By Eric J. Greenberg
Back when I was a newspaper reporter covering religion, there were two experts from the Jewish community I could always count on for accurate information, precious analysis, and a wonderful sense of humor: Rabbi Leon Klenicki and Rabbi A. James Rudin.
Leon was the director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Jim was the director of interreligious relations at the American Jewish Committee.
Different titles notwithstanding, they were the nation’s only full-time interfaith experts, working for the two top Jewish defense agencies.
Both were pioneers, developing and implementing groundbreaking educational programs while working tirelessly to deepen the positive dialogue between Christian and Jewish clergy, community leaders, and lay folks resulting from the Second Vatican Council adoption in 1965 of the historical document called Nostra Aetate, which declared antisemitism a sin, rejected the deicide charge against the Jewish people, and called for new positive dialogue and understanding between the two closely related faiths.
When I became ADL’s director of outreach and interfaith affairs after Leon retired, I was blessed to have both rabbis as mentors and friends. I compare it to getting a Ph.D. in physics directly from Albert Einstein. Apparently, the Vatican has also recognized the greatness of these two New York-based rabbis.
In 2007, Pope Benedict conferred a papal knighthood — the prestigious Order of St. Gregory — on Rabbi Klenicki. I was privileged to be among a small group of Catholic and Jewish leaders at the ceremony held at the Vatican’s Mission to the United Nations in New York City. Leon became only the second American rabbi in history to receive this knighthood, established in 1831 and bestowed upon individuals, both Catholics and non-Catholics, in recognition of their significant contributions to society.
On November 20, Pope Francis will confer the Order of St. Gregory on Rabbi Rudin.
It marks the first time in his papacy that Pope Francis has approved this honor for a rabbi, this time in an elaborate ceremony at St. Leo University in Tampa, Florida, which will be livestreamed beginning at 1 p.m. at saintleo.edu/papal-knighthood.
Besides expertise in Catholic-Jewish relations, humor was a key component of both rabbis’ personalities. This quality served them well in tense situations.
I was privileged to be with Rabbi Klenicki during a private meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. Leon’s parents were originally from the same region in Poland as my grandparents. I fondly recall the twinkle in his eye when he told me to watch the pope’s reaction when he started speaking in Polish. Pope John Paul’s face broke into a broad smile as he responded in kind. It turned out Leon and Pope John Paul II both wrote their theses on the same religious figure, St. John of the Cross.
While Leon died in 2009, his legacy continues.
He would have been thrilled to have his good friend Jim Rudin join him in what Israel’s only papal knight Rabbi David Rosen called “the most exclusive club of Jewish papal knights.” (There are also five non-rabbis in the club).
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan also welcomed Rudin’s knighthood.
“For decades, Rabbi Jim Rudin has been a friend — of me, my predecessors as Archbishop of New York, and of Catholics everywhere,” he said. “As one of the leading figures in Catholic-Jewish relations, Rabbi Rudin has helped to bring about a deeper understanding of how our two faiths can and must work together.”
I have been fortunate to have accompanied Rabbi Rudin on several major national and international Catholic-Jewish missions. In 2000, we saw Pope John Paul II stand at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism and a place where Jesus walked.
In 2010, we traveled to Germany to discuss the removal of antisemitic elements from the world’s oldest Passion Play produced by the village of Oberammergau in Bavaria.
My favorite story occurred in April 2008 when Pope Benedict came to Washington, D.C., to host a multifaith gathering at the Pope John Paul II Center. The hall was filled with leaders of several religions, including Muslim, Protestant, Evangelical, and others. During a break in the proceedings, Vatican officials decided that the pope should give a special greeting to the Jewish delegation because the biblical holiday of Passover would begin in a few days.
I was asked by a Vatican representative who should accept the pope’s greeting on behalf of the Jewish community. I quickly canvassed the delegation. There was no question. It was Jim Rudin who was greeted warmly by the pope.
Now, 24 years later, another pope is recognizing Rabbi Rudin — this time with a knighthood.
Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg is a former award-winning religion reporter, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, and currently the Director of United Nations Relations and Strategic Partnerships for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.