Sept. 6 to 9 were busy days for Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt and senior rabbinic scholar at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine. In his capacity as CIU director, the rabbi was one of many instrumental in bringing "A Blessing to One Another, Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People" to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and was there for the opening on the sixth. Then, on the evening of the ninth, Bemporad and William Cardinal Keeler were honored for their work in interfaith relations by the Friends of the Pope John Paul II Foundation at an annual event known as "Wadowice on the Potomac," held at Georgetown University’s Leavey Center in Washington, D.C.
The traveling exhibit about the Polish-born pope, in New York through Feb. ‘7, is about his seeking reconciliation with the Jews because, in his youth, he was a witness to the Holocaust. In addition to Bemporad, Angelica Berrie, CIU’s chairman of the board, its president, Stephen Ollendorff, and board member Myron Rosner, all contributors to the exhibit, were present at the opening. Ollendorff also attended the dinner in Washington and presented the cardinal with a gift from the CIU.
The CIU describes itself on its Website, www.faithindialogue.org, as a resource for "insight, analysis, and positive action for interreligious understanding." The John Paul II Foundation was established by papal decree in 1981 as a religious, educational, and charitable non-profit organization and has branches in 16 countries.
Ollendorff, a Tenafly resident, said that Bemporad’s "role is best exemplified by the Holocaust menorah in the Vatican that the CIU presented to the pope in ‘000. A replica of it is in the exhibit in New York. That that menorah is displayed on Vatican grounds demonstrates the unique relationship between Jack and the Vatican."
From 1987, Bemporad had eight meetings with John Paul II about Jewish-Christian relations, and in particular about the new Catholic catechism (the "guidebook" of Catholic teachings that came after Vatican II). Bemporad was also one of the three rabbis who blessed the pope when 130 Jewish leaders, the largest such group in history, visited the Vatican for a meeting with John Paul II in ‘005.
Bemporad told The Jewish Standard, "No pope in history had ever done more than John Paul II to further the development of Jewish-Christian relations. He was the first [pope] to enter a synagogue, to push for and establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and always made sure he met with the leaders of Jewish communities in every country he visited.
"The pope’s intention was to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that rejected the claims that the Jews collectively killed Jesus. He embraced the teaching that Jesus was a Jew and that the Jews are the Catholic Church’s dearly beloved elder brothers. He preached that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and man, and delegated to Cardinal [Edward Idris] Cassidy the task of asking the Jewish people for forgiveness, to literally have the church do teshuvah as he himself described it in Hebrew. It was the first time ever that Catholics asked forgiveness of the Jewish people. So I think the opening of the exhibit in New York just before Rosh HaShanah is timely."
The exhibit was only one facet of the rabbi’s work that earned him kudos from the Catholics last week. Ray Glembocki, president of the Friends of John Paul II Foundation in Washington, told the Standard, "We were pleased to offer tribute to-Rabbi Bemporad and Cardinal Keeler, who promote dialogue between religions, particularly between Catholics and Jews. John Paul expressed his fraternal love to us the ‘heirs to the faith of Abraham’ and as ‘People of the Book’ and who by his teaching led us by example. These men have followed that example, as witnessed by their collaborative efforts and accomplishments.
Bemporad became involved with the exhibit about John Paul II when he was asked to serve as the director of the Interreligious Affairs Committee of the Synagogue Council of America in 1987. Bemporad said, "Xavier University in Cincinnati, a Catholic institution, premiered the exhibit as a result of efforts by Rabbi Abie Ingbar and James Buchanan. When one visits the museum in New York, one will see that the Holocaust played a major part in the pope’s life. He lived in Poland in those days as a teenager who wanted to be an actor and saw the suffering of the Jews, and he promised himself that should he ever be in a position to rectify that wrong, he would do it. He called the Jews the conscience of humanity and the witness of what happens to human beings who stand for God in the face of evil. ‘They are a warning cry,’ is what he said."
Bemporad says that John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, is continuing the legacy and working hard to maintain good relations between Catholics and Jews. Keeler is a past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he effectively built interfaith bonds with many religious traditions. He is particularly noted for his work in furthering Catholic-Jewish dialogue and is the moderator of Catholic-Jewish relations for the bishops conference.