'My eyes were opened'

  • December 3, 2015

ADL has long believed that teaching teachers is a great way to touch new generations. That’s why our Bearing Witness program teaches educators at Catholic schools about Judaism and the history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church.

The impact of this program continues long after it ends. In December, we saw it firsthand when a graduate of New York’s Bearing Witness program*—the principal of a large Catholic high school—invited ADL to speak at an assembly for 700 students at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.

“My greatest wish for this assembly is to open the hearts and minds of the students to the diversity of religious belief,” said Daniel O’Keefe, the school principal.

Named for a key figure in Catholic-Jewish relations, the school is an academically rigorous institution with a heavily Hispanic and African-American student body, some 54 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. The school helped propel U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to Princeton, and has launched many others to college and beyond.

But that doesn’t mean the students know much about Judaism and anti-Semitism. Many have little or no contact with the Jewish community, according to Mr. O’Keefe. So when Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, ADL’s Director of Interfaith Affairs, gave a presentation explaining basic Jewish beliefs and the history of Jewish relations with the Catholic Church, some of the information was hard to hear.

The audience registered surprise when Rabbi Sandmel—comparing Jewish belief in one God with Catholic belief in one God who is a Holy Trinity—said, “Jesus is irrelevant to Judaism. We reject what is central to Christianity.”

Yet Jesus was a Jew, he explained, as were his first followers. “He went to synagogue, he observed Jewish dietary laws and he wore Jewish ritual fringes. Many of the books of the New Testament were written by Jews for Jews. But as Christianity grew, and its adherents became gentiles, some of those inner dialogues became toxic.”

So began the Church’s Teaching of Contempt for Jews and Judaism, Rabbi Sandmel said. He showed the students quotes from the New Testament used by Christians to demonize Jews and depict all of them as Christ-killers. The students saw a medieval drawing of Jews eating the feces of a pig and a later sculpture depicting Christianity, in the form of a woman named Ecclesia, succeeding a defeated Judaism, symbolized by another woman, Synagoga. “This statue was all over Europe,” Rabbi Sandmel said. “It still stands in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.”

Shock rippled through the audience as Rabbi Sandmel shared how, when his father was growing up in St. Louis, he avoided walking past a Catholic school so he wouldn’t get beaten up and called “Christ-killer.” The students reacted again to a drawing of the infamous blood libel: Jews slaughtering an innocent Christian child to get blood for their Passover matzos. “This image of Jews was part of the culture of Christianity until the modern period,” he told them.

The Nazis built on the image of Jews established by Christian culture for their own purposes, Rabbi Sandmel said, killing one out of three Jews then alive during the Holocaust. The audience was hushed as it took in the number that appeared onscreen, “6,000,000.”

Anti-Semitism hasn’t disappeared, Rabbi Sandmel continued, but then he passed on the good news about Nostra Aetate—the Vatican document that repudiated the deicide charge and other forms of anti-Semitism 50 years ago. “It’s difficult to overestimate Nostra Aetate’s significance,” he said. “Since then, Pope Francis has made it explicit: anti-Semitism is a sin.”

Most of the students hadn’t heard of Nostra Aetate. Yet they applauded when Rabbi Sandmel displayed a final image: a new, American sculpture of Synagoga and Ecclesia learning from each other as equals.

“I think the applause means the students got it,” Rabbi Sandmel said. “They were enthusiastic about the new relationship between Catholicism and Judaism.”

Students who came up to Rabbi Sandmel afterwards to ask questions appeared deeply moved.  

“My eyes were opened to how Jews were treated. In history, the Catholic religion said such terrible things about Jews. I can’t believe they did that. I never realized how much Judaism connects with Christianity. Without Judaism, Christianity wouldn’t exist. We should be closer.” 

— Iris, 17, senior

“We shouldn’t blame Jews for killing Jesus, we should all live together. I did think we should blame them, it was something I’d always heard.”

— Ashley, 16, junior

“I was excited to learn about the history between Catholics and Jews. It was a good learning experience. I want to work for the Anti-Defamation League.”

— Nickolas, 17, senior

* The Bettina (z”l) and Erwin Pearl New York Bearing Witness™ Summer Institute