Catholic teachers find themselves intensely immersed in Jewish history

The challah was blessed, the Manischewitz wine was poured, the candles were lighted. It could have been any Shabbat dinner in Los Angeles, were it not for the fact that it took place midweek and the room was full of Catholic schoolteachers.

The 34 teachers were participants in Bearing Witness, a seminar designed for educators in Catholic schools learning to teach about anti-Semitism and the history of the relationship between Jews and Catholics. Created in 1996 by the Anti-Defamation League, the seminars are now conducted across the United States.

The ADL’s Los Angeles office is in its seventh year of running an annual Bearing Witness program.

The itinerary of the three-day course can include a discussion about the Holocaust, a synagogue tour or a lecture about Judaism in the period between the Old and New testaments.

Tuesday’s schedule ended with a Shabbat-like dinner at the ADL building, where many ate their first knish.

“I’ve been taking notes furiously, and I keep saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that,’ ” said Katherine Dzida as she dug into her Kosher meal of baked chicken and vegetables. “My understanding has been so enriched, and I can share that with my students.”

Dzida, 24, teaches sixth and seventh grades at a parish in Dana Point and looked forward to contributing some of her newfound knowledge to an upcoming class unit on intolerance and the Holocaust.

“In terms of Catholicism and Judaism, I’m not sure some of my students realize how deeply they’re intertwined,” she said.

At another table, Cynthia Madsen, 63, was discussing how moved she had been by the previous day’s discussion, when the daughter of a Holocaust survivor spoke to the group.

The woman’s tale of her mother’s perseverance in the face of horror brought tears to the high-school teacher’s eyes.

“It went through your heart like an arrow,” Madsen said. “I’ve been asking myself, ‘What would I have done?’ And now, what am I doing with Darfur and the genocide in Africa? You begin to internalize it. It goes deep.”

Madsen attributed her emotional reaction to the program’s requirement of total immersion. “It’s intense,” she said. “There are no distractions from the outside world. You’re in total concentration on one thing -- the good and the bad.”

The history between Jews and Catholics is sensitive terrain, one in which Jews say anti-Semitism was practiced and endorsed by Catholic leaders for centuries.

Jews were long blamed for the death of Jesus until the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council released the document Nostra Aetate, a historic decree that sought to create new relationships with non-Christian religions, particularly Jews.

The church decried anti-Semitism and persecution. And since that time, the church has tried to foster better relations between the faiths.

But programs like Bearing Witness can bring uncomfortable history to light.

“The very first time I attended, I’ll be brutally honest, it was difficult for me to hear some of the things that were said, like how the Fourth Lateran Council demanded Jews wear identifying hats,” said Father Alexei Smith of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which helps develop and promote the conference. “That’s horrendous and a precursor to the Nazis’ demanded armbands.”

Smith’s colleague Sister Angela Hallahan believes that though the program offers a much-needed different point of view, it also helps strengthen the teachers’ own Catholic faith.

“They’re coming back with a different answer to a lot of discussions, and the answers come from a place of knowledge,” Hallahan said.

One of the most common questions teachers ask is why the Jews did not accept Jesus, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a guest speaker.

Dorff’s explanation is that Jesus was not believed to be the son of God by Jews because he did not fulfill the “job description” in the Old Testament, which was to bring a world of complete peace and harmony. The teachers’ reaction?

“They’re surprised,” Dorff said. “The way that Jews are portrayed in Christian circles is blind or stubborn or both. My goal is just to show people that what we’re talking about is an honest disagreement between friends -- one that’s not rooted in fact but in perception.”

Overall, however, Bearing Witness is less about theology and more about sharing Jewish history and culture.

Attendees stay in dorms at the American Jewish University in Bel-Air, and they eat in the Kosher cafeteria.

The seminar is heavily subsidized and costs attendees $160. All who apply are accepted, and the ADL is eager for more.

“If there’s anything we’re challenged by it’s that schools don’t have resources for the teachers to take time off during the week to do this,” said ADL regional director Amanda Susskind.

For ninth-grade teacher Juliet Dominguez, the conference would have been even better had it gone longer than three days.

“It’s kind of overwhelming because you’re learning so much in a little amount of time, and you’re listening to every word because you don’t want to miss what they say,” Dominguez said.

She and other participants, most of whom are from California schools, found that after they returned to the AJU campus for the night, the discussion continued.

“We sit there and talk about what we’ve experienced and pick it apart and ask each other what struck them,” said Ray Nolte, 48, a religion teacher at Damien High School in La Verne.

Nolte said the seminar helped him understand the gospel from the Jewish perspective.

“I’m reading the Bible with fresh eyes,” he said. “The challenge is to look through the notes and turn them into something workable in the classroom.”