As commutes go, his daily trip to and from his home in Bergenfield to his job in Fairfield, Conn. isn’t too bad, said Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, the new executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University.
But his travels from ordination by the Israeli rabbinate in ‘003 to head up the 15-year-old institution established as the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding to nurture ties between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church have perhaps been more extensive. Korn’s promotion from associate executive director of the center, a post he took in January, was announced following the retirement on July 1 of its long-time leader, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, an Orthodox rabbi from Stamford, Conn. (The center was co-founded with a mandate from Dr. Anthony Cernera, SHU’s president, by Ehrenkranz and Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a Reform rabbi from Englewood who later began the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt. The late philanthropist Russell Berrie was the first chairman of the board of the SHU center.)
In a recent telephone interview from his SHU office, Korn said that he entered the field of interfaith relations almost accidentally. With a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and mathematics from Yeshiva University and a doctorate in moral philosophy from Columbia University, Korn was on a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which he described as "the foremost Jewish think tank in the world." In a theology seminar with Dr. Asher Finkel, the head of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, he met Christian seminarians living in the Jewish state who believed they belonged in the land of the Bible, home to Jesus.
"I was very impressed by their spiritual depth, and became interested in theology and the spiritual issues we have in common and how to sort out the difficulties in our relationship over the years," he said.
Korn’s participation in that seminar led to his appointment back in the United States as adjunct professor of Jewish thought at Seton Hall. At the same time, he worked as director of Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Congress, handling relations with top church officials in the United States and Europe. Among his chief accomplishments there, he said, was that "we really dealt a mortal blow in the United States to the divestment campaign against companies doing business with Israel, generated by a number of liberal churches, universities, and labor unions."
Discussions he led with "friends in the liberal churches," he said, led to the mounting of a counter campaign to the "radical left-wing ideologues hostile to Israel." As a result, the national Presbyterian Church rescinded a divestment resolution and "we were also successful in influencing the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches in the U.S. not to go down that route," he said.
At the CCJU, Korn who is also the editor of Meorot: A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse, formerly the Edah Journal hopes to build on the successes of his predecessor as well as launch initiatives in education and interfaith relations. Relations with the Vatican and bishops within the American Catholic Church grew significantly under Ehrenkranz’s direction, said Korn, noting, "We’re going to intensify those areas and move into new areas."
According to an SHU press release, that vision encompasses three distinct institutes, one focusing on religious education to raise awareness among Jews and Christians of the recent changes in Christian theology regarding the Jewish people and Jewish scripture; the second to pursue scholarly research on values, pluralism, and theology; and the third to deepen the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people in North America and in Israel.
Specifically, in the area of religious education, SHU will establish an academic chair in September ‘008 in Jewish-Christian relations. Korn will be the chair’s occupant and teach at SHU, he said.
Also in the works is a partnership between a major Catholic institution in Rome and a major Jewish institution in Jerusalem. Korn declined to name these, saying that discussions are at a sensitive stage, but added that "a number of people are all quite interested and that it’s critically important to bring together the best minds of both communities."
Just back from a trip to Rome, Monaco, and Israel, where he spoke on issues related to Mideast peace and Jewish-Christian relations, Korn said, "Interestingly, I found people associated with the Office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel enormously receptive to deepening relations on official levels and in academic institutions with the Catholic Church. All understand that it is strategically important [for political and religious reasons] for Israel and for the Jewish people to cultivate those relations."
Common religious concerns, he said, include the sanctity of human life and how to secure the place of religion in the modern world. Unlike interfaith relations more than half a century ago that were driven by people who sought to minimize religious and cultural differences, today’s interfaith activists are deeply religious, Korn observed.
On that front, therefore, Korn has organized a series of international conferences with philosophers, theologians, and religious leaders to explore pluralism, tolerance, religious fanaticism, and the appropriate boundaries of religious communities. "Philosophers have struggled with the foundations for tolerance and what are its legitimate limits, particularly for a religious community that believes in a view of God as absolute," he said. "Intolerance grows from religious convictions, but we need to be both tolerant and recognize the legitimacy of the other. For many years, Christians couldn’t see the image of God in the Jewish people, but that has changed."
The first conference was held on the SHU campus and the second is planned for October in Los Angeles, facilitated by the board of rabbis of Southern California and Roman Catholic institutions and seminaries there. Subsequent conferences will take place in Germany and Israel. The series will culminate in the publication of a book, said Korn.
To enhance the national and international stature of the CCJU, in September Korn will take three Orthodox rabbis from the United States including the scholar Irving "Yitz" Greenberg six Roman Catholic bishops, and a cardinal to Auschwitz for three days, followed by a three-day visit to the Vatican. The group will have an audience with Pope Benedict XVI and meet with Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican office responsible for relations with Jews.
That undertaking, he noted, is reflective of the "revolution" over the past six decades in theological thinking and action by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church that takes into account Jewish concerns.
Korn concluded, "It is not sheer coincidence that I have found myself in these places. I feel blessed and feel myself growing as an Orthodox Jew in response to my work."