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A Rabbi, Priest and Minister Walk Into a Bar — and It’s No Joke

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avatar by Eric J. Greenberg


Pope Benedict shakes hand with chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni at Rome’s main synagogue January 17, 2010. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano (ITALY – Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY)

On April 17, 2008, during his first visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI convened a historic interfaith meeting in Washington, DC.

Invited by the pope to the John Paul II Center, not far from the US Capitol Building, were leaders and representatives of America’s many faith groups, including Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Protestants and Sikhs. One of the primary goals of the meeting, as stated by the pontiff, was to “discover points of commonality” and “to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity.”

It also turned out that April 17, a Thursday, was only 48 hours before the eight-day Jewish holiday of Passover — a logistical concern for the large delegation of rabbis of all denominations from New York City.

At the event, it was decided that Pope Benedict would have a special private meeting with the gathered Jewish leaders to wish them a Chag Sameach or Happy Holiday, given the special bond between the two faiths symbolized by Passover and Easter. (The date for Easter is intimately connected to the date of Passover, as Jesus was in Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread at the time of his crucifixion by Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, and the resurrection on Sunday, according to Christian tradition.)

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As the national Director of Interfaith Affairs for the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, I had been invited to Pope Benedict’s extraordinary DC gathering, but I had also been quietly consulting with the organizers on various interfaith issues. During a break in the proceedings, one of the key organizers, a prominent priest from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked me which of the many rabbis in attendance should be chosen to respond to the pontiff’s address to the Jewish leaders.

There was really no question, I said: Rabbi James Rudin, the veteran advisor on Interreligious Affairs for the New York-based American Jewish Committee.

Father Dennis McManus, then director of Ecumenical Affairs for the New York Archdiocese, nodded in approval. He did a quick poll of rabbis in the room, and everyone agreed. (In truth, there would have been one other candidate “competing” with Rudin: my other mentor, friend and predecessor, ADL’s beloved Interfaith Director Rabbi Leon Klenicki, who was unfortunately gravely ill at the time and who passed away several months later.)

This episode sums up the visionary role and place that Rudin enjoys among both Jewish and Catholic interfaith practitioners during his 50 years and counting of service to foster positive relationships between Jews and Christians, and to the wider multifaith world.

Many insightful and entertaining stories about the development and significance of this new world of interfaith relations are captured in Rudin’s new book and memoir, “The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes and Presidents” (iPubGlobal Connection LLC).

In this well-crafted page-turner, readers will not only learn about Rudin’s humble beginnings in Pittsburgh and Arlington, Virginia and his service as a United State Air Force Chaplain in Korea, but also how he rose to become one of the world’s leading Jewish interfaith experts. He helped shepherd a 1965 Vatican document, called “Nostra Aetate,” from an aspirational text to a living guidebook on how to transform 2,000 years of a deadly history for Jews at the hands of the Catholic Church into a positive dialogue based on understanding, respect and education.

In its witty and accessible style, the book transports the reader from New York to Korea to Poland, Rome and Jerusalem. We are in the room as Rudin meets with US presidents, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush; Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and many Catholic Cardinals, Protestant Ministers, Evangelical Pastors and leaders of Black Churches to learn how to counter embedded antisemitism in their communities, and to explore how to cooperate to improve the human condition.

Rudin does not shy from the tense moments in doing the hard of work of relationship building and striving for honest dialogue. We learn of his involvement in the US civil rights movement and his contributions in the struggle for freedom for Soviet Jewry. He recounts the international controversy between Jewish leaders and a group of Carmelite nuns over a convent located on the grounds of the infamous Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, which only Pope John Paul II could resolve.

He details his role in “The Battle of Camp David” over religious rights at the vacation site of the President of the United States — a foreshadowing of the struggles over Christianity in the public square being waged today.

And Rabbi Rudin takes us to Oberammegau, Germany — home to the world’s oldest and most problematic Passion Play. Hailed as an inspiration by Adolf Hitler, this centuries old production — presented every 10 years — has been filled with vile, antisemitic words and images and is responsible for transmitting hatred of Jews for generations. Rudin spent four decades working with the play’s Catholic director and producer to reduce the false, hateful portrayals of Jews. I was privileged to work with him in Oberammergau in 2010, and marveled at the great respect play officials had for his recommendations and solutions.

Lastly, the book recounts Rudin’s “romantic miracle” with Marcia, his wife of more than 50 years, and adventures with his two daughters, one a rabbi and the other a noted Hollywood casting director.

These days, Rudin continues to be a regular columnist for Religion News Service and is a much sought after speaker on interfaith issues with his longtime friends who are priests and ministers.

And when they walk into a room — it’s no joke.

Eric J. Greenberg is a former award-winning religion reporter, national interfaith director at ADL and currently Director of United Nations Relations & Strategic Partnerships at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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