The Catholic Method


Just before the latest wave of religious fanaticism crashed against civilization, I was in Mexico City, talking about the last wave.

Not so long ago — in the long span of human history — the Catholic Church terrorized the Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Hindus and many other indigenous peoples in the lands under its control. The Inquisition, which lasted from the 11th to the 19th centuries, brought about the execution, torture and exile of countless innocents.

You can see a great movie about sexual abuse and the Church — “Spotlight” — but, so far, there hasn’t been a single decent movie about the Inquisition. So a long historical injustice that continues to influence our world lives on in the popular imagination as a really funny scene in a Monty Python comedy.

The Inquisition was initiated to weed out heretics, or what ISIS would call taqfir. It was preceded by the Crusades, which also killed thousands of Jews, and was followed by years of vicious anti-Semitism, including, in many instances, collusion with the Nazi regime.

Then the Church reversed course.

On Oct. 28, 1965, as part of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI issued Nostra Aetate, which rejected the charge of deicide and the accusation that Jews are “eternally cursed” by God for the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. In 624 words, the Church transformed itself. Nostra Aetate rejected all “hatred, persecutions, displays of ant-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Nostra Aetate is the Gettysburg Address of religious liberation. It freed Jews from centuries of murderous prejudice, and it freed Catholics from carrying the burden of hate and perpetrating evil. It called on Catholics to engage with Jews in dialogue and mutual understanding, and, to a large extent, (the upside of a patriarchal, hierarchal religion) that’s what has happened.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) organized an early November mission to Mexico City, site of the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas and the demographic Ground Zero of Catholicism in the Americas. The mission also celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, and dozens of Jews from across Latin America joined their counterparts from the United States.

I went because I belong to the first generation that can take Nostra Aetate for granted. I’d read about Jewish kids having to fight a gantlet of Catholics on the way to school and thought it almost incomprehensible — my first childhood friend, David Pietrasanta, was a Church-going Catholic. But those ancient hatreds were ordered to change on a dime, and the dime dropped just after I was born. 

“The Second Vatican Council,” said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Archbishop of Mexico City, “was one of the most important events of the 20th century.”

Rivera, Mexico’s highest-ranking prelate, spoke seated in front of the gold altar at the Metropolitan Cathedral, where the group gathered for a formal ceremony. He said Pope Francis would be very happy to see Jews and Catholics gathered together in Mexico’s central cathedral.

The Church officials kept emphasizing that Nostra Aetate offered a way for “enemies” to reconcile. The Jewish speakers, meanwhile, saw the landmark declaration as the Church finally coming to terms with its anti-Semitic teachings.

Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, sat at the altar beside the cardinal and AJC Executive Director David Harris. “What we are celebrating is true teshuvah,” Rosen said, using the Hebrew word for “repentance,” though its root meaning is “return.” “The Church is returning to its origins.”

After the speeches, the assembly filed out onto a large tented patio, where the cardinal hosted a reception — soft drinks and tuna tartare. The next evening, the AJC, which functions as a kind of unelected but entirely reliable representative of the Jewish people, hosted a formal dinner with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. There were many toasts to friendship and prosperity, with the president making sure to praise — twice — the Jewish community’s pro-immigration stance.

I leaned over to a new friend, a successful Mexican-Jewish manufacturer, and noted how warm our reception in Mexico had been.

“The people were never anti-Semitic,” he said. “The Church was.”

It’s the nature of fundamentalism, I suppose, to populate imaginary worlds with real enemies. The cardinal said Nostra Aetate concluded centuries of animosity. I couldn’t help wondering if he realized the hate was always one-sided. 

That night, back in my hotel, I Googled, “Inquisition Mexico.” Sure enough, it tore through the country, destroying thousands of lives in its wake. The Inquisitor’s court operated from 1571 to 1820, just blocks from where the cardinal received us. Its most tragic victims were the family of Luis de Carabajal y Cueva, founder of the town of Nueva Leon. A convert to Christianity, Luis was accused of secretly practicing Judaism. On Dec. 8, 1596, his wife, Francisca, their four children and four young relatives were tortured and burned at the stake on the main square in Mexico City. 

Nostra Aetate put an end to a history that had long since been erased. “Star Wars” fans know more details about their pretend world than we do about the lost world of Spanish and Latin American Jewry. 

But, hey, look at the bright side. Things can change. Extremism can ebb. And in those places where, even now, a different religion has released a new scourge, its leaders could take a page from the Church and declare an end to a war none of us has chosen to fight.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

‘No justification whatsoever’ for homelessness, Pope Francis says in Washington


Pope Francis met for lunch with 200 people who are homeless or living in poverty in Washington on Thursday and told them there was no social or moral justification for homelessness.

Francis, after delivering a speech to the Congress in which he urged lawmakers to do more to help society's most vulnerable people, visited a Catholic Charities center that provides food, medical services and help in job hunting.

“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” the pope told charity workers, donors and recipients in the capital of the world's richest country.

Francis has made advocacy for the poor a center point of his tenure, born out of his time spent in slums and soup kitchens as a church leader in Argentina before becoming pope in 2013, the first from Latin America.

As the first pope to speak before the U.S. Congress, he told lawmakers to “keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope.”

Some of the people the pope met at the Catholic Charities center said they hoped his words would prompt Congress and other elected officials to do more to meet the needs of the poor.

“You never hear them speak about homelessness or how the job market has been. You hear the job market is bad, but you don't hear them say, 'What can we do to help?'” said Angela Ford, 45, who several years ago lost her job in the auto industry and lives in housing provided by the church.

“With all the negative political messages, it's great to have someone positive here.”

The National Alliance to End Homelessness group said in a policy paper in April on homeless trends in 2013/14 that 578,424 people in the United States were sleeping outside, in an emergency shelter or temporary housing on a night in January 2014. It said that while the economy was recovering from the Great Recession in that period, overall homelessness decreased by 2.3 percent.

Eric Dyer, 50, who said he has faced bouts of homelessness since 1988 and is currently homeless, said he hoped the pope's call would help put pressure on Congress to do more to help the destitute.

“I think that they are so busy up there a lot of times that when they do get a chance to think about our situation, it just gets pushed under the table like bread crumbs,” Dyer said as he waited to meet the pope. “There should be a system in place that doesn't allow them to do that.”

The visit was likely intended to underline his remarks to Congress, said Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university.

“The wonderful thing about this pope is he does it in words, but even more powerfully, he does it in gestures,” Jenkins said.

The pope blessed a meal of boneless teriyaki chicken breast and pasta salad for the group before mingling with the crowd, shaking hands and pausing for photos as admirers shouted in Spanish “Papa! Papa!” He recalled the biblical story of Jesus' birth, which starts with his parents being unable to find a place to stay in Bethlehem.

“The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person,” Francis said. “The son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.”

Christians and Jews, united in conversation and shared values


There exists a deep relationship between Judaism and Christianity rooted both in a shared history and religious values. History shows us that Jews and Christians once knew one another very well, recognizing that in some way we were brothers, like Jacob and Esau. In fact, in the Middle Ages, Jews used to call Catholics and Christians “Esaus” — brothers that had to overcome jealousy and heat, but at the end, both of them recognized their fraternity. 

Pope Francis and I became friends in the mid-1990s, after spending time together at official state ceremonies in Argentina. A humble man, with deep understanding and reverence for prayer and the power of God, the future pope and I were able to connect on a spiritual journey together, discussing interfaith issues and doing so without apology or hiding ourselves. Of course, there also was time to debate whose soccer team was the better club. Over the years, we delved deeper into our interfaith discussions, recognizing the important lessons that both religions hold dear — including the so-called Golden Rule. 

Leviticus 19:34 teaches, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” We should honor this message by welcoming all to discuss their faiths, to engage in open dialogue so that we are no longer strangers but rather neighbors. While the pope and I have had our differences of opinion on certain issues, it was clear that these discussions were not only enlightening but a way to publicly present, at first to Argentine society and now to the world, a way of holding open , honest interfaith dialogue.

Today, both Pope Francis and I believe that we must work to revitalize the type of conversations between our faiths that existed from the beginning of the first century and into the second century. By speaking openly about our faiths, and yes, even delving into and focusing on theological issues, we can better understand not only our differences but our similarities in how we interpret Christian Scripture and Jewish texts. Only by coming to the table with open minds can we truly understand the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism that goes back 2,000 years, to understand who the other is and the significance each faith holds for the other. 

This same goal brings me the United States this month as I travel to Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Southern California to join my colleagues from the Church in open dialogue about religion and politics. Our religious views have great influence over our political beliefs and religious leaders can have a particularly strong impact on their communities’ views. In better understanding each other’s religions, we can better understand each other’s political beliefs. 

In politics, as in religion, it is important to understand the views of those with whom you disagree to better understand how we all fit together. I do not understand the resistance to interfaith dialogue by some, or dialogue across the political aisle by too many. Individuals who are steadfast in their beliefs should have nothing to fear in exploring why they believe what they believe. 

As I travel around the U.S., I do so not as a representative of the Jewish people as a whole, but as a rabbi hoping to engage in meaningful dialogue with all communities, which is why Masorti Olami, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, is holding open community events throughout the country. I hope that these conversations will inspire others to do the same. 

While in California, I will have the opportunity to speak with Archbishop José Horacio Gomez, the fifth Archbishop of Los Angeles, and with Bishop Kevin Vann at events at Loyola Marymount University and the Christ Cathedral, respectively. We plan to discuss the Latino world’s impact on both religion and politics, with discourse about the intersection of these two worlds and how religious leadership can influence policy. I hope these conversations can provide some fresh perspective to those who join us and encourage them to also discuss, analyze and study the issues from all viewpoints. Everyone is welcome.

At a time of increasing strife and violent extremism, it is even more important for us to engage in open interfaith dialogue and move to better understand one another and our intertwined history and morality. In this new year, let us resolve to work together to bridge the aisle, to begin to speak as brothers and truly learn about one another. Let us remember Jacob and Esau, their meaningful embracement and the rich history that connects us all.


Rabbi Abraham Skorka is currently the rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer, which trains Masorti/Conservative rabbis, cantors and educators in the Latin American Jewish community. The rabbi and Pope Francis co-authored “On Heaven and Earth,” a book on interfaith dialogue. He will be in Southern California for various Masorti Olami-sponsored events Jan. 22-25. For more information, visit masortiolami.org and follow the rabbi on Twitter at @RabbiSkorka.

Rabbi Juan Mejia: From Catholicism to Judaism


Recently, Temple Ner Tamid in Downey hosted Juan Mejia, a rabbi who has been profiled in the New York Daily News and Israel’s Haaretz; the Jewish Daily Forward called him one of “America’s most inspirational rabbis.” 

At 36, Mejia comes across a bit like a young Jewish Santa Claus, with his jolly laugh, ample girth, scraggly beard, dancing eyes … and a kippah. He speaks and thinks quickly, moving between English and Spanish with no effort or accent, peppering his comments with Hebrew and Yiddish. His animated gestures — ardent nods, arms waving, hands clasped — are typically Jewish.

But this notable rabbi has an unusual personal narrative: Mejia is a convert who became an observant Jew and ordained rabbi.

At an informal patio gathering, Temple Ner Tamid’s rabbi, Argentine-born Daniel Mehlman, introduced Mejia (Meh-HEE-ah) to a group that, like Mejia, straddles two worlds, including both an aging congregation of Jews and local Latinos who have converted to Judaism or are in the process of doing so. 

Mejia told his story of growing up in a middle-class Catholic home in Bogota, Colombia — his father a physician, his mother an artist — and of his education at a school run by Benedictine monks.

At a Christmas family gathering when Mejia was 15, his tipsy uncle told jokes about racial and ethnic stereotypes. It was all fun and games … until the uncle mocked Jews. That’s when Mejia’s grandfather became very upset.

Mejia didn’t understand the reaction; he pressed his grandfather, who finally admitted: “My grandfather was Jewish.” The old man recalled how, when he was a child, he saw his grandfather and other family members put “towels” over their heads and pray. 

“No one had ever told me we had Jewish roots,” Mejia said. “That discovery — coupled with the fact that I really didn’t believe in most of the things I was supposed to believe in — made me realize I wasn’t really Catholic.”

After Mejia graduated from the Benedictine school, his mother passed away. “That sent me into a religious and emotional crisis,” he said.

Mejia postponed college for a year, grabbed a backpack and set out to see the world. Call it fate or premonition, the first place he stayed for any length of time — three months — was Israel.

“In Colombia, I never had Jewish friends,” Mejia said, “so being in Israel, being among Jews for the first time, made a deep impact. I fell in love with the country — the food, the landscape, the language; did I mention the food?” He laughed, patting his stomach. “I used to be thin … then I became Jewish.” 

But when Mejia visited the kotel — the Western Wall instead of having a life-changing mystical experience, he had “a mystical hangover.”

“For 300 years, my family had kept up Jewish traditions,” Mejia said, “but in the last few generations, they’d dropped the ball. I felt there was a big hole in my soul because I should have been Jewish but wasn’t. It was very upsetting.” 

From Israel, Mejia traveled to Europe, and, “It was Jews, everywhere Jews.” In Spain, he happened upon places where synagogues had been. He got on the wrong train in Munich and ended up in the town of Dachau. In Antwerp, Belgium, he took shelter from the rain, and a Chasid opened a door and said, “Are you Jewish? You look Jewish, and we need a 10th man for Mincha.

“All these things started to pile up,” Mejia said, “so I made a promise to myself: I’m going to investigate this Jewish thing, and if I still feel this hole inside me, I’m going to convert.” Then, he added, “Now, listen: Never, ever make a bet with God! She has a strange sense of humor.”

Mejia returned to Bogota and went to college, majoring in philosophy. He hunted down everything available about Judaism and “devoured” it. He tried to go to shul but learned that many Latin American synagogues, partly for security reasons, don’t welcome non-Jews, so he studied Judaism on his own. Determined to continue his Jewish studies, he applied for, and received, a scholarship to do graduate work at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

There, Mejia felt surrounded by a “smorgasbord” of Judaism. “Every kind of yeshiva, classes about everything — kabbalah, history, Talmud,” Mejia said. “The more I learned, the more it confirmed my desire to learn more.”

Mejia finished his conversion and enrolled in a yeshiva, where he met “another nerd, a beautiful girl from Florida.” Eight months later, Mejia and Abby Jacobson married and moved into a small Jerusalem apartment. 

Mejia’s landlady, an American, became interested in his unusual story and interviewed him for a Jewish Agency publication. The article appeared online in several languages, including Spanish. 

As a result, Mejia received pleas from Latin Americans who, like him, had grown up Catholic and wanted to be Jewish. Mejia wrote them that he was “simply a yeshiva student” and wasn’t qualified to help them. That’s when Jacobson — whom Mejia calls “the smartest rabbi I know” — paraphrased Hillel: Where there are no teachers, you be the teacher.

Following their shared passion, Mejia and Jacobson both applied to rabbinical school. “I figured they weren’t going to take me,” Mejia said. “I’m too new at Judaism, still dripping wet from the mikveh.” But Mejia was accepted. He and Jacobson spent the next five years at the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. 

While studying to be a rabbi, Mejia created a Web-based Sephardic siddur, in Spanish, for beginners. “It took me three years to complete,” he said. “You can find it online at koltuvsefarad.com and it’s free. Just the basics, how to daven, how Jewish prayers work.” Since then, he’s created more texts for Spanish speakers new to Judaism, and he also teaches Mishnah and Talmud online.

After their ordination, Jacobson became a congregational rabbi at a shul in Oklahoma City, where the couple has lived for most of the last decade: Mejia said he’s the “rebbetzin” and spends some of his day taking care of the couple’s two young daughters. He’s also Southwestern coordinator for Be’Chol Lashon, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase Jewish diversity.

He and Mehlman have worked with “emergent” Jewish groups in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and other countries, in places where there’s no Jewish community, or where a nearby shul doesn’t welcome converts, he said. Mejia and Mehlman have converted hundreds and established kehillot — entire Jewish communities — and they remain cyber-connected to these kehillot, sometimes visiting them as well.

Mejia acknowledged that establishing Jewish communities is difficult work. He and Mehlman have run into barriers with both Jews and non-Jews, butting heads with rabbis at established shuls or with Catholic families who are upset when a loved one converts to Judaism.

In Mejia’s own case, he received acceptance from his own family for the choices he’s made. “When I converted, my father took it very well,” Mejia said. “He’s an old hippie: ‘Judaism, Shmudaism, we’re all children of the light.’ ”

In the evening, often late into the night, Mejia becomes, as Jacobson had once suggested to him, a teacher for those who have no teacher — via the Internet. 

“You can’t ignore the Internet,” Mejia said. “It’s where millennials are living their Judaism, it’s the main force behind Judaism in Latin America. Every emergent community in Latin America started in an Internet forum. That’s what’s providing the content and the community.”

Mejia said that when he and Mehlman carry out conversions, they remain in contact afterward. “If these kehillot aren’t nurtured,” Mejia said, “there aren’t going to be any Jews there after a decade, and that would be a sad thing.” 

His aim, Mejia said, is to work with people who sincerely want to be Jews and live a Jewish life, whether they have Jewish roots or not. “I don’t check anybody’s pedigree,” he said. “What I’m looking for, as a rabbi, is for these communities to look forward, to look to the future. 

“I don’t care who your grandparents were,” Mejia said, summing up his attitude and his mission. “I care what your grandkids are going to be.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Religious liberty’s under threat — on both sides of the pond


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was praised by a Catholic cardinal and then blessed by a Mormon apostle.

The former British chief rabbi was being honored by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based public interest law firm that’s been busy representing clients — such as Hobby Lobby — who say their religious freedoms are being trampled by the government.

[Related: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spends a weekend in L.A.]

The crowd gathered last week at Manhattan’s Pierre hotel may not have shared a dogma — one could spot yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, clerical collars and nuns’ habits in the room — but they did have a common concern. And Sacks made clear that he shared that concern.

“Today, I’m sad to say that that liberty is at risk throughout Europe,” he said in his keynote speech, during which he accepted the Becket Fund’s Canterbury Medal.

Sacks explained:

In Britain, we have seen a worker banned from wearing a small crucifix at work. A nurse was censured for offering to utter a prayer on behalf of one of her patients. The Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close because they were unwilling to place children for adoption to same-sex parents. And as far as Judaism is concerned, religious liberty has been under very serious threat indeed. We have seen shechitah — the Jewish way of killing animals — banned in Denmark. We have seen circumcision banned by a court in Germany. These are liberties Jews have enjoyed throughout Europe for centuries. And this is for me the empirical proof that this deeply secularizing Europe, that the secular societies in Europe are much less tolerant than the religions that they accuse of intolerance.

Sacks noted that the threat from what he called “political correctness” also extended to America.

“Look at what has happened in this country to people merely because they oppose same-sex marriage, or they gave a donation to a body that opposed same -sex marriage,” he said, an apparent reference to the controversy that last month forced the resignation of the newly appointed chief of the Internet company Mozilla.

Sacks recently finished his tenure as chief rabbi and moved across the pond to teach at NYU and Yeshiva University. In Britain, Sacks had used his pulpit and erudition to establish himself as one of the country’s leading public intellectuals, a widely respected voice on issues related to religion and society.

From his reception at the Becket Fund, it was clear that he had garnered some admirers on these shores as well. In his brief speech, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan praised Sacks: “I don’t know of a man who understands the theology of Pope Benedict XVI more than you do.”

Later, Sacks was blessed by D. Todd Christofferson, an member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who praised the rabbi’s work as he offered the event’s closing prayer.

Netanyahu-pope meeting at Vatican explores Middle East, papal trip to Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis in their first face-to-face meeting talked about the Middle East and plans for a papal trip to Israel, among other issues.

Also at Monday’s closed-door, 25-minute audience at the Vatican, Netanyahu presented the pope with a book about the Spanish Inquisition written by his father, the late historian Benzion Netanyahu.  The dedication read, ”To the great pastor and guardian of our common heritage.”

The Vatican said in a statement that the talks focused on the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, expressing hope that a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible.”

During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated the invitation to the pope to visit Israel that was extended earlier by Israeli leaders. Media have reported that the pope may make the trip in late May, but Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said no date for such a visit had been set.

Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who also attended the audience, reportedly told the pope, “We are expecting you, we can’t wait.”

The Vatican statement said that “aside from indicating the Holy Father’s plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” the pope and Netanyahu considered “various questions” regarding the status of Christians in Israel.

It said they also discussed lingering financial and other questions that have stalled full implementation of a formal bilateral agreement between Israel and the Holy See “in the hope that the Agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith.”

Following the meeting, Netanyahu held bilateral talks with his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta.

Netanyahu on Sunday night lit Hanukkah candles at Rome’s main synagogue, where he reiterated warnings about the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu kindled the menorah with Letta.

Speaking at the ceremony, the Israeli leader repeated his warnings that the recent deal on Iran’s nuclear program was a “historic error.”

Letta said he “knew Israel’s positions, doubts and fears.” He said the current economic and social crisis fed “extremism, hate and intolerance,” and he pledged to resist the “racism, intolerance and xenophobia” that were growing in Italy “in a worrying manner.”

Federation project helps educators teach about Israel


For the past 10 years, the Holy Land Democracy Project, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, has been taking educators from Catholic, charter and Protestant high schools throughout the Los Angeles region to Israel. While there, teachers and members of the group see, firsthand, what the country is  really like, so they can share the message with their students. “We bring an understanding of Israel to now over 30,000 students across Los Angeles,” said Hal Greenwald, this year’s group’s rabbi. “We’re achieving an understanding [of Israel] and advocacy in pockets of the city that are hard to get to otherwise, which is really valuable.”

When teachers return to Los Angeles, they share with their students what they experienced, via a five-lesson course called “The Many Faces of Israel.” At the end, students participate in a contest that includes poetry, art and essay categories, so the students can express what they’ve learned. 

On Nov. 10, the program’s annual awards ceremony was held at Pico Union Project, an interfaith center that opened this year just west of downtown’s Staples Center. The event honored the winning students as well as their parents and the educators, and all those involved. 

The first-, second- and third-place winners in each category received Israel Bonds. Travis Talcott, a senior at Bishop Montgomery High School, a Catholic school in Torrance, won a $500 bond for his first-place essay. The program, and the essay he wrote, “made me a lot more aware of the issues and problems in Israel and the general life there. It really awakened me. I talked about how everything I knew up to then was mostly wrong,” Talcott said.

Christina Hanna, a junior at Glendale High School, won first place in the poetry contest for a piece about the Jewish struggle. She said she learned in her government class that “Israel originally belonged to the Jewish people. Through many wars and fights, it was taken away from them, and it was finally returned, but people are still angry about it.” 

Poems, essays, drawings, sculptures and paintings by winners and honorable mentions all were on display at the ceremony. First prize for art went to Veronika Gorchkova of La Sierra High School in Riverside for her depiction of a religious Catholic woman, a Muslim woman and an Orthodox Jew. Also on display were sketches of Israeli soldiers and Magen Davids, along with sculptures of the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and a menorah.

The event also featured speeches by Dr. Daniel Lieber, chair and founder of the Holy Land Democracy Project, a blessing by Craig Taubman, leader of Pico Union Project, a musical performance by Stuart K. Robinson, and a speech by Catherine Schneider, the Federation’s senior vice president of community engagement, which oversees the project.   

“It’s a win for the Jewish community because we have the opportunity to build relationships throughout the city of Los Angeles,” Schneider said. “We share some of the things that we love most, especially that Israel is a modern democratic state. It’s a win for these schools because it gives them the opportunity to learn about world governments and multiculturalism. Some of our charter school teachers love giving students access to something totally beyond what they live and see every day.”

Volunteer Dennis Gura said the trips take teachers to educational institutions, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and a kibbutz, where they talk to members about the establishment of the Jewish state. “The Catholic and Evangelical teachers have a different map of the country than we do,” he said. “Devout Christians have a particular map in their head based on the Gospels, and we have a Zionist and biblical map. We compare and overlap. We see serious differences, which we acknowledge, and real commonalities in historical background. That experience is deeply gratifying and greatly enriching.”

The teachers’ backgrounds vary. Some are religious studies teachers from the Catholic and Protestant schools, while public and charter schools send history, government and social studies teachers. John Fitzsimons, a Bishop Montgomery educator who has been participating since 2004, has been to Israel four times. “There’s a lot of misinformation in the media, and even my most educated kids really don’t know anything about Israel,” he said. “As a Catholic school, it’s a big deal for us to have better relations with the Jewish community.”

“I was blown away,” Greenwald said of the submissions. “The students only take a five-lesson course, and they observe so much.”

Francis pledges to further Jewish-Catholic dialogue


Pope Francis reaffirmed his commitment to fighting discrimination and furthering Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

During an audience at the Vatican Thursday with a 60-member delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Francis said that he has “repeated many times, in recent weeks, the church’s condemnation of any form of anti-Semitism.”

Such condemnations were just part of the solution, he said, noting that Christians remain persecuted in some regions.

“I would like to underline that the problem of intolerance must be faced in its entirety,” he said, according to an official English text of his address released by the Vatican. “When any minority is persecuted and marginalized on account of its religious beliefs or ethnic origin, the good of society as a whole is placed in danger, and we must all consider ourselves affected.”

The church has raised particular alarm about discrimination and violence against Christians in some Arab countries.

“Let us unite our strengths to promote a culture of encounter, of mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness,” Francis said, stressing that education was key in transmitting experience, and not merely knowledge, to the younger generation.

“We must be able to transmit to them not only knowledge about Jewish-Catholic dialogue, about the difficulties overcome and the progress made in recent decades,” Francis said. “We must, above all, be able to transmit to them our passion for encounter and knowledge of the other, promoting the active and responsible involvement of young people.”

During the audience, Wiesenthal Center Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier called the pope “an ally in our struggles against anti-Semitism.”

“We want to reiterate to you that you have an ally in the Simon Wiesenthal Center in your struggle to secure the rights of religious minorities everywhere, especially endangered historic Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and beyond,” Hier said.

Hier said the he hoped that Francis’s expected visit to Israel next year would “help all those committed to a lasting Middle East peace, to finally recognize the existence of a Jewish state alongside her twenty-three Arab neighbors.”

The pope has said he would like to visit the Holy Land next year but no date has yet been announced.

Conversion: Erica Hooper


Falling in love with a Jewish man was Erica Hooper’s introduction to Judaism, but the religion’s ideals were ultimately what made her want to embrace it for life. 

Hooper, 30, grew up in East Los Angeles in a Catholic home. She attended Catholic school and considered herself religious — that is, until she went to college.

“There was this disconnect between things I learned in high school and the questions I asked as I got older,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was getting answers to certain things, and it made me feel disconnected from the religion.”

In 2007, she met and started dating Robert Mahgerefteh, 31, an Iranian-American Jew. Four years into their courtship, they got engaged and started to talk about the future. Although Hooper hadn’t considered conversion before, she and her fiancé were beginning to think about what their family dynamic would look like.

“That was really the first time we even started talking about conversion,” the Long Beach resident said. “I decided to give it a try and see what we thought. I ended up loving it, so it worked out.”

After researching various options, Hooper decided to enroll in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program, which is recognized under the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements. When she stepped into that initial class one Sunday morning in the winter of 2012, she felt at home. 

“I liked what Neal said, which was that you’re not converting someone to something that you want him or her to believe,” she said. “You can talk about it, but it’s more about whether or not it resonates with a person when he or she hears it.” 

Hooper began to discover through the lessons that her beliefs were aligned with those found in Judaism.

“I remember saying that I wanted my funeral to be very simple,” she said. “I wanted to be wrapped in white cloth and buried in the ground. My family said I was crazy. Catholics have a fancy casket and get embalmed. I was sitting in that class and the rabbi started talking about the way Jews think about the approach to death and how you don’t put the body on display. I got chills because that was exactly the kind of stuff I was talking about before.”

At that point, she knew she had made the right decision to take the class. 

“I said, ‘Yes, I’m supposed to be here,’ ” she said. 

The more she learned, the more Hooper realized her beliefs were aligned with the ideals behind Judaism. She especially enjoyed learning about tikkun olam (repairing the world), since she works at S. Groner Associates, a social and environmental marketing company that helps foster positive environmental change. 

“The focus [in Judaism] is what are you are doing now in the present moment to be a better person,” she said. “It’s about trying to make this a better place for the people around you.”

Although she began to feel more a part of the Jewish religion, there were some who were not very accepting, she said.

“I would tell some Jews that I was converting, and they’d ask why. The religion I came from before was about trying to actively get people to join them. It was come one, come all. I liked that very welcoming spirit to it. Going to Judaism by Choice was very welcoming, but as a whole it felt more like I had to work my way into becoming Jewish. Some people said that if I convert,  I’m not really Jewish.”

Fortunately, Mahgerefteh’s family was accepting, as was her own. 

“They said they trusted that I was going to do what was best for me,” she said.

In November 2012, Hooper made it official. She converted at the mikveh at American Jewish University, and then married Mahgerefteh in February. Both partners have taken an active role in their religion by partaking in fast days, joining Leo Baeck Temple and keeping a kosher home. Hooper said that celebrating Shabbat every week has added another layer to the couple’s relationship.

“When we do Shabbat on Fridays, we bless each other,” she said. “The rabbi told us the traditions that he and his wife do. They tell each other one of the things they appreciate about each other. That’s what we do. Even if we get into a spat beforehand, it’s Shabbat and it’s time to bless and tell each other what’s great about one another. You follow the rituals, and they bring you closer.”

Whenever Hooper participates in the holidays or goes through Jewish rituals, she knows that she is a small part of a bigger history, people and tradition. 

“It goes back through generations all the way from Moses to the slaves in Egypt,” she said. “I am now one little thread in the huge fabric that’s Judaism. It feels special to be connected to something bigger than yourself.”

Venezuelan president: My grandparents were Jewish


Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro, denying that his government has an anti-Semitic bent, said his grandparents were of Sephardic Jewish descent.

“My grandparents were Jewish, so many of the Maduros, same as the Moors [Muslims], converted to Catholicism in Venezuela,” Maduro told Apporea, a pro-government media outlet, last week. “The mother of the Minister of Communication and Information Ernesto Villegas is of the same tradition.”

During the interview, Maduro rejected allegations he attributed to Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, that his government was anti-Semitic.

“I deeply lament the declarations of Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, who I know and have met with in Venezuela many times, saying that there is anti-Semitism in Venezuela and accusing Chavez and me … if he wants he can accuse me, but he should leave Chavez alone.”

Jews have been leaving Venezuela since Chavez came to power due to a combination of the dramatic rise in violent crime, economic instability and a series of police raids and attacks on Jewish institutions. The Jewish community now numbers about 9,000 people, down from 22,000 in 1999.

Government-sponsored media have frequently used anti-Semitic rhetoric against opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, a devout Catholic whose grandparents were Jewish.

During the interview, Maduro condemned the Israeli air strikes against Syria last week and its “aggression” against Iran, but he said he differentiated between Israel and the Jewish people.

“We reject the campaign [against us],” said Maduro. “We are a humanitarian people. We are not anti-Semites.”

Food, inspired by Israel


Sandy Leon, 42, grew up Catholic, but she never connected with the religion. Three years ago, she took a trip to Israel to see if, perhaps, Judaism was right for her. 

“When I got there, I wanted to embrace everything in Israel, like the food, the culture and the people,” she said. “I went to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall; it was huge for me.”

During the two and a half weeks she spent in Israel, Leon, who works as a hospital chef, took frequent trips to Jerusalem’s Arab shuk (market) in the Old City and shopped for local produce. She immersed herself in the culture, visited King David’s Tomb and explored Tel Aviv. “I traveled before, but Israel was calling to me,” she said. “It was the most beautiful experience. … I loved it.

“As soon as I came back, I knew for sure that I wanted to convert.” 

She took simple steps to start the conversion process. Leon bought a Star of David necklace in Israel and wore it every day thereafter. She also purchased a mezuzah and hung it in front of the door of her Arleta home. 

Leon started her formal conversion process in the summer of 2012. After studying initially at House of David bookstore in Valley Village, she was referred to the Judaism by Choice program, run by Rabbi Neal Weinberg — who formerly ran a conversion program at American Jewish University (AJU) — and his wife, Miri. Following a class about the Holocaust that she dropped in on, Leon realized she had made the right decision. “It was a very moving class,” she said. “I knew this was something that I wanted to do that same day.”

She studied Jewish history, prayers and rituals. She celebrated Shabbat and holidays, shul hopped, and decided to attend Temple Beth Am regularly and live a Conservative Jewish life. Her kitchen was kashered, and she started to learn Hebrew with the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute. “I was converting little by little,” she said.

During the conversion process, Leon also decided to investigate a family rumor that her ancestors were Jewish. “For years I knew, and it was always a question,” she said. “On my mother’s side, my ancestors came from Spain. I always wondered why they went to Mexico, of all places.”

Leon contacted FamilyTree.com, took a DNA test and within three months, found out she has Sephardic Jewish roots. 

Alhough her Catholic family has no intention of converting, Leon said they are very supportive of her choice. “My parents wanted to know more and why I wasn’t spiritually fulfilled as a Catholic. They told me, if you’re happy, we’re happy. They saw the positive in me during my conversion. Now they want to go to my synagogue. It’s great to be so open and not be discriminated or judged at all.”

After speaking with her family about it, and taking classes for seven months at Judaism by Choice, Leon completed her conversion by meeting with the beit din, a group of rabbis, at AJU this past March. Her sponsor was Rabbi Ari Lucas of Temple Beth Am. “I’m still shocked,” she said. “I was extremely nervous, but the rabbis made me feel so comfortable in the process. They were really good to me. Emerging [from the mikveh immersion] was such a beautiful spirit moment. I was relaxed, at ease, and I cried like a baby. The whole experience was amazing.”

To make the transition, Leon has started a home library of Jewish books, eats at kosher restaurants in Pico-Robertson, speaks as much Hebrew as possible, attends synagogue and spends time with the friends she made through the conversion program. She chose the Hebrew name Yanah Danit, which means “He (God) answers” and “God is my judge,” respectively. For fun, she explores the outdoors, sees her family, boxes, and cooks Middle Eastern and Israeli food. One of her favorite activities is reading on Shabbat, because, she said, it allows her to “disconnect from the world completely.”

Throughout her three-year endeavor, Leon was able to come back to family traditions and start new ones of her own. Looking back on her journey, she said that she wouldn’t have done anything differently. “I would not change a thing. My conversion was a memorable experience. I was blessed to have shared my journey with good, positive people around me. I have made longtime friends, and Rabbi Weinberg and his wife, Miri, made me feel like family.”

Leon has taken on a new identity, but she said that she is “proud to be a Latina Jew. It’s a great feeling to be part of two beautiful cultures and celebrate both traditions.”

At last, Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews is dedicated


Krzysztof Sliwinski, a longtime Catholic activist in Jewish-Polish relations, gazed wide-eyed at the swooping interior of this city's Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Nearly two decades in the making, the more than $100 million institution officially opens to the public this week amid a month of high-profile, state-sponsored events marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“It’s incredible, incredible, incredible how things have changed,” Sliwinski told JTA. “I remember commemorations of the ghetto uprising under communism when only a few people showed up. How good it was that we were optimistic.”

Sliwinski organized Jewish cemetery cleanups and other pro-Jewish initiatives under communism, when Jewish practice and culture were suppressed by the regime.

In 1995, then-Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor, appointed him post-Communist Poland’s first official ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora, part of the state’s unprecedented outreach policy.

On Sunday, both Sliwinski, now 73, and Bartoszewski, 91, joined hundreds of local Jews and other VIPs as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, unveiled a mezuzah at the museum’s main entrance.

“This museum is in the heart of what was Jewish Warsaw,” Schudrich told JTA. “It is in the heart of what was the Warsaw Ghetto. Now it will be in the heart of what will be the future of Polish Jewry. It is a bridge from the past to the future.”

Reflecting this symbolism, the mezuzah was made from a brick from a building in Warsaw’s prewar Jewish quarter, the area that the Nazis turned into the notorious ghetto and where the museum now stands.

A huge flattened cube with a shimmering facade — broken by a dramatic gap that symbolizes both the biblical parting of the Red Sea and the rupture caused by the Holocaust — faces the monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising.

“I am one of the few here who witnessed the unveiling of the ghetto monument in 1948,” Bartoszewski told guests following the mezuzah ceremony. “If anyone had told me then that this could be happening now, I would have said they were crazy.”

Designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the striking building with undulating interior walls is in fact still largely empty. The museum will inaugurate its cultural and educational programs on Friday, but its core exhibition — an interactive narration of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life — will not be installed until next year.

“The museum is a part of the history that it tells,” Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, the New York University professor who is overseeing the design of the core exhibition, told JTA. “It speaks to the renewal of Jewish life in Poland, to the enormous Jewish presence in Polish consciousness.”

On the eve of World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, with 3.3 million Jews making up one-tenth of the country’s population. More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust; thousands more survivors left in the wake of postwar pogroms. Still more departed in the 1960s amid anti-Semitic campaigns by the Communist regime.

But with the fall of communism, there has been a revival of Jewish life in Poland and a movement by Jews and non-Jews to reclaim Jewish culture.

“Imagine, the idea for this museum arose in 1996, just a few years after the fall of communism,” Kirshenblatt Gimblett said. “The many efforts of the last two decades to renew Jewish life, to recover the Jewish past, and to foster open debate and dialogue about the most difficult moments in the history of Poland and Polish Jews have created the momentum and support for this initiative.”

The only permanent part of the exhibit installed to date is the dazzling reconstruction of the roof and painted ceiling of an 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine. So stunning that it has been compared to the Sistine Chapel, it features a wealth of brightly painted folk designs combined with Jewish symbolism: lions, griffins, Zodiac signs, birds, flowers, unicorns and much more.

Financed by the Polish state, the city of Warsaw and numerous Jewish and non-Jewish private donors, the development of the museum suffered setbacks and delays over the years due to political and organizational issues as well as funding shortfalls. The very idea of such a museum in Poland, which many Jews regard as a vast Jewish cemetery, was long a hard sell.

Over the past decade, however, Polish-born Jewish philanthropists such as Americans Sigmund Rolat and Tad Taube passionately took up the cause. Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation collaborated to provide the largest private commitment to the core exhibition of the museum, a total of $16 million since 2007.

“The Taube Foundation and the museum share a similar mission: to understand not only how European Jewry died in the Nazi genocide, but how European Jewry lived in Poland and created a prodigious civilization over many centuries,” Taube told JTA. “This knowledge is not a betrayal of Holocaust memory. In fact, we honor Holocaust memory by reclaiming our rich, long and varied existence in Poland.”

Taube and others say they are hopeful the museum and the story it tells can have a long-term impact: on local Jews, local non-Jews, and the Jews from the United States, Israel and elsewhere who are expected to visit.

“The idea of there being an authentic Jewish community in today’s Poland is notoriously met with bewilderment and often sheer disbelief,” said Katka Reszke, the author of “Return of the Jew,” a new book about young Jews in Poland today. “The museum — its staff, its narrative and its programming — must be prepared to confront this skepticism and the often difficult questions coming from foreign Jewish visitors.”     

Swiss diplomat Simon Geissbuehler, a historian who has written several books on Jewish history, called the museum and its mission “an important step forward.”

Still, he added, “We don’t have to have illusions. It will not change everything immediately. There are those who don’t want to recognize this part of their history. But I hope the museum will help.”

Pope at installation gives shout-out to Jews


Pope Francis gave a shout-out to Jews during the open-air Mass that formally installed him as pontiff.

Francis began his homily Tuesday by greeting the Catholic dignitaries and faithful in the huge crowd that crammed St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area. He thanked “representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence.”

Among the crowd were Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni; Riccardo Pacifici, the president of the Rome Jewish community; and more than a dozen other Jewish representatives.

It is said to be the first time that Rome’s chief rabbi has attended a papal inauguration.

Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had invited Di Segni to his inauguration on April 24, 2005, but Di Segni did not attend because it was the first day of Passover.

Benedict also singled out Jews in his welcoming remarks, greeting “with great affection …  you, my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God's irrevocable promises.”

Argentinian Pope Bergoglio a moderate focused on the poor


The first Latin American pope, Argentina's Jorge Bergoglio is a moderate known for his strong negotiating skills as well as a readiness to challenge powerful interests.

He is a modest man from a middle class family who is content to travel by bus.

Described by his biographer as a balancing force, Bergoglio, 76, has monk-like habits, is media shy and deeply concerned about the social inequalities rife in his homeland and elsewhere in Latin America.

“His character is in every way that of a moderate. He is absolutely capable of undertaking the necessary renovation without any leaps into the unknown. He would be a balancing force,” said Francesca Ambrogetti, who co-authored a biography of Bergoglio after carrying out a series of interviews with him over three years.

“He shares the view that the Church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active…. a church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it,” she added.

“His lifestyle is sober and austere. That's the way he lives. He travels on the underground, the bus, when he goes to Rome he flies economy class.”

The former cardinal, the first Jesuit to become pope, was born into a middle-class family of seven, his father a railway worker and his mother a housewife.

He is a solemn man, deeply attached to centuries-old Roman Catholic traditions. Since rejecting a comfortable archbishop's residence, he has lived in a small apartment outside Buenos Aires where he spends his weekends in solitude.

In his rare public appearances, Bergoglio spares no harsh words for politicians and Argentine society, and has had a tricky relationship with President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.

TURBULENT TIMES

Bergoglio became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post from 1973 to 1979.

Bergoglio's vocational success coincided with the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship, during which up to 30,000 suspected leftists were kidnapped and killed — which prompted sharp questions about his role.

The most well-known episode relates to the abduction of two Jesuits whom the military government secretly jailed for their work in poor neighbourhoods.

According to “The Silence,” a book written by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, Bergoglio withdrew his order's protection of the two men after they refused to quit visiting the slums, which ultimately paved the way for their capture.

Verbitsky's book is based on statements by Orlando Yorio, one of the kidnapped Jesuits, before he died of natural causes in 2000. Both of the abducted clergymen survived five months of imprisonment.

“History condemns him. It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the Church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cosy with the military,” Fortunato Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, once said.

Those who defend Bergoglio say there is no proof behind these claims and, on the contrary, they say the priest helped many dissidents escape during the military junta's rule.

But in the Vatican, far removed from the dictatorship's grim legacy, this quiet priest is expected to lead the Church with an iron grip and a strong social conscience.

In 2010, he challenged the Argentine government when it backed a gay marriage bill.

“Let's not be naive. This isn't a simple political fight, it's an attempt to destroy God's plan,” he wrote in a letter days before the bill was approved by Congress.

Additional reporting by Damina Wrocklavsy; Editing by Helen Popper and Giles Elgood

Dershowitz says reported contender for papacy is an anti-Semite


Alan Dershowitz wrote in a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald that one of the leading candidates to replace Pope Benedict XVI is an anti-Semite.

Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and Israel activist, was responding to a list published last week after the resignation of Benedict that identified Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras as a possible successor.

“He has blamed the Jews for the scandal surrounding the sexual misconduct of priests toward young parishioners!” Dershowitz wrote. “He has argued that the Jews got even with the Catholic Church for its anti-Israel positions by arranging for the media — which they, of course, control, he said — to give disproportionate attention to the Vatican sex scandal. He then compared the Jewish-controlled media with Hitler because they are 'protagonists of what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution against the church.' “

In a May 2002 interview with the Italian-Catholic publication 30 Giorni, Maradiaga claimed that Jews influenced the media to exploit the controversy regarding sexual abuse by Catholic priests in order to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

At the time, the Anti-Defamation League expressed public outrage at the cardinal's comments. In a later conversation with Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director, Maradiaga apologized and said he never meant for his remarks to be taken as perpetuating an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about Jewish control of the media and promised never to say it again.

“The Vatican has rightly called anti-Semitism a sin, and yet an unrepentant sinner is on the short list to become the leader of the Catholic Church,” Dershowitz insists in his letter to the editor. “If that were to occur, all of the good work by recent popes in building bridges between the Catholic Church and the Jews would be endangered. This should not be allowed to happen.”

Benedict’s papacy: a period of close Jewish relations with occasional bumps


Pope Benedict XVI’s eight-year reign as head of the world’s 1 billion Catholics sometimes was a bumpy one for the Vatican’s relations with Israel and the wider Jewish community. But it was also a period in which relations where consolidated and fervent pledges made to continue interfaith dialogue and bilateral cooperation.

Both elements were evident in the tributes that flowed from Jewish leaders following the surprise announcement Monday that due to his advanced age and weakening health, Benedict would step down on Feb. 28.

“There were bumps in the road during this papacy,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement. “But he listened to our concerns and tried to address them, which shows how close our two communities have become in the last half century and how much more work we need to do together to help repair a broken world.”

The German-born Benedict, 85, is the first pope to resign since the 15th century. He announced his decision at a meeting of cardinals at the Vatican.

[Related: Pope Benedict XVI to resign, citing frailty]

“In today’s world,” he declared in Latin, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

The pope’s brother told the German news agency DPA that Benedict had been weighing the decision for months. Still, his resignation came as a shock.

“There were moments of divergence, inevitable because of the essential and irreconcilable differences between the two worlds,” said Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. “But there was always a positive will to compare and construct.”

Under Benedict’s leadership, the Vatican “has been a clear voice against racism and anti-Semitism and a clear voice for peace,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement. “Relations between Israel and the Vatican are the best they have ever been, and the positive dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is a testament to his belief in dialogue and cooperation.”

Less than two weeks earlier, in fact, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, had said that after years of fitful negotiations, Israel and the Vatican were “on the verge” of resolving outstanding bilateral issues and finalizing the Fundamental Agreement governing relations between the two states.

Benedict was elected pontiff in April 2005 following the death of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had been a close friend and adviser to the charismatic John Paul II, who had made fostering better relations with the Jews a cornerstone of his nearly 27-year papacy.

“For Jews and Israel, Benedict’s papacy has meant a consolidation and confirmation of the developments and achievements during John Paul II’s papacy,” Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, told JTA.

Benedict’s own personal history also helped shape this commitment. Born in Bavaria, he grew up in an anti-Nazi Catholic family but, like all teenagers, was obligated to join the Hitler Youth organization and was conscripted into the German army. Eventually he deserted.

As pope, Benedict met frequently with Jewish groups and visited synagogues in several countries. His first trip abroad as the pontiff was to his native Germany, where he made it a point to visit the synagogue in Cologne and issued a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism and “the insane racist ideology” that led to the Holocaust. The visit marked only the second time a pope had visited a synagogue. Benedict later visited synagogues in Rome and New York.

He also confronted his troubled past in Poland in 2006 when he visited Auschwitz and, declaring himself “a son of Germany,” prayed for victims of the Holocaust, as well as on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009 when he visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and met with Holocaust survivors.

As a young theologian in the 1960s, Benedict attended the Second Vatican Council, which aimed to liberalize the Church. In 1965, the council promulgated the Nostra Aetate declaration that opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Benedict repeatedly reaffirmed commitment to Nostra Aetate’s teachings. Still, several issues that emerged during his tenure called that commitment into question, casting a shadow over Catholic-Jewish relations.

These included the revival of a pre-Vatican II Good Friday Latin prayer that called for the conversion of Jews, moving the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII one step closer to sainthood and reaching out to a breakaway ultratraditionalist group, the Society of St. Pius X, in an effort to bring it back into the mainstream Catholic fold. In doing so, Benedict revoked the excommunication of three of the movement's bishops, one of whom turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Vatican officials said a conclave of cardinals will be convened in March to elect a new pope. But there is no clear indication as to who might be picked, or from what country or continent he might come. Vatican observers said that since all the cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope had been appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict, whoever is elected would probably follow similar overall policies.

Like John Paul II, Benedict is a doctrinal conservative, staunchly opposed to female priests, gay marriage, abortion, birth control and divorce.

“History will view Benedict as the last of the traditional European pontiffs, the last pope who personally experienced World War II and the Holocaust, and one of the last Catholic leaders to have participated in the historic Second Vatican Council,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the AJC’s senior interreligious adviser, who first met Ratzinger in the 1970s.

The next pope will have to deal with fallout from scandals that tainted Benedict’s reign, from continuing accusations of sex abuse by priests to a security breach that saw Benedict’s butler leaking the pope’s private papers to a reporter. It remains to be seen, however, whether fostering Jewish-Catholic relations will receive less attention under a younger and possibly non-European pope without the historic memory of the Holocaust and Vatican II.

“Doctrinally this will never happen, but in terms of visibility and engagement that may happen if he is from a place where there is no significant Jewish community present today or in the very recent past,” Rosen said.

Rosen added, however, a non-European pope might be less encumbered by the burdens of the past.

“Past tragedy and past failure are not the best basis for a long-term future relationship,” Rosen said. “This has to be based upon nurturing the sense of common patrimony, roots. Some African cardinals are better in this regard than many European ones.”

Reform, Conservative, Orthodox leaders join gun control call


Top figures from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements joined an interfaith call for greater gun controls in the wake of last week's school massacre in Connecticut.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who directs the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, appeared at a press conference Friday outside the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. along with mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders.

Also appearing at the press conference was Nathan Diament, who directs the Orthodox Union's Washington office.

“We must come together as people of faith, representing the range of religious traditions throughout our country, in a collective call to action to end this crisis,” Saperstein said in a release ahead of the press conference. “The time to end senseless gun violence is now, and as religious leaders, the responsibility to provide moral leadership is ours.”

At the press conferemce, Saperstein said: “Our worship of guns is a form of idolatry.”

President Obama this week appointed a commission to be helmed by his vice president, Joe Biden, to address controls on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, as well as broader questions of culture and mental health treatment.

Adam Lanza last week killed his mother and then, armed with weapons registered in her name, continued to Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and murdered 20 first-graders and six adults before killing himself.

Kristallnacht family Torah reaches new generation


It was the “Night of Broken Glass” in Germany, Kristallnacht — a national pogrom of death and destruction of Jewish property and the rounding up of Jews — and Dietrich (David) Hamburger was in hiding.

Hamburger was the leader of a small congregation that met in his home in Fürstenau, a countryside village in what now is the state of Niedersachsen, or Lower Saxony. Someone had warned him about the coming onslaught, and on Nov. 9, 1938, he went into hiding in the local Catholic hospital.

“The cover story was that he was in for a hernia,” said Edith Strauss Kodmur, his granddaughter and the family’s historian.

This spring — 75 years later and a continent away at a California winery — Kodmur’s granddaughter will have her bat mitzvah. And Charlotte Ruth Smith on that day will read from the Torah scroll that her great-great-grandfather rescued soon after that tragic night.

But Hamburger would need to escape Germany and the Torah would need to find its way back to his family.

“By prior arrangement, one of his hired hands met him in the hospital garden while the nuns were at Mass,” Kodmur recalled from detailed notes. “He drove -Dietrich back to his home, where he packed, taking an oil portrait of wife Rosa [he was a widower] and the community Torah with him.”

Kodmur thought Hamburger had removed the rollers, or etz chaim, to make the Torah easier to transport.

“He then boarded the train to Holland, to Winterswijk, to his daughter Bette,” said Kodmur, whose family as well as her uncle Siegfried, Hamburger’s son, had left Germany for the United States in 1938.

Kodmur as a small child had visited her grandfather frequently, she said, recalling that he would sit in the garden with his children on the Sabbath, reading to them and discussing the Bible.

“He was very adventuresome, and well-dressed. Involved with the horse and cattle trade business,” she said.

A memorial book for the Holocaust victims of Winterswijk titled “We Once Knew Them All” uses quotes from the people who lived in the eastern Holland town to tell what happened to Hamburger and his family.

“My parents had a Jewish person in hiding during the last year of the war, a Mr. Hamburger. We called him by his alias, ‘Uncle Derk,’ ” a community member recalls in the book. “His daughter, son-in-law and their children died in the concentration camps. He also had a son in America.

“Once we were threatened by a posting of German soldiers at our home. Uncle Derk hid behind a wardrobe. Obviously we noticed that Mr. Hamburger was very afraid of being discovered. My Father told Uncle Derk to act differently, otherwise everyone might be arrested.

“On the morning of liberation, I woke up Uncle Derk. He was so shaken by my excited talk that his false teeth fell out: into the chamber pot!”

From another community member: “Father Hamburger stayed a while in Winterswijk after the war. My, my how that man cried over his grandchildren.”

After the war, while Siegfried was visiting his father in Holland, Hamburger gave him the Torah scroll to bring back to his home in Redwood City, Calif. It stayed there until Siegfried died.

Kodmur, who lives in the San Diego area, knew that Siegfried had given the Torah to his son Steven. But she had lost touch with that part of the family and was uncertain of its whereabouts.

In 1996, Kodmur’s daughter Julie Ann and her fiancé, Stuart Smith, attended a pre-wedding counseling session with Rabbi Jerry Winston in San Anselmo, Calif. The rabbi mentioned that he had officiated at the marriage of Julie Ann’s cousin.

Julie Ann had heard the stories of her great-grandfather’s escape with the Torah and its unknown whereabouts, and in the whirr of Jewish geography and family history that ensued, both Julie Ann and Winston soon realized that Steven Hamburger had given the rescued Torah to the rabbi.

“I didn’t even think to ask him for it,” said Julie Ann, thinking back on that meeting.

In 2000, Winston officiated at the baby naming for her daughter Charlotte, but Julie Ann and the rabbi would lose touch.

It was more than a decade later, when Julie Ann began thinking about her daughter’s bat mitzvah, that her thoughts again turned to the Torah. Beginning a search last year, she soon discovered that Winston had died and the small congregation he led had disbanded. Could he have given the Torah to another synagogue?

She called the big synagogue in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Marin County, Rodef Shalom; the historic synagogue in San Francisco, Temple Emanu-El; and many others, leaving messages. Then she received a call back.

“The woman had a German accent and said she was a friend of Rabbi Winston’s. She told me that his sons had given the Torah away, to Rabbi Alan Levinson of Sausalito,” remembered Julie Ann, who lives with her husband, Stuart, and Charlotte in the small town of St. Helena, Calif., near the family-owned Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery.

After contacting Levinson, who had been a longtime friend of Winston’s, they quickly exchanged what each knew of the provenance of the scroll. It was the one. “His plan was to give it to another synagogue,” Julie Ann said.

Meanwhile, Julie Ann also was looking for a rabbi to prepare Charlotte for her bat mitzvah. She connected with Rabbi Jerry Levy, who worked with students via Skype. She had known Levy growing up in San Diego; he had been the rabbi at her brother David’s bar mitzvah.

Levy also was the chaplain at AlmaVia, a faith-based elder care community in San Rafael, Calif., where, according to the rabbi, 18 to 20 of the 120 residents are Jewish. Julie Ann inquired if Levinson would consider giving the Torah to Levy for use in his community. Levinson agreed and this month, Levy held a dedication at AlmaVia.

With Levinson, Julie Ann and Charlotte present — she helped roll the scroll to the correct reading — the scroll to be known as the Hamburger/Fürstenau Torah was dedicated.

“They were kvelling,” said Levy of the AlmaVia residents on hand.

Speaking at the ceremony, Charlotte recounted her great-great-grandfather’s escape on Kristallnacht and the Torah’s travels.

“We found it, and not only would I be able to use it for my bat mitzvah, we could give it a home here at AlmaVia,” she said.

“This coming spring, I will borrow the Torah from all of you here at AlmaVia for my bat mitzvah. And the story will continue.”

Holocaust-denying bishop expelled from radical Catholic sect


Bishop Richard Williamson, who has denied the Holocaust, was expelled from a radical Catholic sect for disobeying his superiors.

Williamson was expelled from the Society of Saint Pius X, which opposes Church reforms decided by the second Vatican Council, the society said Wednesday. The British bishop is opposed to recent society efforts to reintegrate into the Catholic Church.

He and three other bishops who are members of the society were excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1988. Pope Benedict XVI rehabilitated the bishops in January 2009 in hopes of healing a rift between conservative and progressive Catholics.

Williamson gave an interview just before the rehabilitation to the Swedish SVT broadcaster in which he called the murder of Jews in gas chambers during the Holocaust “lies, lies, lies.” He also allegedly denied that any Jews were murdered in gas chambers during the Holocaust and insisted that not more than 300,000 European Jews were killed in total.

The interview, given in Regensburg, Germany, also was was available on the Internet.

In 2010, the Regensburg court found him guilty of incitement to hate and fined him.

Kidsave changes lives for orphaned children, adoptive parents


Santiago Brown calls himself a “cashew.” It’s his way of combining the words “Catholic” and “Jew,” to refer to his unusual religious background. He lived in Colombia in a Catholic orphanage until being adopted into a Jewish family a year ago, at the age of 12. His mother, Lori Brown, a graphic artist and Nashuva member, says Santiago has Jewish music on his iPod and tells his friends, “It’s awesome to be Jewish.”

Brown first connected with Santiago through the organization Kidsave and its Summer Miracles program. Kidsave founders Terry Baugh, in Washington, D.C., and Randi Thompson, working in Los Angeles, were inspired to start the nonprofit after making visits to foreign orphanages where they witnessed children who were often left alone for hours without personal attention or mental stimulation. Kidsave, which has offices in Bogota, Colombia, and Moscow, is designed to find families for these children, as well as mentors and other sources of support.

Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program brings Colombian children from group homes and foster homes to the United States for four weeks during the summer. The children stay with “host-advocates” who care for the children while they are here, and who take it upon themselves to help find permanent homes for the kids.

Summer Miracles focuses on older children, usually between the ages of 8 and 11, who are often overlooked in the adoption process. Selected children must be legally and emotionally ready for adoption and typically are not more than two years behind academically in their home countries.

“I think there is a niche for these children,” says Sari Weiner, who adopted a child through Kidsave’s domestic hosting program, Weekend Miracles. As an older parent, Weiner did not want to adopt an infant, believing she would be too elderly by the time her child was grown. Other families may not have the energy for younger children or may want an older sibling for their other children.

Once chosen for the program, the children are brought from foster homes and group homes all over Colombia to the country’s capital, Bogota, for two weeks of training, psychological counseling and workshops. They are taught guest etiquette, some English and a bit about U.S. culture.

Estefany, left, and Johana participate in the three-legged race with Kidsave’s Bob Holman.

Host-advocates also complete role-playing workshops before the children arrive to prepare them for how to deal with situations that may arise. Rhona Rosenblatt, who has helped a child get adopted through a hosting program before and is hosting again this summer, jokes, “All the kids are doing great. The adults are constantly checking on them, being paranoid, but they are always fine.”

It costs a total of about $7,500 to bring a child to the United States through Summer Miracles, according to Thompson. Of that amount, host-advocates contribute a hosting fee of $1,250 and an application fee of $275. Host-advocates generally raise money through grass-roots organizing, while Kidsave itself receives grants and large donations.

Once the children are here, the host-advocates’ job is to spread the word about Kidsave and attend weekly events to introduce their visiting children to families. Susan Baskin, who is currently two weeks away from adopting the child she hosted last summer, mentioned Kidsave in her profile in The Jewish Journal’s “My Single Peeps” column. Brown, Santiago’s mother, has used Facebook, word of mouth and even a blurb on the Nashuva Web site to spread information about Kidsave. Brown says she brings up the organization in conversation whenever possible. Once, a teller at the bank who saw Santiago ended up mentioning Kidsave to a friend, and that friend is now in the process of adopting a child of her own.

Kidsave does not facilitate adoptions. Families who wish to adopt Colombian children after their summer visit must go through the normal international adoption process. Lauren Reicher-Gordon, the vice president of Kidsave and director of Family Visit Programs, said, “We are the yentas, the matchmakers.”

However, their success rate is noteworthy. Eighty percent of children from Summer Miracles are now adopted or in the process of being adopted, according to Reicher-Gordon. She attributes the high rate to the time families spend getting to know the kids.

Baskin agrees. Before hearing about Kidsave, she had attempted adoption on her own but was turned off by the lack of information about and time with the prospective children. “As a single woman, I felt I might not have the financial and emotional resources if the match was not good,” Baskin said. Kidsave motivated her to try adoption again because it gave her time to get to know her prospective child and a realistic idea of what it would be like to be a parent. Baskin hosted Johana in the summer of 2011 and will be leaving to pick up her new daughter in Colombia in two weeks.

The risk of any hosting program, of course, is that children’s hopes will be crushed if the adoption does not work out. Marcia Jindal, director of the intercountry adoption program at Vista Del Mar, has worked with Kidsave for seven years, doing home assessments before the children arrive, training the families, providing support and resources while the children are here, and conducting post-placement studies on children who have been adopted.

Jindal says there are pros and cons to every program. In her experience, she said, “The biggest negative that families find in these hosting programs is they feel it’s unfair to get the child’s hopes up. But there’s no way to prevent that, unfortunately.” Even if the families have the intention of adopting, the home countries of the children could at any time revoke permission to adopt. Additionally, a sudden family illness or financial problem could prevent the adoption from going through.

Valentina enthusiastically tosses a bean bag.

Reicher-Gordon says Kidsave has specific instructions for hosting families about how to approach the issue of adoption while the children are visiting. “It is not discussed when the kids are here. They are told they are learning English and having a cultural experience. … We know that kids are hopeful [for adoption], but it is not in the best interest of the children to tell them that before they leave.”

It is, nevertheless, a challenging issue to navigate. Baskin described taking Johana, who was crying and clinging to her, to the airport at the end of her visit. “I wished I could say I was going to adopt her. But all I could say was, ‘I will see you again.’ ”

Jindal stresses, however, that there are more positives than negatives to a program like this one. “Any way that we can get the word out there that children are waiting for permanency is good.” Vulnerable older children do need to be connected with families before they age out of the foster care system, and she says Kidsave does a very good job of matching children with families. “The families are really committed to advocating for the children.”

At the most recent Summer Miracles event, it appeared the hosting families cared deeply about their Kidsave children.

Baskin still remembers the expression on Johana’s face when she walked in the sand and splashed in the ocean for the first time a year ago.

Brown is hosting two more boys this summer, a second boy named Santiago — this one is 11 — and Julian, 12. The visiting Santiago recently learned to ride a bike for the first time.

“My heart is filled with joy and love,” Brown said. “They just need homes; they’re good boys. … The magic in them is amazing.”

Saperstein: Remark by Catholic League’s Donohue could be seen as ‘threatening’ to Jews


A Reform movement leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, said a statement to a rabbi by Catholic League chief Bill Donohue could be construed as “threatening to American Jews who differ with the Church.”

Donohue had a heated email exchange with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, after Waskow published a column on The Huffington Post website on June 11 criticizing the U.S. Conference of Bishops for its opposition to the Obama administration’s mandate requiring access to contraceptive coverage for employees of religious-run institutions like hospitals and orphanages.

In a statement June 20, Saperstein, the director of Reform’s Religious Action Center, noted that Donohue ended the exchange with Waskow with a quote from former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who is Jewish, “in a manner that can be read as threatening to American Jews who differ with the Church.”

Donohue’s second email to Waskow ended with “Ed Koch, my friend, once said that Jews had better not make enemies of their Catholic friends since they have so few of them. Think about that the next time you feel compelled to attack my religion.”

Saperstein said that “the importance of both the health care rights of women and the social justice passion of the Catholic nuns who serve on the front lines of our neediest citizens’  struggles for economic justice deserve a more respectful response.”

In a June 21 statement, Donohue said he was quoting an address by Koch in January to a Jewish group in which the former mayor said, “We’re 13 million Jews in the whole world—less than one-tenth of 1 percent. And we need allies. The best ally we can have is the Catholic Church.”

Koch, in his own statement on the matter, said Donohue had misconstrued his remarks.

“My comments have always been about fostering good feelings between Jews and Catholics toward mutual understanding of our shared interests,” Koch said. “However, I certainly do not believe that Jews, or Catholics, should be threatened for making critical remarks, nor should my name be used when doing so. While I do have a high regard for Bill, his references to me and my remarks were inappropriate and different in substance and tone than what I said on an earlier occasion.”

Donohue’s reference to what he saw as Waskow’s “attack” on Roman Catholicism appeared to refer to Waskow’s criticism in his column of the Vatican for strictures it imposed recently on an American nun’s conference, Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Church leaders have tasked three male bishops with overhauling the group, alleging it had de-emphasized opposition to abortion in favor of social justice issues.

In his statement, Donohue said he had taken particular offense to Waskow’s claim in his Huffington Post column that for the bishops, “religion happens in the genitals.”

In his first email, Donohue asked Waskow whether it is “the business of any religious leader to condemn the strictures of another religion.”

In his release to reporters, Waskow attached only Donohue’s second email, with the Koch quote, and omitted the first, which makes it clear that Donohue is taking offense more at Waskow’s comments on the nuns than his dealing with the issue of contraceptive coverage.

The Catholic League’s spokesman, Jeff Field, told JTA that Donohue regarded that omission as “despicable.”

Waskow, in his comments on the exchange, noted a New York Times interview with Donohue last week that described the Catholic League leader as having moved from representing the church’s right wing to its mainstream.

“Now we will find out whether that includes threatening Jews for disagreeing with the Church hierarchy,” Waskow said in a release.

Obama’s same-sex marriage nod echoes historic Catholic-Jewish debate


When President Obama publicly endorsed same-sex marriage two weeks ago, most secular Jewish leaders applauded while some religious ones disagreed—the latter group joining their Catholic counterparts.

In doing so, these representatives echoed sentiments thrust into the public sphere five decades earlier, ones that simultaneously symbolized a new Jewish confidence in America, threatened to end the nascent interfaith dialogue and for one of the first times publicly highlighted Jewish differences.

Back in June 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools, a landmark decision that most Jewish groups strongly supported but which Catholic groups strongly opposed. In that era, the Catholic Church still officially branded Jews as Christ killers and issued calls to convert them. Meanwhile, many Jews were quietly trying to assimilate into largely Christian suburbs. And many Jews feared that publicly opposing Christian groups was a huge risk. But national Jewish organizations decided they would take it.

That dispute—little-known today—was novel in how the American Jewish community mustered the courage to aggressively oppose a bulk of the Christian mainstream and openly disagree within its own ranks, setting the stage for today’s vocal Jewish response to nearly every national issue.

The Supreme Court case, Engel v. Vitale, struck down a prayer composed in 1951 by the New York State Board of Regents, which oversaw the state’s public schools. The prayer read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Ten families, including some Jewish ones, argued that the prayer encroached on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Hugo Black was among the Supreme Court justices who agreed.

“There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity,” he wrote in his June 25, 1962 majority opinion.

Jewish groups had quietly opposed school prayer for more than a decade. They did so to stand on principle while ensuring that Jews could exist peacefully in an America with a recent history of anti-Semitism. Indeed, on the eve of World War II. the nation had politically powerful anti-Semitic sentiments, and in the early 1950s many Jews were targeted during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings.

Faced with such realities, for years the last thing national Jewish groups wanted to do was to provoke the anger of their Christian counterparts.

Still, on record, Jewish voices were clear. “The Constitution has erected a wall between church and state, the breaching of which would … only serve to intensify the feeling of antagonism and tension that exists between adherents of various faiths,” read a 1953 organizational plan from the National Community Relations Advisory Council, the predecessor of today’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The potential concerns were borne out in the response to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling.

Within months, relations between Christian and Jewish groups, which had been steadily improving since World War II, threatened to break down. A September 1962 editorial titled “To Our Jewish Friends” in America magazine, a Jesuit publication, mentioned “militant” Jewish activists and warned of a resulting “heightened anti-Semitic feeling.”

Jewish leaders were quick with a critical response, but it was Commonweal, another Catholic magazine, that took the lead. On Sept. 28, 1962, it printed a first-ever “Jewish issue,” which detailed the positive aspects of Jewish life in America. It was nothing short of revolutionary.

The issue featured not only an editorial defending Jewish groups’ right to oppose school prayer, but essays from diverse Jewish leaders such as representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the Synagogue Council of America and even Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe.

Emboldened by the platform Commonweal had given them, most Jewish leaders wrote harsh words against Christian groups that sought to silence their activism—pointing out the political work of the groups.

“Certainly Catholics are well aware that they have been accused of acting unfairly, as an organized minority, in bringing pressure on legislatures,” the AJC’s David Danzig wrote. “Some people make an exception of the Catholics, who, they say, do not persuade, but organize, manipulate and compel, acting under the guise of religion.”

But Schneerson, who had thus far kept a low public profile since becoming rebbe in the early 1950s, used his essay to disagree with the mainstream Jewish organizational consensus. He pushed for federal aid to religious schools, arguing that such aid would lower Jewish school tuition.

Jewish leaders had disagreed in public before, but Schneerson’s dissent received rebuke from the Jewish mainstream and plenty of secular media coverage, including multiple articles in The New York Times. But just as the Jewish leaders did not back down in Commonweal to placate Christian counterparts, Schneerson stood firm against liberal Jewish voices.

Ever since, Jewish and Christian groups have periodically disagreed but maintained an open dialogue. But the dispute in 1962 marked a shift in Jewish communal priorities, and Jewish organizations emerged from it newly confident.

Today, national Jewish organizations do not tailor their voice solely to ensure peace among religious groups, let alone within the Jewish community. Rather, they aggressively advocate controversial causes—from how to apply religious freedom to defending civil rights for homosexuals—regardless of what the Christian majority thinks.

“One of the great questions that Jews must be asking themselves now is whether they will be able to participate in the cooperations and competitions of American pluralism on the same basis and with the same rights as American Protestants and Catholics,” Danzig wrote in Commonweal. “Granted that prudence is a virtue and that all groups should be prudent, must Jews alone be guided exclusively by considerations of prudence?”

As Jewish leaders have made clear ever since 1962, the answer to that question was no.

TAPPS head: Beren Academy should never have been accepted to association


The Beren Academy Orthodox Jewish day school should never have been accepted to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, the association’s director told a Texas newspaper.

“We shouldn’t have accepted them in the first place,”  Edd Burleson, director of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, or TAPPS, told the The Dallas Morning News in an interview published on Sunday.

The Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston made international headlines early last month after requesting that a semifinal championship basketball game be rescheduled so that it did not conflict with the Jewish Sabbath.

The game was rescheduled after a group of parents of students sued the association in court. The team won the semifinal game, but went on to lose the final, also rescheduled to a later time on Saturday after the Sabbath was over.

Burleson told the newspaper that he believes that the association would have won the case if it had gone to court. “If we had fought it, we would have won,” Burleson told the newspaper. “But that would have taken weeks. We didn’t have the time.”

“What else would you want me to say?” Burleson said in the interview. “Want me to come up with some politically correct gobbledygook? I can’t. I’m telling you that’s how I feel.”

TAPPS had said in a statement posted on its website following its decision not to change the semifinal that when the Beren Academy first met with the association’s board in 2009 to discuss membership, it was told that tournament games are scheduled on Friday and Saturday, and that the school’s athletic director said he “understood” and “did not see a problem.”

The Texas Catholic Conference Education Department, representing 43 Texas Catholic high schools told the Houston Chronicle that Burleson’s comments came as a surprise, and that the group is committed to reforms that will make TAPPS more welcoming to a diverse membership.

The group said in a statement that if Burleson’s position remains the same that Catholic schools “will reconsider their future affiliation with TAPPS.” It also said that in a meeting last week with TAPPS member schools, Burleson committed to working to resolve diversity issues.

The association in 2010 rejected a Muslim school from Houston for membership.

Pope called on to condemn bishop’s new anti-Semitic slur


A group of European rabbis has called on the pope to condemn the latest anti-Semitic remarks by a Holocaust-denying Catholic bishop.

The Brussels-based Conference of European Rabbis slammed comments by Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson in which he allegedly blamed Jews for deicide. Williamson, a member of the radical Catholic Pius Brotherhood sect, reportedly made the comments in the latest issue of his newsletter, “The Eleison Comments.” He has been living in London.

“Comments like these take us back decades to the dark days before there was a meaningful and mutually respectful dialogue between Jews and Roman Catholics,” conference President Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of Moscow said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Goldschmidt called for the Church to “suspend negotiations with extremist Catholic tendencies until it is clear that these groups show a clear commitment to tackling anti-Semitism within their ranks.”

In his newsletter, Williamson wrote that “only the Jews were the primary agents of the deicide because Pontius Pilate would never have condemned Jesus if the Jews had not asked for blood.”

Williamson was found guilty of Holocaust denial in Germany in 2010 and fined about $14,000. He has previously denied the existence of gas chambers and the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication against Williamson, but the Vatican also reportedly declared that “in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the Church, (he) will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah, which the Holy Father was not aware of when the excommunication was lifted.”

During meetings with Pope Benedict in Berlin last month, German Jewish leader Dieter Graumann said that one of the issues that troubled Jewish-Catholic relations was the Church’s refusal to condemn Williamson.

In his statement Wednesday, Goldschmidt said the pope “has shown a commitment to fostering a spirit of positive dialogue with Jews both before and during his papacy. But he must clearly show that there is no room in the Catholic Church for purveyors of hate.”

Jewish organization honors Catholic surgeon


Dr. Vaughn A. Starnes, a top cardiothoracic surgeon in Los Angeles, was recently honored by Bikur Cholim Jewish Healthcare Foundation, and the fact that Starnes is a Catholic being recognized by a Jewish organization made the occasion that much more meaningful, the doctor said.

“Unlike a lot of things, medicine transcends boundaries. … Everyone who comes through my doors is equal, and I enjoy that. I try to deliver to all people, without regard to their religious belief or their color, or, oftentimes, whether they can pay,” he said.

Starnes is the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and chair of the department of surgery at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. He is one of the country’s experts in repairing heart defects in newborns and infants, often enabling them to go on to full recovery — results that were unattainable 20 years ago. He was a pioneer in using live-donor lung transplants to treat young people with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that disproportionately affects Jews.

“God’s messengers come in all different races and religions,” said Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of Bikur Cholim. “Our concern, and Dr. Starnes’ concern, is making sure people get the best care possible so they thrive and are well.”

Bikur Cholim provides support services for those suffering from serious illnesses, including case management, crisis intervention and financial support, and it has a bank of medical equipment it lends out free of charge. Founded in 1918, the organization runs educational programs and operates one of the largest blood drives and direct donor blood and platelet programs in greater Los Angeles. It has a special fund dedicated to the medical and daily needs of indigent Holocaust survivors, and has a cadre of volunteers who deliver homemade challah and chicken soup to the ill and elderly. Bikur Cholim House, a 10-unit apartment building in Hancock Park, also houses patients and their families, free of charge, when they come to Los Angeles for medical treatment. Patients in hospitals can access Bikur Cholim’s Shabboxes, which have all the items necessary to celebrate Shabbat in the hospital, and it arranges for home and hospital visitations, as well as transportation to medical appointments.

The Sept. 25 dinner also memorialized Bikur Cholim supporter Lillian Grossman, a Holocaust survivor who died this year. Her children, Maureen and Dr. Lawrence Eisenberg, and Felice and Aryeh Greenbaum, and husband Harry Grossman, accepted the honor.

Jewish players at Chaminade sit out game for Yom Kippur


Some of the Jewish football players at a San Fernando Valley Catholic school will skip an annual rivalry game because of Yom Kippur.

West Hills Chaminade College Preparatory, which has a sizable Jewish student population, was scheduled to meet Sherman Oaks Notre Dame Prep on Oct. 7, the night when Yom Kippur begins, in their annual rivalry game.

The Chaminade coach did not realize that the game fell on Yom Kippur until it was too late to reschedule the game, the Los Angeles Times reported. The team will be short several players, according to the newspaper.

Other Southern California games were moved to Oct. 6, according to reports.

Quebec parents challenge ban on day care religious instruction


Jewish and Catholic parents in Quebec have gone to court to challenge a government ban on religious instruction in government-subsidized day care programs.

In a legal challenge filed Tuesday, the parents say that the province’s policy violates their rights to freedom of religion guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Under the new rules, which came into effect June 1, subsidized day care centers may celebrate cultural aspects of religious holidays, but may not teach “a belief, a dogma or the practice of a specific religion.”

Teaching religious songs will be off limits, as will crafts with a religious connotation.

Sandy Jesion, a plaintiff in the case whose daughter attends a subsidized Jewish daycare in Montreal, told the National Post newspaper that the Bible’s story about the flood “is not a problem, but the fact that God spoke to Noah and told him to build the Ark is religious, and under the directive, you can’t do that.”

The directives are especially troublesome for Jews, said Danielle Sabbah, president of the Association of Child Care Centres of the Jewish Community, representing 17 day care centers serving 3,000 children.

“The problem is that in the Jewish religion, traditions, culture and the religious aspect are mixed together,” Sabbah told the Montreal Gazette. She said that Jewish children could be told the Biblical story of Moses but not about the 10 plagues inflicted on Egypt. “We cannot have anything that mention miracles or acts of God,” she said.

The policy would leave it up to inspectors to determine when the line between culture and religion is crossed.

At a Jewish time of reflection, thoughts on a pope and Catholicism


Passover is over and Shavuot is weeks away. It’s a season when Jews traditionally take time for contemplation and reflection.

This year, I’ve been reflecting on Catholicism. Rather on the complicated interfaith nexuses between Catholics and Jews.

In large part, of course, this is because of the beatification May 1 of Pope John Paul II.

Critics have questioned the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to waive the usual five-year waiting period and fast-track John Paul’s road to sainthood.

And JP2 had his faults—his handling of the priest sex abuse scandals has come under particular recent scrutiny.

But the Polish-born pontiff was the best pope the Jewish world ever had.

“There have been few times in the 2,000 years of Christian Jewish relations when Jews have shed genuine tears at the death of a Pope,” the eminent Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum wrote in a recent column. “When Pope John Paul II died, I—and many other Jews—cried.”

I don’t recall actually shedding tears when John Paul died on April 2, 2005 at the age of 84. In fact, I was in the midst of celebrating my nephew’s bar mitzvah.

But I did feel deeply touched by his passing—I had reported on John Paul during most of his nearly 27-year papacy.

In a deliberate and demonstrative way, he had made bettering Catholic-Jewish relations and confronting the Holocaust and its legacy a hallmark of his reign, and I had chronicled milestone after milestone in this process.

There had been frictions and setbacks, to be sure. Key among them was the pope’s support for the canonization of his controversial World War II predecessor, Pius XII, and his refusal to open secret Vatican archives to clarify Pius’ role during the Holocaust.

He also hurt Jews by welcoming Austrian President Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican after Waldheim’s World War II links to the Nazis had come to light. And he upset Jews with his meetings at the Vatican with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

These episodes, however, were far outweighed by positive steps. Some of them were truly groundbreaking measures that jettisoned—or at least shook up—centuries of ingrained Catholic teaching and changed Catholic dogma to reflect respect for Jews and the Jewish religion and apologize for the persecution of Jews by Catholics.

They ranged from his visit to Rome’s main synagogue in 1986, to his frequent meetings with rabbis, Holocaust survivors and Jewish lay leaders, to his repeated condemnation of anti-Semitism, to the establishment of relations between the Vatican and Israel, to John Paul’s own pilgrimage to the Jewish state in 2000, when he prayed at the Western Wall.

It was evident throughout that he was deeply influenced by his own personal history of having grown up with Jewish friends in pre-World War II Poland and then witnessing the destruction during the Shoah.

As Berenbaum put it, John Paul II was “directly touched by the Holocaust” and “assumed responsibility for its memory.”

The program director of a Catholic-run interfaith and dialogue center near the Auschwitz death camp agreed.

“Auschwitz was not an abstract tragedy but it formed part of his life,” the Rev. Manfred Deselaers told the Catholic news agency Zenit.org. “Auschwitz was the school of holiness of John Paul II.”

Given this background, it seemed fitting that the Vatican chose to beatify John Paul on May 1—the eve of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah.

The coincidence, though, was not intentional.

In the Catholic calendar, May 1 this year marked the Sunday after Easter, a feast called Divine Mercy Sunday. And John Paul II had died on the very eve of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.

Still, the timing sent out a powerful message. And it made me reflect on how very, very radically relations between Catholics and Jews have changed, even in just the past few decades.

Relations between Catholics and Jews are not perfect, of course, and they never will be. There are still anti-Semitic elements in the Church, and John Paul II’s teachings have not trickled down to all the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics. But we do live in a different world.

For centuries, the popes and the Vatican “worked hard to keep Jews in their subservient place—barring them from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university, from traveling freely,” Brown University historian David Kertzer wrote in his 2001 book “The Popes Against the Jews.” “And they did all this according to canon law and the centuries-old belief that in doing so they were upholding the most basic tenets of Christianity.”

Here in Rome, the papal rulers kept Jews confined to a crowded ghetto until 1870. In many places Jews would stay indoors at Easter for fear of being caught up in a blood libel accusation or be accused of desecrating the Host.

Less dramatically, I still remember from childhood how Catholic kids in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood were forbidden to enter synagogue to attend their friends’ bar mitzvah services.

Formal dialogue began only in 1965, with the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate declaration that repudiated the charge that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus, stressed the religious bond between Jews and Catholics, and called for interfaith contacts.

Two decades later, in 1986, when John Paul became the first pope to visit a synagogue, he embraced Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and declared that Jews were Christianity’s “dearly beloved” and “elder brothers.”

Toaff met frequently with John Paul, and the two established a warm rapport. In fact, Toaff and the pope’s longtime secretary were the only two individuals named in John Paul’s will. The rabbi called that inclusion “a significant and profound gesture for Jews” as well as “an indication to the Catholic world.”

Long retired now, Toaff celebrated his 96th birthday on April 30—the day before John Paul’s beatification.

The memory of John Paul “remains indelibly impressed in the collective memory of the Jewish people,” Toaff said in a statement published after the beatification in the Vatican’s official newspaper. “In the afflicted history of relations between the popes of Rome and the Jewish people, in the shadow of the ghetto in which they were closed for over three centuries in humiliating and depressing conditions, the figure of John Paul II emerges luminous in all of its exceptionality.”

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com. She is currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.)

Museum of Tolerance to Create Exhibit on Pope John Paul II


On April 29, two days before Pope John Paul II was beatified in Rome, the Simon Wiesenthal Center announced plans to establish a new permanent exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles dedicated to the late pontiff.

A native of Poland, during his papacy John Paul worked to improve relations between the Catholic Church and world Jewry. He also conveyed the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust by making a visit to Auschwitz in 1979 and a visit to Yad Vashem in 2000. He was known to have met with many survivors of the Holocaust.

The John Paul exhibit is currently housed in a temporary space. It is set to be installed in its permanent location — the main exhibition space at the Museum of Tolerance, directly opposite the display containing the original office of Simon Wiesenthal, the center’s namesake — later this month.

Pope John Paul II, proponent of Jewish-Catholic relations, is beatified


Pope John Paul II, who made fostering Catholic-Jewish relations and remembering the Holocaust cornerstones of his papacy, was beatified at the Vatican.

John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, officiated at Sunday’s ceremony—the last step before canonization, or sainthood—before an estimated 1 million faithful and a live broadcast audience of millions more around the world.

The ceremony took place just hours before Yom Hashoah, when Jews around the world remember the Holocaust in prayer and ceremonies.

The Polish-born John Paul, who died in April 2005, served as pontiff for more than 26 years.

Born in 1920, John Paul had Jewish friends growing up and witnessed destruction during the Holocaust. Throughout his papacy, he reached out to Jews and met frequently with Jewish representatives, including Holocaust survivors, and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism.

In 1986 he became the first pope to visit a synagogue when he visited Rome’s main synagogue, where he embraced the Rome chief rabbi and referred to Jews as Christianity’s “elder brothers in faith.”

During his reign, Israel and the Vatican established formal relations, and he made a pilgrimage to Israel in 2000, during which he prayed at the Western Wall.

“On this day of his beatification, it is only appropriate that we celebrate this leader who made a revolutionary impact in Catholic-Jewish relations within our lifetime, and that we of all faiths continue to learn from him,” Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey and the John Paul II Center for
Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, wrote in the Huffington Post.

At John Paul’s funeral, crowds called for him to be made a saint immediately. But Pope Benedict has come under criticism from some quarters for fast-tracking the sainthood process, waiving the usual five-year waiting period before it can begin.

Some critics also have called into question John Paul’s handling of the widespread sex abuse scandal involving priests and children that erupted during his reign.