The board of a leading Jewish advocacy group will meet this week to salute a man they say reflects some of the highest ideals of their faith: the leader of the area's half-million Catholics.
The Baltimore Jewish Council will honor Archbishop William E. Lori, the top official of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, for his efforts in "advancing interfaith understanding in Maryland."
The event underscores the unusually strong connection that has long existed between the Jewish and Catholic communities in Baltimore — and comes at a time when Catholics and theologians are commemorating the 50th anniversary of a watershed moment in the history of relations among the world's religions.
It was in October 1965 that the Roman Catholic Church approved Nostra Aetate, a document that repudiated anti-Semitism and called for new and respectful interaction between Catholics and Jews. Nostra Aetate — the phrase is Latin for "In Our Time" — addressed several longstanding points of contention, including suggestions from some Catholic leaders that Jews are collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
In recent years, Lori and the Archdiocese of Baltimore have worked together with Jewish leaders on matters related to religious liberty and help for the poor, among others. They also have jointly lobbied for legislation, such as a bill aimed at encouraging scholarships to private schools including Jewish and Catholic day schools.
Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Jewish council, said Nostra Aetate commemorations and Pope Francis' recent visit to the United States — when the pontiff urged Congress to overcome its divisions and took part in a service with several other faiths — present new opportunities to highlight the importance of interfaith cooperation.
"Our goal is to promote understanding across barriers of division, just as Pope Francis did during his trip," Abramson said. "With that fresh in our minds, this seems like the right time to thank Archbishop Lori for all the work he does, to reawaken our two [faith communities] to the meaning of Nostra Aetate and to alert the Baltimore community to the many different things we do together."
The Jewish council will present Lori two of the archdiocese's outreach organizations with letters of thanks and recognition on Thursday.
Jews and Catholics draw on a common faith tradition, one rooted in the literature and teachings of the Old Testament. But whereas Christians embraced Jesus as the Messiah, Jews did not.
And unlike Judaism, with its many and varied branches, the Catholic Church sees itself as the lone holy denomination of its faith, and speaks with a single voice in the form of a doctrine that can take years to change.
Such distinctions gave rise, at times, to seemingly unbridgeable disagreement. For example, the Catholic Church for centuries used a prayer as part of its Good Friday liturgy that called for the conversion of "perfidis judaeis" — Latin for "perfidious (deceitful) Jews" or "faithless" Jews, in some translations.
Nostra Aetate — approved during the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, an enclave of bishops that met in the 1960s to align church doctrine more closely with the beliefs of modern Western society — repudiated the notion that all Jews bear responsibility for the crucifixion and softened the controversial prayer, which originated as part of the Tridentine liturgy.
The enclave did nothing to address an issue that still divides Catholics and Jews. Some Jewish scholars believe Pope Pius XII failed to take a clear stand against the Nazi genocide of Jews during World War II, and the Vatican still declines to release documents related to that contention.
Still, scholars say, it set an example for other faiths to seek dialogue and take action in areas of common interest.
Heather Miller Rubens, an associate director at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, an independent nonprofit in Towson that promotes interfaith dialogue and service activities, said her organization would not exist were it not for Nostra Aetate, a document she describes as transformative.
"Having talked with folks who went through Vatican II, I can say the changes in the overall climate for interfaith dialogue have been immense," said Rubens, a scholar on Roman Catholicism. "When John Kennedy ran for president, we were wondering whether a Catholic could or should hold that office. Just last month, we had a pope speak to a joint session of Congress."
Rubens has traveled across the country this year to address symposia on Nostra Aetate and will speak this month at the Open Windows Festival at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park, an annual gathering first held three years ago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, which took place between 1962 and 1965.
This year's festival will focus on the long-term impact of Nostra Aetate, otherwise known as "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions." Originally written specifically to address relations between Catholics and Jews, it was broadened during the enclave to include other non-Christian faiths.
Lori and Abramson say Baltimore, home to historically thriving Catholic and Jewish communities, was one of the few places where productive Jewish-Catholic dialogue long predates Nostra Aetate.
Lori said that "longstanding and strong relationship ... stretches back in time" to the days of Cardinal James Gibbons, the renowned Catholic leader who served as archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 to 1921. Gibbons spoke openly, one historian writes, of Israel's divine commission as "a kingdom of priests and holy nation."
"Cardinal Gibbons always enjoyed the friendship of rabbis … and made it a point to establish good relationships with the entire religious community," said Lori, who has studied Gibbons' life.
He also praised "open-hearted" and "visionary" men such as Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, who served as archbishop from 1961 to 1974, and Cardinal William Keeler (1989-2007), both of whom established strong bonds with the Jewish community as a way of jointly tackling the city's problems, including issues related to housing and immigration.
Abramson, who has worked with Jewish groups in places as far-flung as Texas, California and Washington state, said he has never encountered a community where Catholic-Jewish relations are stronger than in Baltimore. The Jewish council he now leads was founded in 1939 to combat anti-Semitism here.
Abramson said he and other Jewish leaders meet with representatives of the archdiocese at least once a week to discuss differences on matters ranging from President Barack Obama's pending nuclear deal with Iran to anti-poverty programs.
They also have fought together for a bill first proposed in Annapolis six years ago. The measure would provide tax credits to businesses that donate to organizations that provide scholarships for private school to children in low- to middle-income families.
"There's something about an archbishop and a rabbi walking into a hearing room together that lowers the temperature," Abramson said. "As the joke goes in Annapolis, when Catholics and Jews join forces, they may not get everything they want, but they're going to be heard."
To Rubens, such cooperation is crucial, particularly as "our neighborhoods, workplaces and schools have all become relatively diverse. To not have time and space to think deeply about these kinds of ideas is going to harm conversations in the public square."
"We live in a very divided world and a very divided society," he said. "When we model dialogue and interfaith understanding, if nothing else, we're setting a good example."