The Pope’s Visit and Our Own to the Holy See

Last week Pope Benedict XVI completed an eventful trip to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan — the reviews, one could charitably say, were mixed to negative. One thing that is clear, if it weren’t already, that the current Pope does not enjoy either the personal charisma nor the magic touch with the press of his predecessor. From pleading ignorance a few months ago after un-excommunicating a rebel Bishop who denies the Holocaust, to the Pope’s own spokesman in Jerusalem incorrectly asserting that the Pontiff was never a member of the Hitler Youth (he was), Benedict constantly seems to be getting in his own way. Add to that, the harsh reactions of the Israeli public to the Pope’s statement at Yad Vashem, his endorsement of a Palestinian state and criticism of the security wall  and you have the ingredients for what could have been an awkward evening at the Nunciature of the Holy See last Wednesday as part of the Washington DCJCC’s Insider Embassy series.

While the Pope was still in the Holy Land, a group of us walked past the permanent protester on Massachusetts Avenue and into the Vatican’s official diplomatic mission to the United States. Amidst portraits of bishops, popes and saints we were received warmly by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador) to the United States.  After we were given a tour of the Nunciature’s gorgeous mansion (circa 1938) we settled down for a conversation.

The Nuncio has more than a passing acquaintance with Papal visits to Israel — prior to his posting in the US he was the Nuncio in Jerusalem and oversaw many of the details of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000. In all, he has spent over a dozen years living in Jerusalem and so came to our dialogue with a keen appreciation of the difficulties and fraught sensibilities that accompany a Jewish/Catholic dialogue. He was also quick to acknowledge that John Paul, the former Karol Wojtyła, had a special relationship with Jews going back to his boyhood Wadowice in Poland where Jews were among his playmates and friends. He was involved in rescuing and hiding Jews during the war. In short, John Paul II would have been a hard act to follow, even if the current Pope weren’t a former (if extremely reluctant) member of the Hitler Youth and soldier in the Wermacht (who to his credit, deserted).

Archbishop Sambi discussed in-detail many areas of concern in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, beginning with the sea change of the Second Vatican Council which revised Catholic positions on the Jewish convenant with God, absovled Jews of any collective responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, and a firm rejection of any church teachings that purport to support anti-Semitism. He acknowledged that those revisions were only the starting point in Jewish-Catholic dialogue and that declaring that the church does not support anti-Semitism is not that same as actually purging it from the Church — even 40 years later.

Much of the evening was given over to Archbishop Sambi’s tales from his days in Jerusalem. He is a strong believer that there ought to be some sort of document to lays out of the common beliefs of Catholics and Jews. The problem of course, is that while the Church has clear lines of command, the Jewish situation is much less hierarchical. So in Israel the problem becomes, if you’re to do interfaith dialogue, who do you dialogue with? Do you begin with the Chief Rabbis (who have a reputation for being government functionaries) or popular rabbis (which risks insulting the Chief Rabbis)? In Archbishop Sambi’s case, he asked the Chief Rabbis to recommend rabbis from the major cities.

The Nuncio was asked if there were any attempts at a Jewish-Catholic-Muslim trialogue. He responded that while there were attempts, the only success was during the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem during which time the Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy united in their opposition to the march. The Archbishop’s statement from the time was that, “Jerusalem is not a city for pride, but for submission to the Lord.”  He is aware that much of the opposition to the march descended into vitriol and inspired acts of violence against the marchers. For my part, as moderator, I felt compelled to recommend the documentary film Jerusalem is Proud to Present which tells the story of the march from the perspective of the activists organizing and some of the most extreme who opposed to it (we presented the film as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 2007).

One other comment of note, was that the Nuncio said that while he was in Jerusalem he was on more than one occasion asked if the Vatican were hiding artifacts taken from the Holy Temple during the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. He assured us that these artifacts were not being hidden in the Vatican basement, and pointed out that at the time of the sack of Jerusalem, Christians were also persecuted by the Romans — making it highly unlikely that they would hand over their war loot to them. For what it is worth, Wikipedia bears the Archbishop out on this point.

"Not in our basement" says the Vatican.

The evening served as a reminder that while the personality and personal history of current Pope may highlight some of the tensions that still remain between Catholics and Jews, the relationship has come a long way. The opportunity to connect with a highly placed official in the Vatican was a truly remarkable experience. More than that, everyone there that evening, whether they agreed with the Archbishop or not, was impressed by their generous hospitality and their genuine sincerity in talking with our group.

Letters. We Get Letters.

One of the Washington DCJCC’s oldest and most important programs is seldom seen by most of the public. In part, this is because the program doesn’t take place in the building at 16th and Q — it in-fact, pre-dates our move back to the building in 1997.  The program is the Behrend Adas Senior Fellowship which for years we have operated out of space generously provided by Adas Israel Congregation with a hot kosher lunch provided daily through a third partner agency and the DC Office on Aging.  Between 30 and 60 seniors gather daily for a hot kosher lunch — we provide the lunch for free although we ask for a $2.50 suggested donation for District residents, and $5 for non-residents.  The meal costs somewhere north of $6. It is the only program of its kind in the District.

More than the food though, the program provides community, activity and intellectual stimulation for the seniors who attend regularly. Different DCJCC staff members lead the seniors in activities that include appropriate exercise, art, music and Jewish learning. A partnership with the Jewish Social Service Agency makes a professional social worker available on a regular basis and Shabbat entertainment is generously funded by the Adas Israel Sisterhood. One of the best parts of my job is when I get to go over to their Shabbat or holiday lunches and see for myself the friendships and vitality on display.senior letter- web 

The program went through a mini-crisis this past winter when that third partner, as part of a reorganization, decided to cease its participation in the lunch program at Adas. It looked for a brief moment as if the program might have to close and the District would be left without a kosher nutrition option for low-income seniors.  This was distressing not just because of the implications for some of the seniors’ health, but also because of the intangible value of the community that has been built at the program. Luckily, thanks to an emergency grant we received from the DC Office on Aging the program has been able to continue and looks likely to survive for years to come. But for those tenuous days when we did not know if the program could be saved, the magnitude of its importance to the seniors who use it loomed large. For many seniors, this is their only chance to socialize and escape the isolation that comes from advanced age and difficulty leaving home — particularly in the coldest days of winter and the hottest days of summer.

When you sit in an office, you know intellectually that your programs make a difference in someone’s life, but sometimes it is hard to touch that reality. Receiving the following letter this week, helped make that real:

Washington DCJCC
attn: Board of Directors
1529 16th Street NW 
Washington, DC

Subject: My Letter of Appreciation


Thank you very much for stepping in and taking over the Adas Senior Fellowship when IONA dropped the group. As a participant of the fellowship, I appreciate your rescue very much! The JCC is to be commended for going the extra mile. Your wonderful center has created the possibility to keep the fellowship continuing.
Beatrice N.

Jewish MusicFest, Family Shabbat with ShirLaLa (aka Shira Kline)

Let’s face it. Most kids’ music sucks. Sure you got your Dan Zanes (former Del Fuegos frontman) and They Might Be Giants (former They Might Be Giants)  making kids’ music that doesn’t make you want to stab your eardrums out with a mechanical pencil. Laurie Berkner’s not my cup of tea, but she has her proponents. And then you have… well, its a pretty short list. Narrow your search results further by affixing “Jewish” to “kids’ music that doesn’t suck the life force from parents” and the list gets even shorter. Which is why ShirLaLa is so awesome and why we’re offering a special Family Shabbat Service & Dinner with her on Friday, June 5 during the 10th Anniversary Washington Jewish Music Festival.

shira kline- web

Its not just the wildly dyed hair and the freak-folk energy she brings with her. Shira Kline is not playing at being cool. She is cool. My kids even like her and I don’t let my kids like kids’ music (they’re not quite five and my daughter can identify a Shins song within 3 bars and my son’s current favorite song is this).  And Shira’s music authentically engages children in a warm, positive celebration of Jewish holidays, rituals and Shabbat. She reinterprets classic liturgy like “L’Cha Dodi,” amps up kids’ classics like “Put the Chicken in the Pot” and puts her own spin on niggunim like “Bim Bam” which she takes through several different musical styles including surfer rock, lounge cool, latin jazz and hard rock. Perhaps its just easier to take a listen:

Plus we’re throwing dinner into the bargain! Happy kids, shabbat, and music that doesn’t make you reconsider your decision to become a parent. It’s a win-win-win.

Spotting the Jewish in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Tomorrow night at 7pm we’ll be screening (for free) the film version of Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunteras part of DC’s Big Read. There are many differences between the film and the novel: the period is changed, the ending completely re-written and as expected, many liberties are taken with the plot and timeframe. But one of the biggest changes for me from the book to the film are the removal of a few key references to Jewish characters and Jewish characteristics.

112214__lonely_lIt’s not that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is what you could call a Jewish book. But Carson McCulllers clearly had a thing for Jews, or if not actual Jews, what Jews represented to her — a combination in different parts of wisdom, suffering and quintessential outsider status. In fact, in its early drafts, the central character of The Heart Is… was explicitly Jewish, Harry Minowitz. As McCullers later wrote:

Suddenly, as I walked across a road, it occurred me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

In the finished novel, Harry Minowitz does appear as Mick Kelly’s anti-Fascist Jewish neighbor and her first sexual experience. But that does not mean all of the Jew has been taken out of John Singer. Because he is a mute, he is a bit of a cypher for the characters that surround him, each able to project onto him the characteristics that each needs to be reassured. For Doctor Copeland, that image of Singer reflects his own self-perception: that of a philosopher misunderstood by his own people.  When Singer shows up at his Christmas party, Dr. Copeland observes, “The mute stood by himself. His face resembled somewhat a picture of Spinoza. A Jewish face. It was good to see him.”

Dr. Eliza McGraw, author of Two Covenants: Representations Of Southern Jewishness will be giving a short introduction at the screening that is sure to touch on these and other issues related to the novel, the movie (whose sole Jewish characteristic that I could discern was the casting of Alan Arkin as John Singer) and the role of Jews in Southern culture and imagination.

Despite its significant differences from the novel, the movie does stand on its own — and if you haven’t read the book, it will definitely inspire you to do so. And you should be reading the book as part of DC’s Big Read. So get crackin’.

Volunteer in DC – Unextreme Home Makeover

I think that Randy Bacon and Adam Levine have the best jobs at the Washington DCJCC.  Don’t get me wrong, I like my job. More to the point, I couldn’t do their job. Randy is the director of Behrend Builders, our year-round shelter repair program, and Adam is our Fellow from Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps. Together they run volunteer projects for the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service that perform needed improvements in homeless shelters, schools, low-income housing and community organizations all around the District of Columbia.

I am going to tell the following story, not because it is extraordinary, but because it is very, very ordinary. The kind of story that could be told any day of the week simply by asking Randy and Adam, “So, what are you up to?”


The referral came from Neighborhood Legal Services.  Peggy turned to them when a city inspector showed up at her house citing her for various code violations, fining her, and giving her seven days to make the repairs. Peggy, a senior who earns less than $12,000 a year, didn’t have the money. And seven days later the inspector would show up once more, and fine her again for the repairs which Peggy was unable to make. The next week, same story. The bill kept getting larger. This went on until Peggy had accrued $9500 in fines. More than 75% of what her total income for the year is.

Once NLS connected Peggy with Behrend Builders, Randy and Adam got to work. After about a month, this is the report.

They got a new inspector assigned to Peggy’s case and with a letter of intent to complete all repairs within 120 days, were able to stop the weekly fines from mounting up. They’ve already brought in several teams of volunteers and performed about $1500 worth of construction on her home, including replacing the stairs (pictured below), removing a crumbling retaining wall and hauling it away. Randy estimates that her property probably needs another $8,000 of repair work including sheet-rock and flooring. At some point, her roof will need to be dealt with as well.

And every week, Randy and Adam bring another group of volunteers out to Southeast and get a little more done.

steps-png-finalIt is literally Tikkun Olam. One step at a time.

To learn how you can volunteer, click here to sign up for the Volunteer View, our eNewsletter.

Jewish MusicFest Opener, Andy Statman- Bluegrass, Jazz and Klezmer

statmanWhat more perfect way could we choose to kick-off the 10th Annual Washington Jewish Music Festival than with Andy Statman, a giant in the alt-neu Klezmer movement. His return to perform at the Festival is more than an opening night, it also serves as a keynote to the other performers that make up this year’s lineup. For Statman is an artist who has never stopped evolving, never stopped exploring new forms of music and meshing them together into deeply personal compositions and performances. He is the rare musician as devoted to his Judaism as he is to the craft of musicianship and brooks no compromise in his simultaneous devotion to each. Even rarer is his authentic aesthetic commitment to tradition and experimentation. His work provides by turns the comforts of the old world followed by sonic explosions and staccato riffs that break down traditional forms and morph into something like jazz before returning full circle to pulse thumping, foot music-festival-cover-for-webstomping jams. For all of the subsequent acts in the Festival that combine forms into a new Jewish medium — a capella, funk, hip hop and classical — Statman provides inspiration at both ends of the spectrum between experimentation and accesibility.

The title track from his recent album East Flatbush Blues is a great example of both Statman’s virtuosity and broad musical vocabulary.

East Flatbush Blues (Andy Statman, Oceana Music, ASCAP)

Last Thing I’m Gonna Say About JTA’s List of Influential Jewish Orgs on Twitter…

and then I’m gonna shutup.

Not to beat a dead horse, and the folks at JTA who made the list have already graciously copped to overlooking us, but below is an illustration of why lists are silly. On top is our Twitalyzer score (Twitalyzer was the main tool used by JTA to determine their rankings) and below that is one of the Jewish organizations that (unlike us) made the list.


That said you should already being following us on Twitter. Really. We’re full of “personality without smarmy stupidity.”

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