A new age and a call to action
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A new age and a call to action

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At a March 2 lecture in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (also called Angelicum University) are, from left, Angelica Berrie, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, and Father Joseph Angius O. P., the university’s rector. Berrie spoke at the event about the work of the Russell Berrie Foundation, which sponsored it, and Schudrich delivered the lecture, dedicated to interreligious dialogue in honor of the late Pope John Paul II.

President Obama’s recent election inspired a world divided by religious conflict. As our new president begins the work of remaking America, he speaks of “a need to draw on common hopes, for a spirit of unity, for a world that expresses our faith in humanity and the importance of coexistence.”

His message – for each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or even agree with on every issue – requires us not only to believe but to do, to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.

It is a call to action.

I came to America from the Philippines 18 years ago and married Russell Berrie, a “relaxed” Jew who was born in the Bronx and sold teddy bears and trolls for a living. For someone who grew up in the Philippines and studied in a Catholic convent school from kindergarten to college, my interfaith adventure had begun.

As an intermarried couple, my husband and I celebrated our faiths in harmony. I joined him at shul for the Jewish High Holy Days, lit the candles on Shabbat with my step-children, and visited Israel every year. He joined me for midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Christmas Eve. Our mutual respect for each other’s religions led to the creation of the Center for Interreligious Understanding with Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who taught us that “to be religious is to be inter-religious.”

As part of our interfaith efforts, we traveled to Auschwitz with priests and rabbis, met with Pope John Paul II, and learned a new language of interfaith dialogue.

After my husband’s death in 2002, I studied in Israel and converted to Judaism, spending my summers in Jerusalem to further the philanthropic work of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

After Pope John Paul’s death in 2005, it became clear that we would need a new generation of spiritual leaders with exposure to and training in interfaith relations.

Inspired by the late pope’s contribution to interreligious dialogue, the Russell Berrie Foundation established a fellowship program named after him at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome.

Today, our first cadre of Berrie interfaith scholars will begin their work, learning Judaism first-hand from distinguished rabbis, scholars, and philosophers.

They will travel to Israel for their first visit to the Holy Land and meet spiritual leaders of different faiths to understand how to deal with the challenges of coexistence in their own communities.

I learned from Judaism that even one act can transform the world, that within each one of us lies the power to reshape our world. If investing in a next generation of religious leaders helps answer Pope John Paul’s call “to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth,” I hope others will be equally inspired to take action in any way they can – in their schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, and communities – to build bridges between faiths so our children can live peacefully together in a better world.

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