Focus on Issues: Christian-jewish Gathering Unlocks New Understandings

Down in North Carolina, in the valleys between Blue Ridge Mountains where most folks don’t know any Jews, “Jews have horns, don’t you know,” said Leo Hoffman, a Conservative rabbi who retired to the area years ago.

For each of the last 16 years, Hoffman has organized a seminar at a local retreat center for the region’s religious leaders. He brings about 115 members of the Christian and Jewish clergy together from the Carolinas, West Virginia, Virginia and Georgia.

At the center, they study and pray together — themes over the years have ranged from parables and Psalms to Judaism and Christianity in the first century — and in the process, come to know each other.

The seminar has had a definite impact in an area where Jewish communities are small and many people “just don’t know any Jews,” Hoffman said.

“In order for them to get to know us, we had to bring them together with us. Fifteen years ago you heard anti-Jewish things being preached from church pulpits that aren’t being preached today,” he said.

Hoffman related his story during a break between sessions of the 15th National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations, held this week at the Sheraton Hotel here.

The biennial convention brought together more than 1,000 clergy, seminary students and church and synagogue members.

They represented a dozen Jewish and Christian denominations and 20 different seminaries, and came from nine countries, according to Deborah Goldberg, the conference executive.

About one-third of the participants were Jewish and included people connected with each of the four Jewish denominations, though there were more from the liberal movements than the Orthodox.

The rest of the delegates spanned a vast range of religious practice and belief.

In attendance were Brother William Martyn, a representative of the Vatican; several members of the Sisters of Sion, a Catholic order devoted to bettering Jewish-Catholic relations; the Rev. Cecil Murray, the pastor of Los Angeles’ oldest black congregation, the 9,000-member First African Methodist Episcopal Church; seminarians from Oral Roberts University, an evangelical institution in Tulsa, Okla.; and Imam Talil Eid, who is the religious director of the Islamic Center of New England, in Quincy, Mass.

Among the Jews who spoke were: Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League; Julius Lester, who teaches Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst; Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“This is the world series of interfaith dialogue,” quipped Eugene Fisher, who is in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and was chairman of the workshop’s planning committee.

The workshop’s theme was “Seeking God: The Challenge of Being Religious in America.”

A plenary session was devoted to exploring “Authenticity Without Demonization” by speakers including leading Protestant theologian Mary Boys and Rabbi Neil Gillman, chairman of the philosophy department at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

It is that theme which made the gathering particularly relevant, said Rabbi Robert Lennick, spiritual leader of Connecticut’s Greenwich Reform Synagogue, who served as the workshop’s convener.

“The workshop is a tremendous counterpoint to the demonization and polarization of the other side that we see in this political season,” he said.

“The conference is also an opportunity for Jews and Christians to look at the old patterns of their response to each other and see what needs to be altered,” he said.

The mix of leading theologians with pulpit rabbis, priests and ministers, and with interested lay people, allowed for a cross-fertilization of ideas rarely found in other settings.

Participants broke into small groups to study Romans 9-11, the passage from the Christian Bible that addresses God’s election of Israel and instructs believers in Jesus to help non-believers be saved.

The groups also studied Leviticus 25, the section of Torah that deals with the concept of the sabbatical year, a time during which agriculture is halted for a year following six of planting and reaping, and the jubilee year, which came after every seventh sabbatical year and required the emancipation of Hebrew slaves and the return of property to its original owners.

But the twist was that the rabbis were instructed to teach the Christian text, and the Christian clergy were required to teach the Jewish passage.

Things learned at the workshop “let us translate discussions here into good practical programs we can use” in our own congregations and dialogue groups, said Fran Dorf, who was one of about 200 area residents who worked as volunteers to get the workshop off the ground.

David Arnow, a psychologist and activist in progressive Jewish causes, has been involved with a dialogue group of Catholics, Protestants and Jews in Scarsdale, N.Y., for the past six years.

He said the group came together as the Israeli government was stepping up the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which some politically progressive Jews and Protestants alike felt was wrong.

“Christians in Scarsdale were getting uncomfortable because they didn’t know how to talk about Israel without being perceived as anti-Semitic,” said Arnow.

“An alliance built quickly with Jews who had the same critique and were called self-hating and subversive by other Jews,” Arnow said, speaking during a panel about local dialogue groups.

Together they studied each other’s religious texts and histories, and traveled together to Israel.

Arnow said he has gained much from knowing Christians in their personal religious struggles. “To see Christians seriously troubled by the long anti- Semitic streak in their history is an amazing thing for a Jew to see,” he said.

The workshop that took place here this week is not sponsored by any one group or organization. Different communities bid for the right to host the convention, just like they do for the Olympics.

The city that wins raises the funding and plans the gathering.

Stamford’s Council of Churches and Synagogues, an organization of 103 area congregations and social service agencies, was the chief organizer this year.

Noach Shapiro, who is studying at the JTS to become a Conservative rabbi and is the rabbinic intern at the National Center for Jewish Healing, attended the workshop for the first time and said that he found it “nourishing.”

Being in dialogue with Christians “is clarifying for my own perspective,” he said.

Discussing theology and relationships with people of other faiths “clarifies my relationship to my own tradition, which lets me act in my own world in a clearer, more effective way.

“And if your goal is to be in the world and interact with it, this is very helpful,” he said.

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