By JANET FRANKSTON
The Associated Press
NEW YORK – Rabbi Jack Bemporad has devoted his life to understanding the religions of others.
The 73-year-old Reform rabbi has worked for more than three decades to create bridges of theological understanding between the Jewish community and the Catholic church.
After years as a rabbi leading congregations in Dallas, California and Englewood, N.J., Bemporad turned his focus to improving relations with other faiths, including Islam.
Since 1992, he has directed the nonprofit Center for Interreligious Understanding, based in Carlstadt, N.J., which arranges and participates in interfaith conferences.
Bemporad is known for his work with the Roman Catholic Church. He first got a sense of the meaning of an interfaith dialogue as a 26-year-old student on a Fulbright fellowship in Rome.
A newly ordained rabbi, he was representing the Reform Jewish movement in a meeting with Pope John XXIII to discuss hunger issues. Bemporad asked the pontiff about the church’s role in the destruction of European Jewry.
"His response was that he would do something about it," he said of the meeting nearly 50 years ago, years before the pope initiated the Vatican II reforms. "That was one of the decisive experiences of my life that led me to the work that I’m doing."
Bemporad has been a part of audiences with three Popes, including eight with the late John Paul II and two with the new pope, Benedict XVI.
While his interfaith work for decades focused on relations with Christians, Bemporad is branching out to establish ties with the Muslim community.
"The reality of the Islamic world has become so clear in the last six years," he said. "There’s no way you can close your eyes and act as if Islam is not a major force in the world today."
In June 2003, Bemporad helped lead an interfaith delegation to Iran with Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., to address anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.
More locally, he meets with a Turkish Muslim group in New Jersey. Levent Koc, director of the Interfaith Dialogue Center in Carlstadt, said Bemporad has participated in seminars held by his group, including one on parenting.
"The Turkish Muslim community respects him very much," Koc said. "Because of his contributions to the dialogue, we want to continue and strengthen our relations with him and the Jewish community through him. He has devoted his life to interfaith dialogue."
Bemporad also spoke last year at an interfaith seminar held by the Long Island Muslim Society.
"You can’t really have a dialogue with anyone unless there’s a common language and a common way of looking at the world," Bemporad said. "There’s a great number of Muslims who are trying to do that."
Marshall Breger, a professor of law at The Catholic University of America, applauded Bemporad’s efforts.
"There’s been very little dialogue between the Christian and Muslim communities but hardly any between the Jewish and Muslim world," he said. "This is where the action is and this is where there’s a tremendous need and very few people are stepping up to the plate."
Islam is now a focus of Bemporad’s center, formed largely with the financial support of the Berrie Foundation, an interfaith organization founded by Angelica Berrie and her late husband, Russell, a member of Bemporad’s synagogue in Englewood.
"Almost all major wars have a religious basis," said Angelica Berrie. A lot of issues, she said, "could be bridged if only some religious leaders had people to talk to."
Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore has known Bemporad for nearly 20 years, when they began a dialogue between the religious Jewish community in the United States and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"His institute is taking a number of initiatives that are very helpful in securing a solid foundation for mutual religious understanding," Keeler said.
Most of Bemporad’s work with the Catholic Church came under the papacy of Pope John Paul II. Bemporad gave the pope a menorah in the shape of a broken Jewish star to remember the Holocaust.
"He did more to improve Jewish-Christian relations than any other person in history," Bemporad said. "Since he’s done so much to speak out on the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust, we felt it was most fitting to give the first menorah to him."
A replica of the star is included in an exhibit about Pope John Paul II and the Jewish community at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York.
A Holocaust refugee from Pisa, Italy, Bemporad came to the United States when he was 6.
He has returned to his native country many times, lately to teach part-time as a professor of Interreligious Studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, and previously as a negotiator.
In February 1990, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation sent Bemporad to Rome to help negotiate the relocation of the Carmelite Convent near the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
That September, he worked on the Prague Accord, helping to craft a document in which the Vatican spoke about anti-Semitism as a sin against God and humanity and asking forgiveness.
In 1992, Bemporad joined a handful of other rabbis to help secure full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the state of Israel.
Bemporad said what’s different about his approach within the Jewish community is his emphasis on the theology. He said anti-Semitism comes from the theological differences.
"I’m trying to be honest and show how to achieve a more harmonious relationship so that there’s actual understanding and as a result of theology," he said.
On the Net:
Center for Interreligious Understanding:
Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust http://www.mjhnyc.org