From Vilnius to the Vatican


On the streets of the former Jewish ghettos of Vilnius, rain pounded on umbrellas as an unlikely group walked the cobblestones. Some wore hamsas or kippot, others wore Catholic clerical shirts.

We were 50 young Jewish and Catholic leaders from Europe, Latin America, the United States, Israel and Australia participating in a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations. The attendees included clergy, community organizers, nonprofit specialists, theology students and devout young professionals.

The purpose of this conference, over a few days in July, was to break through ideological differences and focus on the necessity of Catholic-Jewish relations with young leaders from all over the world.

At first sight, it was an odd mix of folks — rabbis, priests and Jewish professionals participating in the “Youth and Religious Identity: Jews and Catholics in Conversation/Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference.” It was co-sponsored by the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJICIC), the Vatican’s Jewish dialogue partner.

I joined the group through AJC (the American Jewish Committee), the global Jewish advocacy organization. At AJC, we are in the relationship building business. Since 1906, the organization has reached outside the Jewish community to strengthen bonds with prominent figures, including diplomats, government officials and faith leaders. We believe that nuanced diplomacy is essential to the safety and security of the Jewish people.

The partnership between Jews and Catholics is an ongoing process. Like all relationships, it takes work. History reminds us that we must see the faces of our allies and defend alliances because they can be dismantled. Friendships must remain strong to withstand geopolitical changes.

We came to Vilnius with few expectations, but open to engaging the other. An Italian-Catholic deacon living in Jerusalem shared that he suffered from religious harassment from haredi Orthodox Jews. His comments proved that, as Jews, we must continue to stand up for the other.

On the bus, I exchanged ideas with a striking blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter of a conservative German politician. In another conversation, a rabbi from London and another from New Jersey debated with an American-Israeli the complexities of halachah regarding transgender synagogue members.

What struck me from the conference was the entire group’s desire to be present, the essence of experiential learning. We bonded while walking the streets of Vilnius, hearing about the vibrant pre-World War II culture and horrific period of the Holocaust. Vilnius was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” hosting 105 synagogues and six daily Jewish newspapers. This connection was a starting point for our own interreligious dialogue.

We spoke about many subjects, including the status of Catholic-Jewish relations, text studies, reflections on theology, Lithuania’s Jewish history, the refugee crisis and millennials in interreligious dialogue. It was evident that the emerging leaders in the group are looking to take on more responsibility in addressing these issues, signaling a new phase in Catholic-Jewish relations.

During the conference, speakers emphasized that the basis of friendship is relying on people. One priest explained that the Church has been going through the process of teshuvah (repentance) leading up to and continuing since Nostra Aetate, the 1965 declaration of relations between the Church and non-Christians. The Church has longed for formal Jewish communal responses via parallel documents from the Jewish people.

Most recently, an international group of Orthodox rabbis including the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel responded to the Catholic Church, validating 50 years of work. In Vilnius, the conference leaders expressed that this progress is not the end of the dialogue, but rather the beginning of deepening the understanding of the other’s identity.

While the conference was packed with discussion, we barely skimmed the issues that plague our communities. For millennials, these topics might be the future of the dialogue.

In the Catholic Church, for example, we didn’t focus on issues surrounding homosexuality, birth control, sexual abuse, the role of women or celibacy. From a Jewish perspective, we only scratched the surface of contentious topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, conversion rights, assimilation and intermarriage.

Nonetheless, a clear foundation of friendship formed between the emerging leaders. Coming together from two historically divided religions to a shared experience of mutual understanding is no small feat. One rabbi’s comment resonated through the group: “Religion strives to find certainty in an uncertain world.”

This dialogue, infused with theology and history, created a starting point for us as the next generation of leaders. A place of connection. A place of healing old wounds. A place of hope for what the next 50 years of Catholic-Jewish relations will bring.

Susan Sloan is the assistant regional director of AJC Washington.

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