By Mark S. Diamond
It was a scene worthy of a Woody Allen movie. I stood with a kippah
on my head and a shofar
in hand before 700 Roman Catholics who had dutifully assembled for their annual meeting. I invoked God’s blessing upon an unusual audience on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These conventioneers were knights and ladies of the Western USA Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
An explanation is in order. I befriended my first knight in January when I led an interfaith delegation to Rome and Jerusalem sponsored by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Federation. My friend, Sir Patrick Powers, is a successful businessman who serves as Lieutenant of the Western region of this prestigious Catholic benevolent society. The men and women of the Equestrian Order generously support the work of their diocese in the Holy Land.
Before I met him, I had visions of Patrick riding a horse into the Holy City as our bus made its way to Jerusalem. Thankfully, Pat did not ride alongside the bus, nor did I see a single horse at the Equestrian Order meeting. I searched in vain for saddles and swords at the convention merchandise booth.
I have come to admire and respect Pat and his associates as men and women of deep faith and commitment. Several members traveled with us to the Vatican and Israel. They were eager to learn about Judaism and to share their Catholic beliefs and practices with their fellow travelers.
Our Israel itinerary included a memorable visit to the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem’s Old City. We watched as the Patriarch invested three Catholic members of the delegation into the Equestrian Order and presented them with ornate shell pins. This was surely the first ceremony inside the Patriarchate to be accompanied by joyful shouts of mazal tov. In a lovely interfaith tribute, the rabbis are now developing a pin for Jews who visit Israel for the first time.
When we returned to Los Angeles, Pat and I met with Israel’s Consul General Jacob Dayan
. He agreed to look into Catholic concerns about multiple-entry visas for Christian clergy working in Israel. He further agreed to accept Pat’s invitation to address the Equestrian Order’s conclave, the first such invitation proffered to an Israeli diplomat.
So there I was, awaiting my turn at the convention podium. I knew immediately that I was not at a Jewish conference. The schedule called for a 90-minute program before breakfast. Attendees took their seats before Patrick called the program to order precisely on time. When was the last time you saw that at a Jewish gathering?
The audience listened respectfully and attentively to Consul General Dayan, Knesset Member Nadia Hilou
and moderator Monsignor Robert Stern, Secretary General of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association
. Nadia Hilou is an Arab Christian woman who champions civil rights for all Israelis. Jacob Dayan is a skillful Jewish diplomat who presents Israel’s case with charm and conviction. Robert Stern is a respected cleric born of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who has spent 50 years in the priesthood.
The dialogue and discussion that morning certainly trumped the presidential and vice presidential debates. Nadia spoke eloquently of her efforts on behalf of Israel’s minorities. Jacob explained the meaning of a "Jewish state" and the complexities of religious and political life in Israel. In one especially poignant moment, Msgr. Stern confessed that had he lived in Europe during the Holocaust, his priestly vocation would not have spared him death at the hands of the Nazis.
Then it was my turn to follow this class act. I noted the irony of a rabbi being invited to offer a prayer before knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. I acknowledged that some might picture both our Catholic and Jewish ancestors turning over in their graves at this strange spectacle. No one should ever forget that thousands of Jews were murdered or forcibly converted by the Crusaders.
Mindful of this tortuous past, I am equally mindful that this was another precious moment for Jews and Catholics in greater Los Angeles. We take pride in rabbi-priest dialogues and study seminars, the Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project
in Catholic schools, joint exhibitions of Christian and Jewish art at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, a kosher seder for Jewish and Catholic clergy and laity, and much more. Forty three years after the seminal Nostra Aetate
proclamation, we celebrate the remarkable progress in our interfaith relations, even as we anticipate the challenges that lie ahead.
I closed my prayer with blasts of the shofar, another first for the ladies and knights of the Equestrian Order. We prayed for peace and understanding in a world torn apart by hatred and intolerance. And we pledged to work together to heal and repair God’s creation.