Englewood’s interfaith activist

Englewood’s interfaith activist

At 85, Rabbi Jack Bemporad isn’t slowing down in his quest for dialogue

Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Pope Francis
Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Pope Francis

The only man to receive an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome — considered the Vatican’s finest university — is a rabbi who lives in Englewood.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad has been an interfaith activist for decades. He has met privately with four popes — John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis. He played key roles leading up to the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1993. In 2013, he brought Muslim leaders from around the world to Auschwitz.

And at 85, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Not only does he continue to teach at the Pontifical University, as director of the Center for Inter-Religious Understanding, he’s at work planning a conference for early 2019 in Kosovo, Europe’s only Muslim-majority country, that will turn the interfaith discussion to some of the most problematic texts of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Rabbi Bemporad was born in Pisa, Italy. In 1938, when he was 5, he was expelled from school for being Jewish. He remembers his mother crying as she picked him up from school that day.

Italy’s Fascist government had just enacted racial laws that mimicked the measures implemented in Nazi Germany. His parents, Vana and Enrico, soon fled with him and his infant brother, Jules, settling in America.

These were formative experiences, to which all of his interfaith activism is inevitable commentary.

“If you go to Florence and look at the plaque on the synagogue, you’ll see eight Bemporads who were taken to Auschwitz and killed,” he said.

“I have a sense of what it means to be a refugee. I remember we went through Switzerland. There my mother was forced to return to Italy. They said her visa wasn’t prepared properly. My brother was 11 months old. She was nursing him. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.”

The reunited family eventually made its way to New York. A year after the war, the Bemporads returned to Italy to search for the children’s grandmother.

“I was 13,” he said. “I remember not seeing one house standing. I still have this vision of total destruction. I saw little kids totally naked, with bloated bellies, going through garbage cans trying to find something to eat.

“My grandmother, who we found alive, said the worst of it was the bombing,” the terror of hearing the planes flying overhead, not knowing where they would drop their bombs.

The trip to Italy convinced him “that war is the greatest evil.” His later Bible studies at Hebrew Union College convinced him that the Bible shared that view. It “made it clear that the greatest evil in the Bible is war. That’s why it’s the only ancient text that can dream of beating swords into plowshares.”

His family was Sephardic and Orthodox. “We would always go to shul,” he said. In New York, that was Shearith Israel — the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue.

“From the time I could remember, I was always a religious kid,” Rabbi Bemporad said.

He set out to study math in college. “I went to Tulane,” in New Orleans, “because the entire department of mathematics at the University of California Berkeley refused to sign a loyalty oath and they were all fired. Tulane hired every one of them. Tulane became the best mathematics department.”

Young Bemporad was interested in mathematical logic. “Then I started raising questions,” he said. “They said, ‘oh, you’re raising questions. You shouldn’t be here. You should be in the philosophy department.’ There they said, ‘Oh no, you’re asking the kind of questions that are religious questions.’ So here I found myself asking profound philosophical questions that had to do with religion.”

Enrico and Vana, Jack’s parents, 11-month old Jules, Jack at 5, and his cousin, Silvano Arieti, who became a famous psychiatrist, on the Queen Mary, coming to America.

That’s when he started studying independently. He studied Hebrew with Ephraim Lisitzky, who was the principal of the New Orleans Hebrew school but had won fame as a Hebrew poet. (Lisitzky’s most famous work was “Medurot Do’akhot,” “Dying Campfires,” a story of two American Indian tribes based on Native American legends and using the same meter as Longfellow’s Hiawatha.)

This was, remember, decades before Tulane would open a Jewish studies department. So after beginning his Hebrew classes, the curious college student sought out “the most scholarly rabbi in New Orleans I could study with.”

That turned out to be a Reform rabbi — which led Jack Bemporad to enroll in the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati for rabbinical training. It wasn’t a natural choice for a boy who grew up Orthodox.

“Maybe Reform is too much,” he remembers thinking as he was making the decision. “Maybe I can go to JTS. But then I discovered that Leo Baeck” — the German Jewish rabbi and leader — “was teaching at HUC. I had read his stuff. If I could study with Baeck…”

In fact, to Bemporad’s delight, Baeck turned out to be only the tip of the scholarly iceberg. “HUC had brought over the best of European Jewish professors and saved their lives. For me, it was a field day.” The most famous was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who decamped to JTS in 1946, but a critical mass remained at HUC.

“There were only two problems,” Rabbi Bemporad said. “Their English was so-so. That we were able to overcome. And they were used to really first-class students. I learned how little I know. I’ll never know one tenth of what they knew.”

For all his love of Jewish scholarship and teaching, “If I didn’t get involved in trying to help people, especially the Jewish people, what does my life mean? I wanted to continue to read and write, and be active and engaged.”

Since his ordination in 1956, Rabbi Bemporad has led congregations and taught at universities. (He is the senior rabbinical scholar at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine.).

In 1987, Rabbi Bemporad took a central role in Jewish interfaith relations. He was recruited to the Synagogue Council of America to help negotiate a meeting between the pope and American Jewish leaders. “They felt that if Cardinal Willebrands, who was in charge of the arrangements, would have difficulties in English, we could always speak in Italian. His English was better than mine.” (That could well be an exaggeration — Rabbi Bemporad speaks perfect, unaccented English.)

The immediate problem at hand was the leaders of the Synagogue Council were furious with Pope John Paul II for having met with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who had been banned from entering the United States two months earlier for working with the Nazis during World War II. (Lou Reed, the rock singer, also was furious; he expressed that anger in his song “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim,” which came out in 1989.)

“I spoke to Willebrands,” Rabbi Bemporad said. “He said, ‘I’m willing to say a faux pas had been made.’ The leaders accepted that.” The tensions remained. When the meeting took place, several of the participants who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency expressed disappointment with how the pope addressed the Waldheim matter. Tellingly, Rabbi Bemporad was not among those who spoke to the news service. In hindsight, his desire to move forward with the dialogue was borne out by what came in the next couple of years — the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel and the pope’s apology for the sin of anti-Semitism.

The next issue was a convent across the street from Auschwitz. The Carmelite nuns were praying for the souls of the murdered Jews. Jews were outraged. European cardinals had promised to move the nuns elsewhere within two years, but three years later they still were there. Rabbi Avi Weiss, then of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, went to Poland to protest. Rabbi Bemporad spoke quietly to a Vatican official.

Rabbi Bemporad and Pope Benedict XVI

“I said, does the Catholic Church intend to keep the promise? That was on Thursday. On Monday, they started moving them. Finally, Pope John Paul had to write the nuns a letter. It was the first time I know of a pope siding with the Jews against his own people.”

Next on the Jewish community’s agenda with the Vatican was a condemnation of anti-Semitism. Rabbi Bemporad met with Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who headed the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews — “one of the great men,” Rabbi Bemporad says.

“I said, if the pope means what he said when he went to the synagogue” — that had been in 1986, when John Paul II spoke at the Grand Synagogue of Rome, becoming the first pontiff to visit a synagogue — “and said he’s against anti-Semitism by anyone anywhere — does that include Catholic anti-Semitism?”

And in September 1990, in Prague, Jewish leaders and Catholic officials issued a joint declaration condemning anti-Semitism, in which the Catholic leaders asked forgiveness. This was followed by apologies by regional Catholic leaders.

“The first country to really ask forgiveness was Poland,” Rabbi Bemporad said. Then as now, Poland was a flashpoint in Catholic-Jewish relations. The Polish church had supported the Carmelite nuns. And when Rabbi Weiss stormed the convent, dressed in a concentration camp uniform, Poland’s Cardinal Jozef Glemp “came out with the most anti-Semitic statement,” Rabbi Bemporad remembers. “It was incredible.”

So Rabbi Bemporad responded by inviting the cardinal to Washington to meet with Jewish officials as well as American.

“It was the first time Glemp was with any rabbis,” he said. “Glemp knew Italian and Polish and didn’t know English, so the conversation was through me. He said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know what I was talking about.’

“Later I met him at a meeting in Rome. He said he spearheaded dozens of Jewish-Christian dialogue groups in Poland.

“You don’t want to condemn people, you want to educate them. You want to give them a sense they can look at things differently.

“I did the same thing with the evangelicals when they came out with a statement that Christians have to convert Jews,” Rabbi Bemporad continued. This was after he had left the Synagogue Council of America and its affiliated International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations to start his own center for interreligious dialogue at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Rabbi Bemporad called the evangelical group and said, “Do you mind if I come and talk to you and you can explain why you want to convert me?”

He arranged a conference in Nashville. “I had every single Christian group there,” he said. “The Catholics. The Methodists. Everyone except the evangelicals said, ‘We’re not interested in converting the Jews. We want to talk with them.’ The evangelical guy was so embarrassed he didn’t know what they were doing. Thereafter they stopped spending $3 to $5 million a year to convert Jews.”

Rabbi Bemporad had left the Synagogue Council, which represented the main streams of American Jewish religious life, because he had grown frustrated by the constraints placed by the participating Orthodox organizations. In 1964, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik had published an essay, “Confrontation,” that discussed interreligious dialogue and said that theological dialogue was inappropriate. The Orthodox groups in the Synagogue Council hewed to that line.

“I always felt that was a limited perspective, because all of the problems we have with the Catholics are theological. The fact they affirm certain things about Christ or original sin is what’s caused the anti-Semitism. The traditional view, which is from Augustine, is that the Jews were made to suffer, to wander from nation to nation as exiles until they come to the truth and they accept Jesus. That’s a theological argument.

“The real thing is to defang theology and say that theology has to change. I’ve worked on that. I’ve succeeded in large measure in having them understand that this kind of supersecessionist theology is ultimately unwarranted,” he said.

To do this, he has quoted Catholic texts, ranging from a modern declaration, Nostra Aetate, which came out of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, to Chapter 11 of Romans in the Christian Bible, “where Paul says the gifts and calls of God are irrevocable.

“All I did was reaffirm the things they do,” he said.

Rabbi Bemporad and Resul Rexhepi, secretary of the Kosovo Islamic Community, display a plaque commemorating the destruction of Islamic heritage during the war in Kosovo that raged from 1998 to 1999.

This activism was recognized when the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas gave him an honorary doctorate in theology in 2016. But the interfaith move that brought him to the university’s attention came 19 years ago, when Rabbi Bemporad began teaching there. He loves it. He teaches theology, philosophy, Jewish studies, and sometimes Bible. “I usually give a course on the Hebrew prophets, and a course on the first century,” he said. “I give seminars on particular texts like the Book of Job or Kohelet.”

His best students these days include Berrie Fellows.

No, not the North Jersey Jewish communal leaders selected for leadership training sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation. His Berrie Fellows, also sponsored by the Berrie Foundation, spend a year studying at the Pontifical University in a program that includes a two week trip to Israel. The goal is to create a cadre of non-Jewish leaders (most are Catholic, though there have been some Protestants and even a couple of Muslims) who understand and are sympathetic to Judaism and Israel.

The program is now in its tenth year.

“The students are extraordinary,” he said. “Many are ordained priests. We get a lot of nuns. The people we have educated are becoming the leaders of the Catholic church and interreligious committees.” Many are from places with few Jews and little opportunity for dialogue with Jews — places like Nigeria, which has sent several students.

“I consider that a great achievement. We can, as a Jewish organization, actually invest in the future education of mainly non-Jewish leaders who will have a sufficient knowledge of Judaism, sufficient experience with and knowledge of Israel, that they can respond when they are in situations where all kinds of things are being said against us.

“This was a vision Russell Berrie had. His wife Angelica has carried it out,” he said.

This puts Rabbi Bemporad in Rome for about five months a year, where “the food is incredible but if it rains the city stops and you can’t get a taxi. They have a great quality of life.”

His newest project is Scriptural Resources for Peace.

“People in the interreligious world have been committed to looking at how much we all agree on, and studiously avoiding all those things that separate us. My feeling is that we have to say, ‘Yes, our scriptures really give us sustenance, they are a source of great, great strength, they give us orientation in a world that has very little orientation — but what are we going to do with all the texts in our Bible, in the Christian Bible, in the Koran and the hadiths, that are quoted not for peace, but for war? How do you deal with that?”

So he’s planning the conference in Kosovo that will discuss the texts in the Koran quoted by Isis and Al Qaeda, the passages in the New Testament that say that Jews do the devil’s work, “and passages like Numbers 30 where it says to kill all the men and the women.

“That’s the next step in interreligious dialogue. It’s not enough to say ‘Let’s understand each other better’ until we deal with the very texts of the people who are against the pope and want to revert to pre-Vatican II, or against the moderates in Israel, or who offer crazy interpretations of Islam.

“We’re going to have the foremost authorities to deal with this. Then we’re going to do conferences with study guides from that material using local people in places like Croatia, Ukraine, Rome, Washington, and even Dallas.”

Rabbi Bemporad is headed to Kosovo in October to finalize arrangements, but he’s already met with Muslim and Catholic leaders there. “I think I’ve got the full support of the religious community,” he said. “It’s the first time a Muslim-majority state is willing to say that we want to own up to the way Islam has been used in a way that we detest.

“So much of Twitter and Facebook and what goes on in the media has a tendency to say that Isis is the real Islam. If that’s the truth all it can lead to is the worst.

“A lot of good things are happening,” Rabbi Bemporad said. “People spend too much time watching TV and reading the papers. I don’t do that. They’re so overwhelmed with negativity. I’m not denying there’s a lot of bad stuff happening. They don’t see so much that is being done that is quite good.”

It’s not just the positive vibrations he feels from his present and former students. There’s the work being done by other actors in the field of interreligious affairs. There are Muslim leaders visiting the Vatican. “Just now the Church broke ground with Saudi Arabia. There have been tremendous strides in terms of getting the Saudi crown prince to say that they have to begin to have a look at different religions,” he said.

Rabbi Bemporad believes that it is religion — and only religion — that can save humanity.

“It’s only if the religions get together — which is my task — and become the conscience of society and the voice for humanity that will do it. The politicians are not going to speak from the perspective of conscience. They’re not going to be representatives of humanity.

“Who is it who has a truly universal perspective that recognizes the intrinsic dignity of everyone? That is something that is religious.

“The one thing that religion gave to ethics was the idea of humanity. There was no idea of humanity in Greek philosophy. Not in Plato, not in Aristotle. It comes out of the Bible.

“Take the Sabbath. The Sabbath says that every human being, including women, slaves, even a stranger, has the right for 24 hours a week to be in control of his time. That person no longer viewed themselves as objects. Suddenly they were subjects. That’s Biblical.

“Where did the idea of Messiah come from? It was the Bible that said if war is the greatest evil and peace is the greatest good, then what we need is a king or a leader or anointed one who is for peace. That’s the foundation for the idea of humanity.

“The sad thing is most Jews aren’t even aware of it.”

Who: Rabbi Jack Bemporad

Where: Chavurah Beth Shalom, Alpine Community House, 10 Old Dock Road, Alpine

When: 11 a.m., after services

What: Brunch and learn

How much: Free

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