The dozen French Catholic priests and theologians sat shivering in the creaky wooden seats of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
Nearly a century ago the synagogue was the first in America built by Eastern European Jews in the heart of the Lower East Side, where 350,000 Jews made the neighborhood the world’s largest Jewish community.
Today the synagogue survives largely as a historic curiosity in Chinatown, its dark wooden benches cracked and withered, its blue domed ceiling faded and peeling.
Yet an Orthodox minyan still gathers there, prayer books fill a musty basement sanctuary, and one recent wintry day some of France’s leading Catholic thinkers gathered in the shul’s faded glory to ponder American Jewish history.
“Is it correct to say this is the first Ashkenazi synagogue in New York?” one young priest asked.
His comment typified the atypical group. They are Catholics on a mission to improve Catholic-Jewish relations; their commitment is built on a foundation of Jewish knowledge that even many Jews would find impressive.
Led by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish-born archbishop of Paris, the group toured New York earlier this month courtesy of the World Jewish Congress.
Its mission was to build personal relations between people of faith by tackling common challenges confronting religion in the modern age.
At the tour’s outset, Lustiger outlined the tour’s aim in a speech sprinkled with allusions to Jewish figures such as Maimonides and Hannah Arendt and teachings such as the Kabbalah.
“In our pluralist societies, what concrete shapes can the group of believers — Jews on the one side, Christians on the other — take up against the background of globalization?” he asked.
Added the Rev. Patrick Desbois, senior assistant of the French Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism, “We have a common responsibility to build in front of all of humanity, not just our communities.”
These theologians see the conversation not as a cloistered theological debate but as an undertaking of critical and immediate impact.
Baudoin Roger, who is completing a master’s degree at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology outside Boston, put it this way: “The prophets were right: The Kingdom of God is not just ‘wait and see;’ you have to build it now.”
Ironically, the tour came just days before the Vatican released documents showing that Edith Stein, a German Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a nun, appealed to Pope Pius XI as early as 1933 to speak out against Hitler. She was murdered in Auschwitz and later sainted.
The tour came at a critical juncture not only in Catholic-Jewish ties but in French-Jewish relations as well: The past year saw a wave of anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Israel demonstrations in France.
Desbois analyzed the situation in France bluntly. French anti-Semitism historically was due to Christians taught “that the Jews killed Christ,” he said, but now “the majority of anti-Semitism is coming from young Muslims” opposed to Israel.
As he spoke of Israel, Desbois asked a reporter, “medaber ivrit” — “Do you speak Hebrew? — in Hebrew with a perfect Israeli accent.
In fact, all of these French theologians speak Hebrew, having attended Hebrew classes in Israel as part of their Jewish studies.
To further their mission, the group spent a week in New York touring the major Jewish seminaries, meeting Jewish academics, journalists and religious leaders and visiting a range of religious and historic sites.
Their itinerary included Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, as well as meetings with leaders of the Lubavitch and Satmar groups in Brooklyn.
“In four days they did what many Jews don’t do in their entire lifetimes, in terms of exploring what’s around them,” said Pinchas Shapiro, a spokesman for the World Jewish Congress.
Some of the French Catholic leaders said they hoped to take a page from Jewish history.
Roger said more Parisian Catholics are copying Jewish tradition by seeking greater study in the church along with their weekly homilies.
“In the future, we will do a lot more yeshiva,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.