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Rabbi feels at home building bridges at Catholic high school


PITTSBURGH — Even wearing his yarmulke and a visitor's badge, Rabbi Ronald Symons felt at home at the Catholic high school in Coraopolis, near Pittsburgh. And the seniors who filed into religion class were just as accustomed to seeing him there.

They're part of a long-running program that brings local rabbis to a dozen Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh to talk about Jewish religion, culture and history.

"I'm really proud to be the rabbi of Our Lady of Sacred Heart," said Symons, who gives two talks per year to religion classes at each grade level. "I walk in the door, they know me."

On this morning, Symons opened class by displaying a photo of two statues.

One statue was of a nobly dressed woman holding a cross and chalice, imperiously looking down on a woman who could be her sister. The second woman wore a blindfold and a shabby robe, her head turned down, her hands holding a broken spear and an upside-down Torah.

The statues adorned a medieval cathedral in France, and depictions of the allegorical women named "Ecclesia" and "Synagoga" were common at the time, depicting Christianity and Judaism.

"What might a believer in the Middle Ages intuit based on this depiction?" asked Symons, of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh. "Imagine a time when the average person was illiterate. You see the triumphant church over here and the defeated Jew over there. You don't need to hear the words. You simply see it."

Symons said the doctrine behind the statues, that Christianity had supplanted Judaism, is not anti-Semitic in itself, even if he deeply disagrees with it. But "eventually you go from theology to the people on the street."

And that's where, he said, abstract theology was used to create a climate of anti-Semitism in Europe, with spasms of violence over the centuries culminating in the Nazi murders of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

Fast-forward to today, by way of 1965.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark document "Nostra Aetate," approved by the Second Vatican Council as an overture to followers of the world's major religions, particularly Jews. It rejected anti-Semitism and acknowledged Christianity's fundamental debt to Judaism, using the biblical metaphor of a branch grafted onto an olive tree.

"Why do you think the church felt the need to do this 20 years after the Holocaust?" Symons asked. Because, he said, bishops thought, "If we stay silent now, maybe it's going to happen again."

Judging from the students' reactions, one might conclude the mission is accomplished.

None of the students had encountered images like the medieval "Ecclesia" and "Synagoga" in their churches or religious texts.

"I didn't really know that much about it," Serena Algeri said. "It was interesting to see how intertwined our faiths are."

She previously went to public school and learned "to accept everybody," both as a practical matter in a diverse environment and as a matter of faith. "I think the basis of Christianity is to love all people," she said.

Classmate Sarah Schauble added: "That's what I learned in Catholic grade school."

Even for the adults in the room, Symons' history lesson was largely just that — history.

Christopher Chapman, secondary education consultant for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said such stereotyping was foreign to him. "But I was born in 1968," he said.

Religion teacher Nancy Jarocki said she was born a decade earlier and has "vague memories of my childhood" of hearing Judaism denigrated before Nostra Aetate. But not for long afterward.

The classes are part of the Catholic-Jewish Education Enrichment Program (C-JEEP), launched in 2001 and administered by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee in cooperation with the Diocese of Pittsburgh. One rabbi regularly visits each of a dozen area Catholic high schools. Also under the program, Catholic educators join rabbis at synagogues to give talks to Jewish teens.

The aims are to prevent anti-Semitism and to build on Nostra Aetate's call for respectful interfaith dialogue. The program reflects the "good relationship between the Jewish community and the Catholic high schools," said Karen Hochberg, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.

Even in such a climate of goodwill, dialogue is crucial, Symons said.

"I don't think it's just about fighting anti-Semitism or racism," he said. "It's about building bridges of understanding."

He visits classes twice each year to talk about such things as Jewish holidays, life-cycle rituals, social-justice mandates and connections to Israel. His congregation also hosts freshmen for a tour of the synagogue and its Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where students who go on a scavenger hunt find such things as the Jewish braided bread challah and Judaic crafts in nearby shops.

Chapman said the program is needed not just to learn about Judaism but about Christianity. "To not understand that Jesus is Jewish is not to understand Catholicism," he said.

Jarocki added that as students grow up and have contacts with people of other religions at work and in their communities, "being able to have conversations about faith will become increasingly important."

Noah Dawgiello, a senior, said he has also learned about Judaism through Boy Scout activities but added, "It's nice to hear it straight from the rabbi."

And Symons deals straight when it comes to differences between the religions.

"For some, it's really hard for them to understand that I don't believe in Jesus . as messiah," he said. But students can understand "I'm still a faithful person, and there's room for dialogue."



Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,