NEW YORK, April 4, (JTA) — Jewish leaders are joining Catholics in mourning the loss of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, who died Wednesday at the age of 80.
O’Connor was heralded as a man of conscience who helped improve Catholic-Jewish relations.
“He had the largest Jewish diocese in the world,” said Rabbi Mordecai Waxman of Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y., a past leader of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.
O’Connor was known for his fierce opposition to anti-Semitism.
“No one who is truly Catholic can be an anti-Semite. It’s a contradiction in terms,” the cardinal said when he was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, making him the first Catholic cardinal to be so honored by a Jewish seminary.
In line with these beliefs, O’Connor sent a letter last year to his Jewish friends before the High Holidays expressing his remorse for violence committed against the Jews throughout the ages.
Though he omitted any direct reference to the Holocaust, Jewish leaders took his statement as a positive step toward bridging the gap between Catholics and Jews.
“I ask this Yom Kippur that you understand my own abject sorrow for any member of the Catholic Church, high or low, who may have harmed you or you forebears in any way,” he wrote.
“The Jewish people lost a champion and I lost a friend,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee. Rudin said he was inspired when Rudin inquired as to the cardinal’s well being, O’Connor replied, “Rabbi Jim, everyday is a holiday.”
“He meant the joy of it all,” Rudin said. “He loved being the cardinal.”
Rudin also recognized O’Connor’s role in matters concerning the Jewish state.
“I consider him a chief architect in establishing Vatican-Israel relations.”
In 1987, O’Connor made a landmark visit to Jordan and Israel, where he provoked controversy over his endorsement of a Palestinian homeland and acquiesced in a Vatican request to downgrade his meetings with Israeli officials.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations heavily criticized him, but the same group later recognized him for his role in urging the pope to grant political recognition to the Jewish state.
“He set the bar very high in terms of what should be done vis-a-vis Jews,” Rudin said.
Though no one has been selected as O’Connor’s successor, media reports have placed Bishop Edward Michael Egan of Bridgeport, Conn., at the top of the list.
Laurie Groff, director of community relations for the Jewish Center for Community Services in the region of Connecticut served by Egan, said the bishop has attended several interfaith events when invited.
“In his remarks, he always indicates a desire to improve Catholic- Jewish relation,” she said. “He is also aware and proud of the strides that have been made so far.”
Aside from his achievements as a community leader who often spoke out against popular opinion, O’Connor also be remembered for his sense of humor.
Rabbi Aaron Landes, senior rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pa, served as a Navy chaplain with O’Connor. He remembered a Christmas trip to Antarctica to visit sailors.
“He regaled us with stories, especially about the seals,” reminisced Landes, who laughed as he conjured up the image of O’Connor as he “acted out the parts of the seals.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, will always remember one moment he shared with the cardinal.
Prior to his installation as president of the New York Board of Rabbis in 1998, Schneier met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. Four days later at his installation ceremony in New York, O’Connor served as the keynote speaker. When Schneier spoke afterwards he addressed the cardinal and said, “The pope asked me to bring the cardinal blessings — under rabbinical supervision.”
The cardinal, not to be out-joked, took the statement a step further. “He stood and removed his red skull cap and placed it on my head.”
The red skull cap is on permanent display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York.
“That became the symbol of the great love and admiration he had for the Jewish community,” Schneier said.