As Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders work to improve the image of Jews and Judaism as they are presented in American Catholic schools and churches, similar efforts are under way in Europe and Latin America.
“We have found that many, many Christian leaders around the world have an incomplete and inaccurate picture of actual Jewish though, Jewish life and Israel,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
“Many may understand the Hebrew Bible, but even there we’ve found it often taught by Christians. The modern and Rabbinic periods are incompletely understood,” he said. “If Catholic leadership has an inaccurate, incomplete picture of who we really are as a people, how can they teach other Catholics?
“They must understand that there is a vital, growing, active Jewish life, that it didn’t all come to an end with the rise of Christianity.”
Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League and a native of Argentina, works with the Catholic leadership in several Latin American nations to improve the way they teach about Jews and Judaism.
“In some Latin American countries the church hasn’t dealt with the question of Judaism and some of the church leaders are still in a pre-Vatican II spirit,” he said.
The Second Vatican Council, convened in the early 1960s, issued the document Nostra Aetate, changing dramatically the church’s approach to Jews and Judaism, which had previously been antagonistic and paternalistic.
Last Easter, for example, in a church service broadcast nationally, Argentine President Carlos Menem read from Acts of the Apostles a passage blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus.
The local bishop handed the president the text, said Klenicki, and Menem began crying as he read because the Mass was dedicated to the memory of his son, who had died in an airplane accident.
But because he was not given the Catholic Church’s clarification about that part of Scripture, it appeared on television that he was crying because of the message in the text, said Klenicki.
Argentina is 85 percent Catholic.
A book instructing Catholic educators on how to teach about 1st-century Christianity and its Jewish roots was published in Spanish last year and distributed across Latin America by the Latin American Bishops’ Conference.
There is more receptivity of the book in Chile than in Argentina or Colombia, he said.
Still, the primate of Argentina is interested in disseminating a Spanish- language version of a book of missiletes, which explain and church’s contemporary teaching to clarify each week’s portion of Scripture, said Klenicki.
And a book about teaching Jews and Judaism, “In Context,” originally published by the ADL and the National Council of Catholic Bishops in the United States, is being translated into Polish, Spanish, Italian, French and Hungarian for use in countries worldwide, said Klenicki.
For each of the last two years the American Jewish Committee has sent an American Jewish rabbi-scholar to Catholic religious graduate schools in Poland and in Rome in two separate programs designed to help Catholic clergy understand Jews and Judaism.
The rabbi-scholar goes for a five-week tour of Poland, the pope’s native land, where he teaches priests, seminarians and lay people about Jews and Judaism.
In a rare wall-to-wall endorsement, the program was unanimously approved by all the more than 200 members of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Rudin said.
The rabbi-scholar tours pontifical institutes – the equivalent of religious graduate schools – in Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin and Breslay to lecture on the Bible, Jewish history and Jewish liturgy.
As he speaks in English, his listeners have a Polish-language copy of his remarks.
Poland’s Catholic elite study at the institutes, said Rudin.
“Many have never met a Jew, least of all a rabbi, and certainly not a world- class scholar,” he said.
“Poland is over-producing and exporting priests much as Ireland once did, who then go on the rest of Europe, Canada and the U.S.,” he said. “We have reached hundreds of students” with this program.
It will be the second year that the AJCommittee sends a Jewish scholar to teach a semesterlong course at Rome’s Gregorian University, the world’s leading Catholic postgraduate institution, which has schooled many cardinals and popes, said Rudin.
“The whole thing in interreligious affairs is wholesale, not retail,” said Rudin. “You can’t go to every seminary all over the world, so we look to where the leaders of tomorrow and today come from and study. You pick your spots to have maximum impact, and Gregorian gets people from all over the world, including Africa and Asia.”