MARCH 13, 2003
Catholics and Jews: Some Good News From Florida
A snide comment here, a pot shot there. Some academic and clerical huffing and puffing. So often of late, this is the stuff of Catholic-Jewish relations nationally and internationally. Such is not the case here in Florida; this month marks the sixth year of the St. Leo University American Jewish Committee Institute and the seventeenth year of a program between Boca Raton's largest Roman Catholic Church and Reform Synagogue, and the American Jewish Committee's Palm Beach County chapter.
The Boca Raton and Palm Beach County effort has drawn Catholic and Jewish luminaries: scholars, successive presidents and rectors of the regional seminary, bishops, archbishops, a cardinal, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and the president of Notre Dame -- just to name a few.
But why would they come, the likes of Rabbis Michael Cook and A. James Rudin, His Eminence William Cardinal Keeler (photographed at a Shabbat dinner putting on a gift kippah from Russia), Dr. John Pawlikowski, Sr. Mary Boys, and Dr. Philip Cunningham? These are some of the busiest folks in their field. While it may be easy to write it off as February in south Florida, that misses the point. They come because of the accomplishments.
The program evolved from a three-year living room dialogue facilitated by the American Jewish Committee and attended by congregants of the St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church and Temple Beth El of Boca Raton. During this time, lifelong friendships formed and the dialogue format came to feel increasingly artificial. Out of it arose a program that featured an interfaith luncheon and press conference, a Shabbat dinner hosted by the rabbi in his home followed immediately by a joint Catholic-Jewish service, and Sunday mass in which the rabbi gave the homily to a packed house of about 1,200.
The Shabbat service itself became something special with a joint choir singing to usually 1,000 in attendance. Yet something more was desired. That something became a Thursday night dinner that convened the religious schoolteachers of the two institutions. Together, the teachers devote this time to specifics, rather than generalities. They sit together by grade level, work together to fashion lesson plans, and compare notes. Sometimes joint projects result. One year, when Mardi Gras and Purim coincided, a huge joint street carnival was the result.
The other signature event of the night is a joint children's choir which presents Jewish and Catholic liturgical music, often with a bells presentation thrown in. The singers get pizza and the parents and educators get chills. Preparation for that one night brings together Catholic and Jewish educators, the cantor and the church's musical director, teachers, and children. It's remarkable.
So powerful is the impact of the program that three years ago former Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell appointed me and one of his deacons to develop a diocesan-wide model based on the original program. As the program slowly grows there are pairings in larger, midsize, and smaller cities. One problem encountered is communities like Vero Beach in which there are several churches whose congregants number in the thousands and one synagogue with only a few hundred. Yet successful programs, individually tailored to such circumstances, emerge.
Coupled with a successful symposium at the ever-growing St. Leo University, enjoying six years of bringing clergy, scholars, and laity together, one can look back at almost twenty years of Florida's Catholic-Jewish interaction and say with Frank Sinatra of each one that, "It was a very good year."
Bill Gralnick is Southeast Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee.