Reflections from Annual Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference


Credit: Hannah Stampleman Photography


Read Samara Gordon's reflection about her experience representing USCJ at the annual Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership conference in Vilnius, Lithuania.


This summer, I was honored to represent USCJ, together with Masorti Rabbi Oliver Joseph of London, England, at the annual Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference, designed to foster personal relationships to further dialogue between Catholics and Jews in rising generations. Over the course of the three-day conference, hosted this year in Vilnius, Lithuania, fifty participants from around the world studied texts and engaged in discussion groups, reviewing the history and the current state of Jewish-Catholic relations.

A product of Solomon Schechter Day School, Barrack Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, a lifelong Ramah camper, and active member of UPenn Hillel, I was first of all moved to be in Vilnius, which once was home to 84,000 Jews, 94% of whom perished in the Holocaust (it is also home to Vilna Gaon, one of Judaism’s greatest rabbis of the 18th century.) “Vilna,” as it’s called, has a mythic resonance for me. As the daughter of a Conservative rabbi who is committed to interfaith dialogue, especially around Israel issues, I was also excited by the opportunity to get to know this group of diverse individuals—Jewish and Catholic—and discover both what is valuable and challenging about this conversation.

<p><em>Credit: Hannah Stampleman Photography</em></p>

Credit: Hannah Stampleman Photography

I learned that after the historic changes to Church policies and theology instituted by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 with the publication of Nostra Aetate, a document that redefined the Church’s approach to Jews and Judaism, that the Catholic Church wanted to identify Jews who could represent the Jewish community in conversation. Our conference is part of a continuous outreach to guarantee that if Jews are ever again distressed by decisions or actions of the Catholic Church, existing relationships ensure the Jewish leaders have phone numbers to call.

But unlike the Catholic Church, with its clear hierarchy and leadership chain, the diverse global Jewish community does not have an obvious set of representatives. The first challenge for the Jewish representatives picked by organizations such as USCJ was to communicate what we all do believe—the existence of klal Yisrael, a unified, mutually committed world Jewry—while expressing the fullness of Jewish diversity with respect to everything from Jewish faith and practices to our political convictions.

Our conversations on such topics as the Church’s condemnation of missions targeting Jews, theological similarities and differences, 2,000 years of persecution, including the Holocaust, were lively, open, and meaningful. The Catholic representatives seemed to have a relatively easy time talking about what Catholics believe and think, and many seemed to have been well educated in Church history and creed. One challenge of casual conversations over beers was articulating “Jewish” positions or even Jewish practices. While many of the Catholic leaders at the conference had deep familiarity with Judaism and the Jewish people, other young people, from places like Ukraine, Slovakia and even Austria and France, were seriously engaging with Jews for the first time.

When asked about Jewish beliefs and practices, our sentences often had the structure of: “some Jews think this; some do it this way; others this way.” These new friends were surprised when I described my Jewish education as focused on the study of classical debates and said that the louder the classrooms and noisier the conversation, the better the class. They were intrigued to learn that the Talmud itself is full with rabbinic conversations that do not come to clear conclusions. Even as some Jews among us agreed with Catholic dogma about traditional family structure, abortion, and God’s role in history, others of us are as powerfully committed to inclusion and reproductive rights. Navigating our diversity, across groups and within groups, was a lesson in diplomacy for me, and I did discover (I think a goal of the conference) that dialogue can transcend even passionately held disagreements.

The conference included meeting with an Archbishop who talked with us about his city and preparing for an upcoming visit from the Pope and a walking tour of Jewish Vilnius, where we were directed to read faded Hebrew writing and street signs memorializing the Vilna Gaon. We were lucky enough to overlap with and witness the celebration of 100 years of Lithuanian independence, which included a range of festivities with residents dressed in traditional costume and playing national music. We saw the Jewish community gather together to record their singing of the national anthem as part of the celebration. I am grateful to USCJ for this opportunity and especially for expanding my global circle of friends.

Learn more about Jewish-Catholic interfaith work at The International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC)'s website.


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