BY CAROL BAASS SOWA
SAN ANTONIO • Neither the choir’s late-running math test nor a temple’s lockdown delaying arrival of the hanukiah (Hanukkah menorah) hindered the joyful celebration of the 16th annual Catholic-Jewish Hanukkah at San Fernando Cathedral Hall on Dec. 14. The event is co-sponsored by the cathedral and the Jewish Federation of San Antonio (JFSA).
Father Victor Valdez, rector of San Fernando cathedral, welcomed attendees in the packed hall to “this wonderful celebration where Catholics and Jews come together to celebrate solidarity, unity and dialogue,” as well as Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.
Jonathan Gurwitz, JFSA chair, announced that this year’s event would introduce participation by Catholic and Jewish teens. “It is good and proper to bring a new generation into this community of friends,” he said, noting the formal relationship between the Jewish and Catholic communities here goes back to the 1960s, when Archbishop Robert E. Lucey, Rabbi David Jacobson and Episcopal Bishop Everett Jones led the city’s peaceful desegregation.
The singing of Hanukkah hymns by the Providence High School Choir, led by Elaine Bir, was followed by a prayer given by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS. “May the light generated by this mutual love and respect,” he said, “be a light to all the nations now and tomorrow always.”
Following the meal, Rabbi Emeritus Samuel M. Stahl of Temple Beth-El noted firsts for the event included live streaming on Facebook and Catholic Television of San Antonio (CTSA) and inclusion of teens as candle lighters. “These young people represent our future,” he related. “They represent what we think are the best of Catholic-Jewish relations and we hope that they will carry on our legacy into the future to their own generations.”
He introduced guest speaker Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious advisor of the American Jewish Committee, as a prolific author and religious commentary writer and a widely acknowledged authority on interreligious relations.
Rabbi Rudin noted there have been more positive Roman Catholic-Jewish encounters since 1965 and Vatican Council II’s Nostra Aetate than in the first 1,900 years of the church. Mutual suspicion and hostility of the past had to be overcome to achieve this. Focusing on the future, rather than the past, he stated Catholic-Jewish life today is being shaped by geography, demography, chronology and technology.
While Europe and North America have been the centers of Catholic and Jewish religious leadership in the past, the irreversible demographic trend shows most Christians (and Catholics) today reside in South and Central America, Africa and Asia, Rudin observed. “In the near future, the largest Jewish community in the world will not be in North America or South America or Europe or Africa,” he related, “but in Southwest Asia in the modern country of Israel.” This will make it the only nation in the world to have a Jewish majority and Catholic minority, an experience which few Catholic communities have had.
Catholics and Jews in Europe and North America are older in age and fewer in number than the rest of the world, he added, with Catholic growth in the 21st century being the largest in Africa (33 percent) and statistics from the Archdiocese of New York reporting one of every five priests today coming from Asia or Africa.
The reality of chronology, the relentless march of time since the Second Vatican Council, means at least two generations have been born who have limited knowledge of the advances in Catholic-Jewish relations since 1965, Rudin explained. The passage of time also means fewer living witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust, allowing “the mists of legend and forgetfulness” to obscure much of the past half century’s achievements.
While the church’s magisterium and rabbinic Judaism have been able to successfully transmit their charismatic teachings and beliefs from one generation to the next, over the centuries, the question today, said Rudin, is if the same can be done regarding the gains of the past half-century. “We cannot rest on our laurels of the great popes … and the Jewish leaders of the past and present who are leading Catholic-Jewish relations forward,” he said.
Finally, the most important irreversible force facing our shared future may be technology, said Rudin. The internet, cell phones, and social media have changed the world in ways that will “dramatically shape relations between Catholics and Jews in the future,” he pointed out, making the large cathedrals and synagogues of the past no longer as significant in transmitting the faith. God dwells with the people who are assembled, whether online or in a particular building, he said, making control of cyberspace and social networking paramount.
While there is no substitute for being up close and personal, “the next 50 years will bring even more technology to Catholic-Jewish relations” and Bette Davis’ famous movie line, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” will apply. Being “prisoners of hope,” though, we will work through this together. Drawing from Joshua, he concluded, “Be strong and of good courage and never lose faith in the potential of Catholic-Jewish relations.”
A brief description by Rabbi Stahl of Hanukkah practices cited spinning the four-sided dreidel, eating latkes (potato pancakes)or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and giving gifts as cultural practices, while the only religious practice is lighting the hanukiah to commemorate the miracle of oil sufficient to burn for one day, burning for eight during rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian Greeks. Cantor Julie Berlin of Temple Beth-El then led chanting of the Hanukkah blessings in Hebrew, read by Father Valdez in English.
Catholic-Jewish pairs lighting the hanukiah candles were Archbishop Gustavo and Rabbi Mara Nathan, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Boulette and Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, and Father Jason Martini and Rabbi David Komerofsky, followed by five student pairs: Nicole Wisniewski and Lainey Komerofsky, Alejandra Gonzales and Jack Rosenblatt, Victoria Knodell and Jocelyn Epstein, Ricardo Olivares and Tavo Viramontes, Sydney Pedraza and Sarah Komet. Afterwards, Hazzan Jeremy Lipton of Congregation Agudas Achim led singing of Maoz Tzur/Rock of Ages in Hebrew and English.
In closing, Senior Rabbi Mara Nathan of Temple Beth-El noted the real miracle of Hanukkah was not the oil lasting eight days, but the leap of faith in lighting it at all. “May we remember,” she said, “the miracles that this holiday celebrates, personal and communal freedom, hope and tenacity, and the willingness to take risks for the future, even in the darkest of times.”