King's College opens Catholic-Jewish centre

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • November 3, 2006
Dialogue interruptus may be the norm in a world crammed with distractions, but this interruption was 40 years.

The University of Western Ontario's King's College first thought of putting together a centre where Catholics and Jews could learn more about each other immediately after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The idea was shelved and forgotten long ago.

But good ideas have a life of their own.

When Scripture scholar Fr. Murray Watson returned to King's College and St. Peter's Seminary from studies in Israel three years ago, the idea of a Catholic-Jewish centre revived itself, and in October King's College marked the 44th anniversary of Nostra Aetate by announcing the birth of the Centre for Catholic-Jewish Learning, the first of its kind in Canada.

When Watson returned from Israel Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ  hit movie screens everywhere, and Catholic-Jewish tension was high. At the same time, London's Rabbi Joel Wittstein was invited to comment on J.S. Bach's St. John Passion at a music festival. Wittstein turned to his Catholic friend Watson for help with the background to Bach's oratorio, and the thorough Watson handed the rabbi a 7.5-cm thick file.

As the Gibson movie controversy heated up, another rabbi in town, Rabbi Larry Lander of Shalom Synagogue, asked Watson whether there was a place in Canada where journalists and educators could go to gather informed Catholic and Jewish analysis of such issues. The answer was no.

That's when Watson suggested to King's College principal Gerry Killan that the college might be the ideal place to be the home of such a centre. Killan loved the idea.

It took two years to formulate a constitution for the new centre, and to ensure broad participation from various university departments and the Jewish and Catholic communities outside the university.

The new centre is an admittedly modest affair — a web site, the grouping of several pre-existing university courses within the University of Western Ontario and St. Peter Seminary catalogues, and plans for some public lectures. But the centre isn't built with the idea of laying another brick in the ivory tower.

"It's a response to some felt needs in the community," said Wittstein.

One of the first accomplishments of the centre has been to feed into an adult education program run jointly by Wittstein's Temple Israel and St. Michael's Catholic parish, two congregation's in London's north end, near the university campus.

Wittstein is happy that the centre is starting off with the support and participation of all three major movements in Judaism — his own Reform congregation, plus the Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in town. London's Jewish population is about 3,000. The diocese of London's Catholic population is more than 600,000, but that number includes Windsor and a large swath of rural southwestern Ontario.

Though the centre is small, Watson's hopes for it are large.

"I see this as a very positive step that will enable our institutions to showcase some of the best of Catholic education, but also to invite our Jewish sisters and brothers to join us on an even footing," said Watson in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. "So that we can learn about each other, gain a deeper understanding and respect for each other and — I hope I'm not sounding too pollyanna here — help to lay the foundations for a better world, one step at a time."

The Centre for Catholic-Jewish Learning is the only Canadian member of the U.S.-based Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations. The centre's web site at /kings/ccjl/ includes resources for high school and elementary school teachers, parishes and synagogues, university students and others.

One of the first events hosted by the embryonic centre was a discussion with one of London's imam's, Dr. Munir El-Kassem, at a city library on "hopes for peace between the great religions of the Holy Land" last spring. It attracted a standing-room only crowd and demands for more dialogue opportunities, said Watson.

"As a priest and as a Christian, I see this as an essential step forward in the life of our church," said Watson.

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