TEANECK As township resident Alan Brill takes his post as Seton Hall University’s new point man for the betterment of Jewish-Catholic relations, a question begs to be asked: But is it good for the Jews?
Of course, says Brill, a 46-year-old Orthodox rabbi with a doctorate in Jewish mysticism from another Catholic institution, the Jesuit-run Fordham University. "This is important because the definition of ‘Jewish community’ should not be just inwardly focused," he says, adding that interfaith outreach "is a major way to define Judaism in a broader, outwardly expansive way and show how we can contribute and what we can do."
It’s also good for the Jews, he continues, "because on a local level people are just beginning to wake up to the religious diversity around us. We have a tendency to see America as secular. It’s actually a new religious America. And just as Jews have found new ways to redefine their identities using traditional religious terms, so have our Christian neighbors. A lot of contact is now occurring among people of faith."
And that includes Muslims. On a September Shabbat last year, Brill and his wife, Debi, invited a dozen Jewish friends and colleagues to their home to meet with visiting faculty members from a teachers’ college in the Israeli Arab village of Baqa El Garbia. Brill also traveled to Spain for the World Conference of Imams and Rabbis for Peace in March ‘006.
Brill says his background in interfaith work much of it on behalf of the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress makes him feel comfortable occupying Seton Halls’ Cooperman/Ross Distinguished Professor Chair in Jewish-Christian Studies in Honor of Sister Rose Thering.
Thering, who died last year, was instrumental in persuading the Vatican to change the way Catholic doctrine and educational texts presented Judaism. She was also the guiding force behind the introduction of Holocaust education in New Jersey, which debuted in Teaneck in 1975.
"I’m being brought in to continue the mission of Sister Rose to foster Jewish-Christian understanding and fight ignorance of Judaism," says Brill, who also will teach Catholic educators and community leaders from around the world at the South Orange-based university’s graduate department of Jewish-Christian Studies.
"Curriculums have all been changed [for the better] in American Catholic schools, but official teachings are still an issue in other parts of the world," he says. "A lot of the students from overseas want to understand the Jewish background of Jesus and the role of rabbinic Judaism." His courses will include Modern Jewish Thought and Holocaust Theology, as well as Jewish Theology of Other Religions.
Beyond the classroom, Brill has already started to build a public profile and raise awareness through interviews on Sirius radio and an August op-ed column in the National Catholic Reporter.
"Our goal is overcoming fear and the sense of otherness," he says. "It’s a question of learning to meet, to listen, to be open enough to hear another story. We’re not talking in terms of grand changes. People don’t speak anymore of grand rapprochement but of getting to know one another on a smaller scale. I can be a spokesman for Judaism, to explain our positions to the Christian world and how a Jew sees current situations in Jewish-Christian relations and vis-?-vis the pope."
Brill believes Pope Benedict XVI is committed to carrying forward his predecessor’s overtures to the Jewish community.
"He’s made an effort to single out Judaism for special treatment, recognizing it as a ‘living religion.’ Benedict will forever emphasize the importance of biblical law, kingship, and ritual as good things," says Brill. "In his new book, ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ he goes out of his way to praise the Jewish influence on Christian liturgy. He writes that all the negative statements about Jews in the New Testament don’t apply to contemporary Jews, and he emphasizes respect for rabbinic teachings."
Brill expects to serve as a resource for a Synod of Bishops to be held in ‘008.
"Pope Benedict is asking bishops to examine how they are teaching Judaism in their areas, and we are planning how to have input in this," he says.
In the meantime, he is writing a book analyzing the writings of Jewish sages on other faiths.