Rabbi Jack Bemporad begins his day very early by listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, then reading from his beloved prophets and going from them to Plato. This soothes his soul, he says, and prepares him for his long and full days. Bemporad is senior rabbinical scholar at the 20-year-old Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine, which honored him at a gala held at the Clinton Inn on Nov. 16. Also honored was the congregation’s founding rabbi and cantor, Rabbi Nat Benjamin. The event was attended by more than 150 people.
If listening to Bach and reading the words of prophets and philosophers sounds as though Bemporad lives in the past, he does not. He upgrades his “communications gadgets” regularly and reads The Financial Times and Ha’aretz, although he admits that he has no patience for TV news. His duties run the gamut from serving his congregation, to traveling around the globe looking for ways to bring peace through interfaith dialogue, to teaching Dominican priests in the Vatican about Judaism.
The chavurah, which today has a membership of over 230 families, was founded in 1991 with the support of Angelica and Russ Berrie. Bemporad’s Saturday morning Bible classes are one of its popular and most enduring features, filled each week with eager adult students who are encouraged to debate and question the text.
The chavurah is an important part of Bemporad’s life because he sees it as a vehicle to help transform the Jewish lives of others. As he explains in an article on its website, “Jewish communities in the western world are at the forefront of secularism, and though Jews today may not deny their Jewish roots and identity, they do not view their Judaism as an essential or central element in their lives.
“This must change, and it can only change if we strive to ask and answer a different question than has been asked and answered throughout Jewish history. That question was: How can I be Jewish? That is, how can I learn about and practice the Jewish religion. Today we must ask and answer a different question: Why must I be Jewish…?
“Our chavurah is dedicated to teaching a set of values that will be a guide and a resource for life so that Judaism becomes what they want to adopt and have compelling reasons for why they should be Jews.” (See box below.)
As important as the chavurah is to him, however, interfaith work is his predominant concern.
His family fled Italy when the Nazis and their collaborators began overrunning Europe. Bemporad was 5 when the family arrived in New York. That experience and the early years of his life in the New World helped shape the person he became.
“Because I was a victim of anti-Semitism,” he said in an interview, “I saw the possibilities in interfaith dialogue and chose to largely concentrate on that. I had seen and suffered from what happened to my family as a result of hatreds that had roots in centuries of religious teaching, so it became important for me to deal with one of the greatest causes of anti-Semitism.”
The churches, Bemporad said, may not have been directly responsible for czarist pogroms or for the Shoah, “but they set the atmosphere of contempt, making it possible for horrible regimes to act with impunity.”
For that reason, Bemporad said, “I decided to devote my efforts to try to prevent what happened to me from happening to others.”
In 1959, as a newly ordained Reform rabbi, Bemporad joined with other community leaders in an audience with Pope John XXIII to discuss world hunger. When the pope, who was Italian, heard the name Bemporad, he asked if the rabbi had a relative who had been a partisan battling Mussolini and his Fascists. It was his uncle, Bemporad said, prompting John XXIII to invite Bemporad to meet with him in private. During their talk, the rabbi raised the issue of Rome’s accountability for the rabid anti-Semitism that made it easier to carry out the Shoah.
The pope convinced Bemporad that he was both aware of the problem and seeking solutions. Shortly after that meeting, John XXIII instructed Augustin Cardinal Bea to draft a “Decree on the Jews” that led a few years later to the issuing of Nostre Aetate (“In Our Time”), which dramatically changed Catholic doctrine vis-Ã -vis the Jewish people. (John XXIII had died by then; his successor, Paul VI, proclaimed the changes.)
During the 1960s especially, Bemporad was actively engaged in interfaith work on behalf of the now-defunct Synagogue Council of America. To continue that work, he founded and is the director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding (CIU).
Bemporad says that an important milestone in his life’s work was the Prague Accord in September 1990 – when Edward Cardinal Cassidy asked the Jewish people to forgive the anti-Judaism perpetrated by the Catholic Church and its followers. He added that the Church wanted to “do teshuvah,” deliberately using the traditional Hebrew idiom for repentance. The Prague Accord was written by Bemporad and subsequently endorsed by Pope John Paul II at the 25th anniversary of Vatican II.
Today, Bemporad is the director of the John Paul II Center at St. Thomas Aquinas University in Rome.
Bemporad said that he was profoundly influenced by the philosopher Herman Cohen, and also by his teachers – Samuel Atlas, Ellis Rivkin, Hans Jonas, and Henry Slominsky, some of the intellectual giants in 20th-century Jewish thinking. He wrote “The Ten Principles of Judaism” as a distillation of what he learned from their encyclopedic minds, principles that he feels embody the essence of Judaism. He wrote the principles on behalf of the Ollendorff Center, which focuses on raising awareness of Jewish issues through education and outreach. The principles – complete with a 20-minute video and study guide – are being studied at many congregations around the United States. (Bemporad’s Ten Principles can be accessed at http://theollendorffcenter.org/principles.html.)
Bemporad said he will continue to stress the need for interfaith dialogue, especially between Jews and Muslims.
“We live in an increasingly interreligious world,” the rabbi said, “where for the most part, nations have given up on forced conversion. In such a multi-faith world, we must work together on our common goals and try to make peace.”