Catholics have more in common with Jews than they realize, say future priests who are studying Catholic-Jewish relations in a suburban Milwaukee program that may be unique among seminaries worldwide.
“It is very beautiful to understand and to experience how much both religions have in common,” said Pedro Ruiz Aular, who is studying at the seminary to be a priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “I can use these experiences from class as a base for interreligious dialogue and also for fraternity, cooperation, defense of human dignity and love for our neighbor.”
Aular is from Venezuela, but the Lux Center is within the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners. Some from the local Jewish community are deeply involved in the Lux Center’s efforts to help future Catholic leaders understand and appreciate Judaism. They include Bonnie Shafrin, the center director since 2015, Rabbi Steven Adams, who is on the governing board, and Professor Sherry Blumberg, a lecturer with the center.
“The Lux Center exists to build bridges between the Catholic and Jewish communities,” said Shafrin. She previously served for eight years as director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “Through education about the Jewish spiritual roots of Christianity and Judaism in general, antisemitism will not be spread inadvertently from the Catholic clergy to those in the parishes.”
Nationwide, there are various Catholic-Jewish programs, university departments and courses on Judaism at Catholic seminaries and elsewhere. But if there’s a Catholic seminary with a “center” for Catholic-Jewish Studies, other than the one at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, Shafrin said she’s not aware of it. There are about 190 Catholic seminaries in the United States and thousands around the world.
The Lux Center provides public lectures with renowned scholars and events that recognize Jewish holidays, liturgy and history, including the Holocaust. The library has an extensive Judaica collection that is open to the public. A speakers bureau brings lecturers to area churches and synagogues. And the center hosts an annual symposium on Catholic–Jewish relations.
The Lux Center was created in 2010 as a tribute to Richard Lux, who in his 37 years on the Sacred Heart faculty, worked fervently to build bridges between the two faiths, said The Rev. Raul Gomez, academic dean and rector of the 60-year-old seminary.
Rabbi Steven Adams has served on the governing board of the Lux Center for the past five years and is director of pastoral care for Ovation Communities, the Jewish senior living community. He said that Lux, a professor of Biblical studies, “made it his mission number one to give those studying for the priesthood an understanding of Judaism.”
Lux continued to be active with the Lux Center until he relocated this year to be near family.
The Lux Center is supported in-kind by the seminary and funded by a mix of Catholic and Jewish donors, including grants from the Harri Hoffmann Family Foundation and the Clarice S. Turer Charitable Fund.
Second Vatican Council
The work of the Lux Center occurs within the context of a complex and difficult history between Catholics and Jews, according to a written introduction to the center’s mission and teachings: “For over 18 centuries, it was common for the Catholic Church’s teaching about Jews to lead to grave misunderstandings, prejudices, and hatred. But things began to change in 1965, when Pope Paul VI promulgated the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, commonly known as ‘Nostra Aetate.’”
“Nostra Aetate taught unequivocally that Jews should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus; that they should not be portrayed as cursed or abandoned by God; and that God’s covenant with them is eternal,” the Lux Center’s written statement continues. That “covenant” can be a springboard for good relations.
“The seminary believes that their students need to know where they came from, especially early in the time of Jesus,” Blumberg said.
A teaching she imparts to students is to “read Biblical text not just through religious eyes, but through a sociological and historical perspective.” She also teaches about the issues of translation, messianism and salvation. “I’m trying to develop a respect for the differences and the similarities of religions,” Blumberg said.
Blumberg never thought she would be teaching priests–in–training when she graduated from Hebrew Union College. She served on the faculty of HUC for 14 years training rabbis, cantors and educators in Jewish education. She also took on the role of educator at Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee. “But I enjoy this,” she said of the Lux Center. “I’ve always been active in inter-religious dialogue. Sometimes I believe that you go where God places you.”
She has encountered students, especially from South America and Africa, who have inaccurate perceptions of Judaism, from folk beliefs about horns that have served to demonize Jews to the antisemitic slur that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus and to the misconception that Judaism is a religion that stopped growing in ancient times and never became a modern religion.
Every year, she invites students to her home for a Jewish dinner and some come to her Passover seder “so they can see how Jews celebrate and that we are regular people.”
The dialogue between Catholics and Jews in Milwaukee began in earnest more than 40 years ago, said Adams, who previously served as a rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. He has learned about the diversity in Catholicism through dialogue and the approach to relations taken by the different popes in the modern era. “The reality is that in the early days of the dialogue, people were being very polite to each other and very careful not to offend each other. We’ve moved on to a place where we can really hit hard on the issues in a progressive way and do so with respect,” he said.
“We’ve developed tremendous friendships and relationships between Catholic and Jewish communities,” Adams said. “I’ve always felt that when we are learning about other traditions, we learn more about ourselves. It gives me a lot of hope that things are going in the right direction.”
Students said they were not sure how they will apply the specifics of what they have learned at the Lux Center, but they do know it will help them be better Catholics in their future parish work.
“Catholicism has deep roots in Judaism through scripture, liturgical practices and prayers,” said Robert “Bob” England, one of 150 seminary students there. “The earliest Christians were part of a Jewish movement; Christians should not accuse Jews of deicide; and Jews are loved by God and should not be cursed or rejected.”