On Saturday, October 27, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11 congregants and wounding several others, including four responding police officers.
If that day, which is now considered the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in history, had been a singular event, it would be bad enough. But according to data released a month later by the FBI, anti-Semitic attacks — harassment, vandalism, intimidation and physical violence — rose by more than a third in 2017 and accounted for more than half of religion-based hate crimes that year. The trends look bleak enough for many to consider that the tenor of relations between Jews and people of other faiths in America is irreparable.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka understands the difficulties, but he sees a hopeful path forward.
“Religions play a very important role in human reality,” he says. “Good, sincere dialogue with commitment from all parties is the key to build a better world.”
Skorka, who joined Saint Joseph’s this year as a University Professor and a senior research chair in the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR), speaks from a place of experience. He has spent the better part of his life dedicated to furthering interreligious dialogue, a crusade that has earned him the respect of scholars and religious leaders around the world.
Prior to arriving at Saint Joseph’s, Skorka spent nearly 20 years as professor of biblical and rabbinic literature, and rector at the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The religious center was founded by Skorka’s mentor, Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, a human rights activist and a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was one of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th Century whose influence on the Second Vatican Council set a new path for the Catholic Church’s approach to its relationship with the Jewish people.
In the 1990s, Skorka became friends with an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires. Their friendship yielded many collaborations, including a series of televised talks on religious and political topics. That bishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, would go on to become Pope Francis, and their conversations would inspire a book, On Heaven and Earth, which has been translated from its original Spanish into a dozen other languages.
Of his friendship with Pope Francis, Skorka says that seeing each other as equals allowed them to approach their discussions with honesty and reach a deeper understanding of one another.
“Each of us knew from the beginning how to put himself in the shoes of the other,” he says. “Our conversations were manifestations of remarkable empathy and showed that dialogue could deepen into something that far transcends the power of mere words.”
As a scholar for the IJCR, Skorka is bringing this approach to conversations throughout the region. In October, he spoke with 100 students from Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr and Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford as part of the Institute’s ongoing program to bring the two Pennsylvania schools together to learn more about each other’s religions. Through the winter, he spoke at a series of open forums that brought Jewish and Catholic congregations together. And for three consecutive weeks in February, he gave a series of lectures on SJU’s campus in which he explained Jewish perspectives on divisive issues — crumbling public discourse, abortion and the intersection of science and religion. Each event in the series included a response from an SJU expert in the topic.
Philip Cunningham, Ph.D., director of the IJCR and professor of theology, sees Skorka’s presence on campus as a tremendous opportunity to bring new attention to the work of the institute, which for more than 50 years has sought to increase knowledge and deepen understanding between the Jewish and Catholic communities through research, educational opportunities, local partnerships and publications.
“[Skorka] is tireless in his efforts to promote interreligious dialogue,” Cunningham says. “He brings to every conversation and every program we have a level of care and thoughtfulness that is unparalleled. His simple presence here lends gravitas to our work.”
Since joining the IJCR, Skorka was recognized in November with the Shevet Achim award by the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. In January, he penned a reflection for America magazine about how his relationship with Pope Francis informed his approach to interfaith dialogue. And in February, he traveled with Francis to the United Arab Emirates to speak at an international conference on human fraternity.
For all his accolades and influence, Skorka remains humble in his approach. He’s quick to point out, for instance, that even though his friend is the leader of the Catholic Church, their dialogue began only by respecting each other on a personal level. And he believes that the approach can help people across all religions come to a more peaceful understanding.
“To perform a dialogue requires spiritual courage,” he says. “But we must engage in them. Big moments can set the tone, but impactful change is only made by individuals.”
Jeff Martin is managing editor of Saint Joseph’s University Magazine. This article comes from the Spring 2019 issue.