Passing a bar in Manhattan a few weeks back in the company of a Catholic priest, Rabbi Joshua Hess couldn’t resist posing for a photo. He put it up on Facebook with the inevitable caption, “A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar…,” although they didn’t, actually. They went instead to a kosher restaurant.
The priest was Father Charles Cortinovis of Potomac, Md., Hess’s roommate at a four-day Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference, held at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. The outing to Manhattan was a break from talks and workshops, and a chance to visit Catholic and Jewish leaders in the city.
“The best part of the experience was forming relationships with people of a different faith, seeing how many similarities we share and how much we have in common,” Hess said. “It was wonderful.”
The gathering, held June 18-21, focused on the theme, “Catholics and Jews: Our Common Values, Our Common Roots.” It was organized by the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, a partnership between the International Jewish Commission on Interreligious Consultations and the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews.
Hess, leader of Congregation Anshe Chesed, the Orthodox synagogue in Linden, said he was honored to be chosen as a participant. He was the only rabbi from New Jersey among the 25 rabbis and other Jewish community leaders and graduate students who joined 23 Catholics. The participants, all between the ages of about 25 to 40, came from the United States, Europe, Mexico, Brazil, and Israel.
Each participant shared rooms with a peer from another religious group. Hess said he and “Father Charlie” talked until late every night. “We’d get back to our room tired from a long day of talks, and we’d get into a discussion that would go on for hours,” he said.
Despite their differences, the two shared a commitment to religious values, and concerns such as the cost of religious day school education and the tensions in dealing with secular society. Throughout the conference, he said, participants expressed respect for one another’s faiths.
That attitude is what he and the other participants agreed to bring back to their communities. To that end, he said, they are hoping to bring Catholic and Jewish children together, possibly to do social action projects together.
Hess, 31, said younger leaders have grown up in a far better environment than their elders, who remember the tense years before the Second Vatican Council and its deliberate effort to improve church relations with the Jews. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Hess said, but there is still much to be done.
“Generally speaking, we tend to keep to ourselves,” he said. “The more we understand each other, and the stronger the bonds between us, the less likely it is that something like the Holocaust will happen again.”
The conference also honored the late Sister Rose Thering, the Seton Hall University professor who worked for decades to build understanding and respect for Jews and Judaism. They viewed a documentary about her work. “Clearly, what she did played an important role in these dialogues,” Hess said.
One of her former colleagues, Father Lawrence Frizzell, director of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall, addressed the first plenary session, “Catholic-Jewish Relations post-Vatican II.” He told NJ Jewish News, “There is an international group being prepared for the future in ways that my generation was not.”
The International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) is composed of: American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Israel Jewish Council on Interreligious Relations, Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbinical Council of America, Union of Reform Judaism, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and World Jewish Congress. IJCIC serves on behalf of its constituent member organizations to maintain and develop relations with the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, the Orthodox Christian Church, the World Council of Churches, and other international religious bodies.