Blessings to one another: an exhibit on Pope John Paul and the Jewish people

The upcoming exhibit on Pope John Paul II at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood OH, a suburb of Cleveland, inspires a mélange of thoughts: Patriots’ Day ... the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising ... Notre Dame College ... Holocaust studies ... an Abrahamic Council ... Saturday in Jerusalem ... Hillel ... and Spike Lee.

They form a pattern linking American history, Notre Dame College, its surrounding community and me to the tragic roots and urgent need for interfaith understanding that John Paul II so passionately sought.

The title of the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & the Jewish People,” comes from John Paul II’s April 19, 1993, letter on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – which also happens to be the day the American Revolution began in 1775 – April 19 – Patriots’ Day.

The intersection of the dates is striking – two peoples seeking to cast off oppression, a spiritual leader seeking to heal.

Although bruised, America’s ideal of freedom and tolerance still inspires, still points us toward acceptance and understanding, as it did for George Washington in writing to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island:

“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. ... May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants.”

John Paul II, whose experience of the savage pain caused by a society’s failure to recognize its citizens’ “inherent natural rights,” elevated that sentiment to a spiritual plane when he said:

“As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first, a blessing to one another.”

Notre Dame College in South Euclid has sought from its founding 90 years ago to be “a blessing to one another.” It proudly counts among its alumnae many members of Cleveland’s Jewish community, including Judith Stone Weiss and Judi Feniger, executive director of the Maltz Museum.

Notre Dame College has for 13 years sponsored a Tolerance Resource Center. One of the highlights of my nine years at the college was the TRC’s 10th anniversary event, when many Cleveland-area Holocaust survivors heard a presentation by Sr. Gemma Del Duca, who since 1975 has lived in Israel and was the first non-Israeli to receive Yad Vashem’s Excellence in Holocaust Education Award.

The TRC is now an Abrahamic  Center, promoting acceptance and understanding among the three great monotheistic faiths. The college revised its core curriculum to include courses focusing on the Abrahamic values of caring for the world. A key course outcome is directly experiencing the faith and culture of others. As a prelude to that, in February 2011, a Notre Dame College group visited Israel.

The trip affirmed that experiencing other people’s culture sheds an emotional light that cannot be experienced by simply reading – no matter how widely or deeply – about other faith traditions. For me, two examples shine forth.

First, placing a prayer for the health of my great-niece, a prayer for the well-being of my grandchildren, and a prayer for the future of Notre Dame College in the Western Wall was a moving experience. The obvious sincerity and emotional commitment of my fellow worshipers was humbling.

Equally affecting was Saturday evening’s Catholic Mass at a Paulist monastery. It was quite touching for many of the same reasons I experienced earlier at the Wall. At first, I thought a Mass at a monastery would be conducted in the company of monks. Not so; it was a Mass in Aramaic for the local Palestinian community.

Most poignant was the humble but warm parish gathering after Mass. As we shared a bit of juice and honey cakes and warm exchanges across the language barrier with our hosts, I noticed on a blackboard in the school hall Hillel’s three questions – “If I am not for me, who will be? If I am only for me, what am I? If not now, when?”

To read this quote in a Paulist monastery, after attending a Roman Catholic Mass conducted in Aramaic on the outskirts of Jerusalem – on the same Saturday I prayed at the Western Wall and heard the muezzin call the Islamic faithful to afternoon prayers as I walked through the Christian quarter of Old Jerusalem – was an Abrahamic experience of the highest order.

Similarly, an Abrahamic experience of the highest order awaits you when you visit the Maltz Museum’s exhibit “A Blessing to One Another.”

This will be an American experience in which – like Washington, like Hillel, like we trust Notre Dame College – you will be exhorted, in Spike Lee’s words, “to do the right thing” – to love one another as ourselves, to be a blessing to one another!

Dr. Andrew P. Roth, who is Roman Catholic, is president of Notre Dame College in South Euclid OH and on the advisory committee for the Pope John Paul II exhibit at the Maltz Museum. This article first appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News.

(Andrew P. Roth)

Programs related to the Blessings exhibit

“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” runs from May 18 to August 5 at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. It follows John Paul II’s footsteps from childhood to his role as head of the world’s largest church. Some related programs are below; some require fees. Visit www.maltzmuseum.org for additional programs and details.

• The Resurgence of Jewish Culture in Poland, Wednesday, May 30, 7 p.m. Sean Martin, associate curator of Jewish history at The Western Reserve Historical Society; Auschwitz scholar Jody Russell Manning; and Youngstown State University’s Dr. Helene Sinnreich. Moderated by Richard Crepage, Cleveland Council on World Affairs.

• Film: “I Am Joseph, Your Brother” (60 minutes), Wednesday, June 27, 7 p.m. Documentary inspired by the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel in 2000. Dr. Michael Bloom, Notre Dame College, leads a post-viewing discussion.

• The Life and Legacy of Pope John Paul II, Wednesday, July 11, 7 p.m. Lorraine Dodero, Umberto P. Fedeli, Samuel H. Miller, and Sen. George Voinovich talk about the legacy of Pope John Paul II’s relationship with the Jewish people. Moderated by Plain Dealer publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger.

• Family Day: A Celebration of Polish and Jewish Culture, Sunday, July 15, 1-4 p.m. with dance performance at 1:30. Enjoy making art, learning about Jewish and Polish folk traditions, and the Piast Polish Folk Dance Ensemble.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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