By Harriet P. Gross
This is because on the last Monday of last month, Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation, was at the Vatican, meeting with Pope Francis. There, he (again!) brought to the pontiff’s attention to a unique venture: the Catholic-Jewish Educational Enhancement Program (C-JEEP) that’s been going on under the religious radar in my home city for 11 years.
It’s actually quite simple: Once a month, rabbis teach the religion classes at all Catholic high schools in the Pittsburgh diocese, and “Catholic educators come to our synagogues to talk about changes in Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi Berkun, a past president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. It’s a no-fuss model, there for replication in any venue that can handle such a grass-roots relationship effort.
Rabbi Berkun and 29 others, all members of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, went to Rome to speak directly with the pope. Their group has been dialoguing with the Vatican since 1970 — also largely under the radar — but I was happy to see that the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh’s oldest daily paper, gave the recent meeting some well-deserved feature coverage. And I’m leaning here somewhat heavily on information gathered by reporter Ann Rodgers for this update, although I’ve known both Tree of Life and Rabbi Berkun’s interfaith efforts myself, for many years.
“Dear elder brothers and sisters – Shalom,” were Pope Francis’ welcoming words to the IJCIC delegation, the same words favored by the late Pope John Paul II in his greetings to Jews. Rabbi Berkun honors the connection, since that pope showed respect for Jews and Judaism. But he emphasizes an important timeline change: before he became pope, John Paul II was a priest in post-Holocaust Poland with few Jews, while the former Jorge Bergoglio, before being seated on the Throne of Peter, was involved with a thriving Jewish community in Argentina.
“This pope’s life intersected with all [the] rabbis in Buenos Aires,” said Rabbi Berkun. “He could have absented himself from those relationships, but they were very important to him.”
We all know that the mills of understanding between Judaism and Catholicism grind exceedingly slow. Talking with the then-Cardinal Bergoglio when the same dialogue group met with him some nine years ago, Rabbi Berkun first told the now-pope that Pittsburgh is the only diocese in the whole world to have a program like C-JEEP. The pontiff-to-be was interested then, but so far, the little Pennsylvania seed of mutual understanding hasn’t taken root and sprouted elsewhere. So the rabbi is concerned that this special message remains “elevated” — only ordained clergy know about it, not the many ordinary believers. He’s hoping that now the message may get through to everyone.
The Catholic Church’s condemnation of anti-Semitism became official with Nostra Aetate, translated as In Our Time, a Vatican document of 1965 issued by Pope Paul VI. Pope Francis reaffirmed it during his recent time with the IJCIC leaders, when he emphatically declared that “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!” To which Rabbi Berkun commented on June 24, “The church has clearly adopted [Nostra Aetate’s] principles — thus my audience today, and the tremendous progress in interfaith relations in Pittsburgh. On the eve of its 50th anniversary, I would like to see the Pope’s promulgation and implementation to the believer in the pew. He surely believes anti-Semitism is a sin. His flock, especially in Europe, has to hear him say it again and again.”
One more fact: Rabbi Berkun studied under the late, great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who actually helped in the drafting of Nostra Aetate. So maybe soon, from these illustrious mouths — one past, one present — to God’s ears, more good will come. But even now, Pittsburgh and the Conservative Movement have reason to be proud.