August 22, 2019

Building Bridges

About a year ago, Rabbi Ron Shulman of Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes attended an interfaith meeting at a nearby Catholic retreat. The discussion focused on the importance of the millennium year as a time of renewal and reconciliation in the Catholic Church and other Christian communities.

During the meeting, Monsignor Royale Vadakin of St. Anastasia’s Church in Los Angeles approached Shulman and asked the rabbi how he would feel about receiving a group of Christians who wished to make a pilgrimage from the retreat to the synagogue and present the shul with a symbolic piece of unbreakable glass as a gesture of reconciliation.

From this discussion, an idea sprang and blossomed into a remarkable event that brought together nearly 2,000 Christians and Jews in a night of unity, prayer and remembrance on Thurs., Nov. 9, the 62nd anniversary of Kristallnacht.

“We were deeply touched by the genuine love with which we were embraced and the incredible commitment and caring of the church leaders who planned, funded and implemented this event,” Shulman told The Journal. “It was probably one of the highlights of our synagogue’s history.”

The evening, which brought together about 30 Christian congregations of all denominations and four synagogues from communities in and around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, began with a prayer service at the Catholic retreat center, where about 600 Christians gathered.

In a speech to participants, the Rev. Reinhard Krauss of St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, a German native, recalled the terror of Kristallnacht, which resulted in 267 synagogue burnings, 91 Jews murdered and almost 30,000 men deported to concentration camps, he said.

“In all this, the majority of the population either participated or stood by silently,” Krauss said. “We have gathered here as an interfaith community tonight to express our deep sorrow about what took place that night. But above all, we are here to express our commitment to a new beginning.”

With banners aloft and candles ablaze, the Christian group made its way down a hill toward Congregation Ner Tamid, about a mile away. En route, members of the Conservative congregation were clapping and singing “Hava Nagilah,” and they met the Christians by shouting “Shalom.”

“The shared moment of coming from the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in a long line holding candles and being met in a moment of reconciliation and unity was very, very powerful,” said Rev. Marlene Laughlin of the Wayfarers Chapel, Rancho Palos Verdes.

The groups then walked together to the synagogue. Inside, the shofar sounded as the mixed Jewish-Christian gathering filled the expanded sanctuary to capacity and a service of prayers, song, readings, psalms and commemoration took place. Three Kristallnacht witnesses and Holocaust survivors spoke, and six candles were lit to commemorate the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Eve Turkheimer-Newman, one of the Kristallnacht survivors who spoke, was only 8 years old and living in her grandparents’ house in Frankfurt when the smashing of the apartment windows and the huge red flames of burning buildings sent her screaming into the bathroom. A Ner Tamid congregant, she said the act of reconciliation that this unity event represented gave her “new faith in humanity and the fact that communities, religions and people can live together and accept each other’s differences.”

“It was a fulfillment I never expected to witness,” Turkheimer-Newman said.

“I’ve never been around anything like this before,” said Bob Rothman, Ner Tamid’s executive vice president and event chair. “It was completely different and unique. I’m still getting comments from people.”

In response to the presentation of the triangular crystal sculpture titled “Dawn,” designed by Santa Monica artist Steven V. Correia, Shulman compared the “light of dawn symbolized by this piece of art” to an earlier biblical dawn in which Jacob wrestled with an angel and emerged transformed. The stunning prismatic sculpture, made of the same unbreakable glass that forms the Hubble telescope, is an arrangement of six triangles rising from a jagged triangular base of broken glass.

“This evening we commemorate such striving and the renewal that follows it,” Shulman said. “As we remember a different night of terror in human history, we celebrate the light of dawn, of reconciliation and of friendship now emerging from that darkness. Here in the quiet of this neighborhood, we declare to our communities and we announce to our society that we reject hatred. We accept tolerance.”

“It was the most moving and unbelievable event,” observed Sister Julia Costello of the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. She said that continuing an interfaith group and seeking reconciliation with other groups that have experienced intolerance would be a future goal.

John Traxler, a member of St. John Fisher Catholic Church, worked for a year putting the historic event together and was thrilled and uplifted by the success of the interfaith effort. “The procession was really a landmark success,” he said. “It was the high point in an extremely emotional time.”

Not to continue to build on the bridges that have been formed would be a real mistake, Traxler added. “The worst thing that could happen now is if nothing happens.”