2010-05-06 / Faith

Catholic and Jewish congregations cross the great cultural divide

By Sophia Fischer sfischer@theacorn.com

Stewart Vogel and Robert McNamara Stewart Vogel and Robert McNamara A local rabbi and priest practice what they preach when it comes to the Bible’s commandment to love thy neighbor.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah and the Rev. Robert McNamara of St. Bernardine of Siena Catholic Church have developed a close friendship. The church and synagogue are next door neighbors on busy Valley Circle Drive in Woodland Hills.

Vogel approached the church in 1993 about interfaith programming.

“I felt extremely comfortable with him,” said McNamara, who came to the church in 2001. “When we get together we end up talking about everything. We find out so much about each other.”

The shared activities took off in 2003 when the novel, “The DaVinci Code” by Dan Brown was published. The rabbi, priest and an art expert spoke during a joint program about the book’s slant on religion.

Today Vogel and McNamara speak at each other’s pulpits, hold joint Bible study sessions, discussion groups and community service projects, and share parking lots. Vogel and McNamara cocounsel intermarried couples in which one spouse is Jewish and one Catholic who belong to both institutions. Aliyah will honor McNamara at its annual gala May 15. Vogel has visited Rome where he met the pope and McNamara has visited Israel many times.

“There was some concern about stepping on toes but I think the relationship has grown so that that we can explore and appreciate those differences that will probably always exist,” said church member Kate Smirnoff.

“There’s a level of caring that’s developed. After an interfaith Thanksgiving program a St. Bernardine congregant saw me in the parking lot and said, ‘You know, we’re not just neighbors, we’re family,’” said temple community caring director Jeff Bernhardt. “In L.A. the relationship has been referred to by the diocese as a model.”

“I think when you understand other people you tend not to stereotype,” said church member Rosemary Erlinger.

Aliyah member Debby Frank recalls church members coming to the temple to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth.

“They said, ‘We have to apologize for what happened to you over the centuries,’” Frank said. “I’ve learned that you can live with your neighbors and get along very well with them even if you haven’t in the past.”

During a recent meeting in Vogel’s office the two men complimented one another, traded jokes, and finished each other’s sentences.

McNamara : I think we Catholics have a greater advantage over the rabbi’s congregation because all of his stuff is fine with us but not all of our stuff is fine with him. I think it’s harder for them to walk into a Catholic church with the baggage that we have from history, whether true or false.

Vogel : It’s about letting go of all that baggage. Years ago I did interfaith work in which we asked people for their impressions of the cross and the Star of David. Jews said, “I feel hatred, bigotry, suffering.” Catholics were shocked—for them the cross is all about forgiveness, understanding and love. When the Catholics took the Star of David there were no negative implications. It was eyeopening for the participants. My goal has always been to overcome the baggage, the perceptions and forge new relations. Father McNamara was the perfect partner. He just charmed them.

McNamara : I didn’t do anything. I was warmly welcomed. If we don’t have a good relationship with each other, shame on us.

Vogel : You get much longer to talk here than at the church and you like that, I think.

McNamara : You get more time at the church. I tend to preach short at the church but here I tend to go a little bit longer. No matter what you say at our church it is so wonderful.

Vogel : In the Jewish tradition we challenge tradition. In the church maybe less so. Father McNamara will be uncomfortable sometimes. He’ll say, “Rabbi Vogel talked me into this.” I think the congregation enjoys when we open up about things we might be uncomfortable with.

McNamara: I think Catholics have a certain fascination with Judaism. What’s amazing to me is that I’ve stood at his bima and talked to his people about Jesus, what fashions our faith, the comfort level I have and the warmth I feel from the people. When I was in the seminary I thought when a priest goes into a temple he better not mention Jesus.

Vogel : I had to get my congregants comfortable with hearing the name Jesus in temple. If you want their attention just say “Jesus” or “sex.”

McNamara : I only have the word “sex” to get my congregation’s attention.

Vogel : Our relationship is not lip service. We’re not just having an activity or two. We really have a relationship.

McNamara : And we keep looking for new things to do together.

Vogel : We’re looking to bring in the Muslim community through the Mohammedi Center down the street. They’re a peace loving sect with only about one million worldwide.

McNamara : I remember very clearly your first talk in our church. The topic was forgiveness. We thought we understood forgiveness but you gave the Jewish perspective and you had the church in the palm of your hand. You presented a whole new angle and the approach made sense. The Catholic feels the need to forgive whether asked or not. The Jew doesn’t forgive unless asked. We kind of like that idea—it solves a lot of our problems. I’ve learned a lot from the discussions where your people shared their pain. Catholics don’t share pain, they share their faith.

Vogel : I’ve learned that Jews don’t have the market on suffering. Even though Jews have been oppressed at the hands of Catholics Jews forget that Catholics also have moments of oppression.

McNamara : When I visited Dachau I learned that half of the Polish Catholic clergy died there. That blew my mind and gave me a sense of bonding with a people who were persecuted just because they were Jews.

Vogel : Sometimes people will walk up and say, “Hi, rabbi,” and I have no idea who they are and they end up being from your congregation.

McNamara : A kid was in our parking lot shooting hoops. He said, “I’m from the temple next door. My mother said it’s okay to play at the church.”

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