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Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference

Catholics and Jews: Our Common Values, Our Common Roots
Second Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference

My first chance to participate in a national ecumenical conference was almost exactly ten years ago, in May 2002. Five years later, I was invited to present in a plenary session at the 50th Anniversary of Faith and Order in the US, at Oberlin. Last week, I gave my first plenary presentation at an international, Vatican-sponsored interreligious dialogue.

Forty scholars and religious leaders under the age of forty, from a dozen countries, were gathered at the invitation of the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews  and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).  The nexus of these two groups is the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC). The bulk of our meeting took place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwest Connecticut, with a day of meetings in New York City. Before and after, a few of us were able to enjoy the city itself, for some informal sharing and reunions – already, five of the other participants were friends or colleagues from Europe and the States.

As is usually the case with such things, the best dialogue and exchange tended to happen between the official agenda, as good as it was. But the former is always inspired by the latter, and this was a good model for developing leadership in dialogue for the reason that it allowed the ‘emerging leadership’ to actually engage in the conversation. The leaders of the two delegations, Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, president of IJCIC, and Fr. Norbert Hofmann, SDB, secretary of the Holy See’s Commission, were present throughout the conference but aside from their role in introducing the history and context, largely stepped back and served as advisors and guides.

Contrast this to other experiences of academic conferences where the ‘emerging generation’ of ecumenists, religious leaders, et al., are invited to attend and even give a presentation on topic, but the conversation is still largely dominated by established authorities, and may be about the dialogues, but does not allow for an actual dialogue to take place. To put it another way, the agenda of this conference was modeled after an official dialogue at the highest level, in many ways, including the topical presentation of papers on both sides on a given issue, discussion and break out groups.

The schedule also managed very well to provide the necessary background for those who were new to dialogue, as well as keep things interesting for the veterans among us. Some of the Jews present had never heard of Nostra Aetate, and some of the Catholics had not known about Dabru Emet. Others, like the Russell Berrie Fellows in attendance, had made a study of the dialogue and already were familiar with a wide range of thought on the dialogue.

Our first day was basically introductory, with presentations on the Commission, IJCIC, and the ILC and an opening presentation on “The Rise and Development of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity” by Prof. Schiffman. There were three major elements of the recurring agenda, which were the plenary presentations, the working groups, and the resource sharing workshops.

The plenaries were the official presentations, consisting of two 30-45 minute presentations, one Catholic and one Jewish, followed by between 30 – 60 minutes of questions and discussion, depending on the length of the presentations.

The first plenary was “Catholic-Jewish Relations post-Vatican II” with presentations by Rabbi A. James Rudin and Fr. Lawrence Frizzell. On day two, the second plenary was “Men, Women, and the Family” offered by Dr. Adena Berkowitz and Fr. W. Jerome Bracken, CP. The third plenary explored “Religion in Public Culture”, with yours truly for the Catholics, and Marc Stern, Esq., of the AJC for the Jewish side.

The working groups followed explored pre-determined themes of the conference, and met twice. People could stay with the same group both times, or rotate. These explored the themes of Justice and Charity; Religious Prejudices and Responses to Hate Crimes; Religion and Secular Society; the Role of Religious Leadership. I was asked to facilitate the last, along with a young rabbi serving as university chaplain at Leeds in the UK, though to be honest, there was not a lot of facilitating needed with this group!

The resource sharing workshops were opportunities for participants to raise issues and share from their own experience. As an example, Eveline van der Ham and David Angeles-Garnica, with the help of Andrea Ponzone, led a presentation on their experience at the Lay Centre, “Living in interfaith community” which they summed up with three key points: pray together, play together, and ‘prost’ together.

We spent one long day in Manhattan, dressed in business garb at nearly 100 degrees, I was reminded how much more manageable this is when nearly every building and form of transport is well air conditioned, a luxury not often found in Rome!

Our first appointment was with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, at his residence, and with his ecumenical/interreligious officer. His eminence came in and was literally kissing babies (well, the one baby present), and shaking hands (of literally everyone in the room). “He’s the Bill Clinton of the Catholic Church” was whispered in one corner, so stereotypically the American politician, presented 15 minutes of remarks without notes and with lots of enthusiasm. We were also given a short tour of the cathedral, including a visit to the crypt and the tomb of Ven. Fulton Sheen.

We then travelled to Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship, and met with Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Prof. Burt Visotzky (Midrash), and David Wachtel, the head of the rare books collection, which includes manuscript letters from Maimonides, and part of the Gutenburg bible, among so many other truly rare Hebrew texts. It was encouraging to hear Prof Visotzky even mention this year’s John Paul II Lecture given by Cardinal Koch in Rome.

After this we visited a reform synagogue known for its outreach work, Congregation Rodeph Sholom  and north america’s first jewish congregation, the Sephardic orthodox congregation Shearith Israel, better known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue.

That’s just the official program… more to come, from Shabbat services to S’mores-making lessons.

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