Friday, May 20, 2011

Ruthless Cosmopolitian -- At a Jewish time of reflection, thoughts on a Pope and Catholicism

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column for JTA was a reflection on Catholic-Jewish relations in the wake of Pope John Paul II's beatification. Things have changed, even since I was a kid.....

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, May 9, 2011

ROME (JTA) -- Passover is over and Shavuot is weeks away. It's a season when Jews traditionally take time for contemplation and reflection.

This year, I've been reflecting on Catholicism. Rather on the complicated interfaith nexuses between Catholics and Jews.

In large part, of course, this is because of the beatification May 1 of Pope John Paul II.

Critics have questioned the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to waive the usual five-year waiting period and fast-track John Paul's road to sainthood.

And JP2 had his faults -- his handling of the priest sex abuse scandals has come under particular recent scrutiny.

But the Polish-born pontiff was the best pope the Jewish world ever had.

"There have been few times in the 2,000 years of Christian Jewish relations when Jews have shed genuine tears at the death of a Pope," the eminent Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum wrote in a recent column. "When Pope John Paul II died, I -- and many other Jews -- cried."

I don't recall actually shedding tears when John Paul died on April 2, 2005 at the age of 84. In fact, I was in the midst of celebrating my nephew's bar mitzvah.

But I did feel deeply touched by his passing -- I had reported on John Paul during most of his nearly 27-year papacy.

In a deliberate and demonstrative way, he had made bettering Catholic-Jewish relations and confronting the Holocaust and its legacy a hallmark of his reign, and I had chronicled milestone after milestone in this process.

There had been frictions and setbacks, to be sure. Key among them was the pope's support for the canonization of his controversial World War II predecessor, Pius XII, and his refusal to open secret Vatican archives to clarify Pius' role during the Holocaust.

He also hurt Jews by welcoming Austrian President Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican after Waldheim's World War II links to the Nazis had come to light. And he upset Jews with his meetings at the Vatican with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

These episodes, however, were far outweighed by positive steps. Some of them were truly groundbreaking measures that jettisoned -- or at least shook up -- centuries of ingrained Catholic teaching and changed Catholic dogma to reflect respect for Jews and the Jewish religion and apologize for the persecution of Jews by Catholics.

They ranged from his visit to Rome's main synagogue in 1986, to his frequent meetings with rabbis, Holocaust survivors and Jewish lay leaders, to his repeated condemnation of anti-Semitism, to the establishment of relations between the Vatican and Israel, to John Paul's own pilgrimage to the Jewish state in 2000, when he prayed at the Western Wall.

It was evident throughout that he was deeply influenced by his own personal history of having grown up with Jewish friends in pre-World War II Poland and then witnessing the destruction during the Shoah.

As Berenbaum put it, John Paul II was "directly touched by the Holocaust" and "assumed responsibility for its memory."

The program director of a Catholic-run interfaith and dialogue center near the Auschwitz death camp agreed.

"Auschwitz was not an abstract tragedy but it formed part of his life," the Rev. Manfred Deselaers told the Catholic news agency "Auschwitz was the school of holiness of John Paul II."

Given this background, it seemed fitting that the Vatican chose to beatify John Paul on May 1 -- the eve of this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah.

The coincidence, though, was not intentional.

In the Catholic calendar, May 1 this year marked the Sunday after Easter, a feast called Divine Mercy Sunday. And John Paul II had died on the very eve of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.

Still, the timing sent out a powerful message. And it made me reflect on how very, very radically relations between Catholics and Jews have changed, even in just the past few decades.

Relations between Catholics and Jews are not perfect, of course, and they never will be. There are still anti-Semitic elements in the Church, and John Paul II's teachings have not trickled down to all the world's more than 1 billion Catholics. But we do live in a different world.

For centuries, the popes and the Vatican "worked hard to keep Jews in their subservient place -- barring them from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university, from traveling freely," Brown University historian David Kertzer wrote in his 2001 book "The Popes Against the Jews." "And they did all this according to canon law and the centuries-old belief that in doing so they were upholding the most basic tenets of Christianity."

Here in Rome, the papal rulers kept Jews confined to a crowded ghetto until 1870. In many places Jews would stay indoors at Easter for fear of being caught up in a blood libel accusation or be accused of desecrating the Host.

Less dramatically, I still remember from childhood how Catholic kids in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood were forbidden to enter synagogue to attend their friends' bar mitzvah services.

Formal dialogue began only in 1965, with the Vatican's Nostra Aetate declaration that repudiated the charge that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus, stressed the religious bond between Jews and Catholics, and called for interfaith contacts.

Two decades later, in 1986, when John Paul became the first pope to visit a synagogue, he embraced Rome's chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and declared that Jews were Christianity's "dearly beloved" and "elder brothers."

Toaff met frequently with John Paul, and the two established a warm rapport. In fact, Toaff and the pope's longtime secretary were the only two individuals named in John Paul's will. The rabbi called that inclusion "a significant and profound gesture for Jews" as well as "an indication to the Catholic world."

Long retired now, Toaff celebrated his 96th birthday on April 30 -- the day before John Paul's beatification.

The memory of John Paul "remains indelibly impressed in the collective memory of the Jewish people," Toaff said in a statement published after the beatification in the Vatican's official newspaper. "In the afflicted history of relations between the popes of Rome and the Jewish people, in the shadow of the ghetto in which they were closed for over three centuries in humiliating and depressing conditions, the figure of John Paul II emerges luminous in all of its exceptionality."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Can umbrella groups hold Jewish Europe together?

My latest article on JTA is about the crisis in pan-European Jewish institutions.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber
(May 10, 2011)
ROME (JTA) -- Can umbrella organizations link Jews and Jewish institutions from Dublin to Dnepropetrovsk?

If so, what should be their form and focus? How should they be run? Who should fund them? Do such organizations even matter?

Recent upheavals in the acronymic world of pan-European Jewish institutions have raised these and other questions about the role and relevance of such umbrella groups.

The past six months have witnessed the near demise of one umbrella, the European Council of Jewish Communities, or ECJC; the launch of a new body, the European Jewish Union, which is run and financed by a Ukrainian billionaire; and a call from that union for a “European Jewish parliament," whose form and function are yet to be defined.

"There's a lot of confusion now," said Annie Sacerdoti, a Milan-based Jewish leader. "It's a time of passage, and we are waiting to see what happens."

While few of these developments have had any real impact on ordinary Jews or day-to-day Jewish life in Europe, they are part of a larger story of the shifting face of Jewish Europe.

The ECJC is at the heart of the recent polemics.

Founded more than 40 years to promote Jewish culture, heritage, education and community building, the ECJC came to prominence following the fall of communism. Funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, it fostered links among Jewish communities in Western Europe and emerging new communities in the East.

The JDC cut funding, however, and in recent years financial shortfalls all but curtailed its operation.

Last November, outgoing ECJC president Jonathan Joseph thought he had found a solution: He unilaterally appointed a Ukrainian billionaire, Igor Kolomoisky, as his successor in exchange for the promise of millions of dollars in support.

But Joseph made the move without consulting the organization’s board, and a number of members quit in protest, with some decrying a "Soviet-style takeover." Many balked at indications that Kolomoisky's agenda would change the ECJC into a political organization focused more on Israel than the organization’s traditional mission.

The rejection took Kolomoisky and his allies by surprise, and ultimately they decided to walk away from the ECJC and form a new body, the European Jewish Union.

It’s not yet clear what the new group will do. The EJU says on its website that it’s "a structure uniting all Jewish communities and organizations throughout Western, Eastern and Central Europe.” But its makeup, membership and mode of operation are unclear. One source familiar with the operation described it as a "private foundation."

The ECJC-EJU flap highlights the growing financial and demographic clout in Europe of Jews from Eastern European countries, and it has thrown into sharp relief differing models of how to foster Jewish life.

The EJU was launched in early April at a two-day conference held at the Euro Disney theme park outside Paris that turned into something of a brouhaha.

Organizers had billed the event as an ECJC conference devoted to Jewish education and youth, and envisioned it as a General Assembly-style gathering. They recruited Clive Lawton, a respected Jewish education consultant and co-founder of the Limmud movement, to plan the program for hundreds of young Jews brought in for the occasion, mainly from Germany, Ukraine and Russia.

But far more people signed up for spaces than were available, and communities that had been promised slots never got them. More than 100 people who paid had their participation canceled by the organization.

On top of that, several conference attendees told JTA that the educational content had been far overshadowed by a political agenda that took them by surprise. Rather than focusing on the ECJC’s traditional agenda, the conference culminated in the establishment of the EJU and included the endorsement of a vaguely defined European Jewish parliament to "speak and act on behalf of every Jew in Europe."

Lawton told JTA that he feared the educational aspect had simply been "window dressing."

One Western European Jewish student who attended the meeting but did not want to be identified by name said he felt manipulated.

"We had the sense that we were roped into endorsing something just by our presence,” the student said. “I had the sense that something was going on and that we were brought in there just to give it respectability."

The next chapter in the saga will come May 29, when representatives from a host of countries meet in Paris to roll back the clock and "re-establish the ECJC as a democratic organization."

"We want it to come back to life, to return to its democratic roots," said one person involved in the relaunch but who did not want to be quoted by name. "We think there is a place for a Jewish organization that does not focus on politics but on community life."

Whether this will work remains to be seen.

"Generally speaking, the practical impact of these roof organizations on Jewish life in Europe is not entirely clear," said Rabbi Josh Spinner, CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which funds Jewish culture and education projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

"Local communities and national unions tend to go it alone, and individuals and institutions do find many ways to connect without needing the fulcrum of a pan-European unifier," he said.

Still, Spinner added, there are issues that do need confronting across Europe. He cited recent attempts in several countries to limit or ban shechitah, or ritual slaughter.

"Perhaps stronger cooperation or a clearer definition of respective roles between the various pan-European Jewish roof organizations might better allow effectively dealing with such issues," Spinner said.

The planned relaunch of the ECJC, Spinner said, represented "an opportunity for the partner organizations to clarify their goals and set a timetable for achieving them. I hope they use the opportunity to make the ECJC a highly relevant organization."

Evan Lazar, a Prague-based lawyer involved in the relaunch, was hopeful. "The leaders of various Jewish organizations know the ECJC exists," he said. "I'm not sure that every Jew needs to know about it, but I would hope that every Jewish community leader, school director or other such activist does, and that it helps them do their jobs better by sharing resources and best practices."