davidson said it was a good chance to get to knowher neighbors, and what she enjoyed most was “seeing the childrenparticipate.”
For information on setting up this program in yoursynagogue, contact Dori Greenbaum at Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E.Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101.
Synagogue Programming That Works
The results are in: Investing time, money andpersonnel into synagogue programming renews members’ commitment andpassion and strengthens the institution.
Those are the conclusions of a Brandies Universitystudy of the Koret Synagogue Initiative, a four-year, $657,000program of the Koret Foundation, a charitable trust in SanFrancisco.
The initiative hired program directors andprovided resources for new educational, social, religious andcultural programming to four Bay Area synagogues. Membership went up,and 18,000 people participated in offerings such as meditationclasses, preschooler/parent programs and social actionprojects.
The report concludes that the Koret model”demonstrates that synagogues can play a critical role inrevitalizing Jewish life in America.”
Meanwhile, the Koret Synagogue Initiative has beenextended another three years, and the foundation hopes its projectwill encourage other federations and foundations across
the countryto support local synagogue programming.
For the complete report or more information,contact the Koret Foundation, 33 New Montgomery Street, Suite 1090,San Francisco, CA 94105; (415) 882-7740. —Julie Gruenbaum Fax