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Two faiths meet on common ground.

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Rabbi Max A. Shapiro and Karen Schierman, a Catholic, take turns sitting at the only desk in their shoebox of an office. Its size belies its significance, for this is the nerve center of the Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at the University of St Thomas, and they constitute its core staff.

Theirs is the kind of enterprise that works to create understanding, to counteract ignorance and prejudice. Such ignorance and prejudice made possible a recent national report that one in five Americans is willing to believe the Holocaust never happened.

The center is unique in influencing the national and international academic sphere as well as the local community, in having a rabbi at its head and in publishing regularly.

From here, 6,000 copies of each year's Proceedings emanate to readers around the world, sharing the content of local lectures that many in the field characterize as on the cutting edge of academic dialogue. This year's topics relate to the Jewishness of Jesus. Previous topics have ranged from anti-Semitism to the novel as religious experience.

No one has ever turned down a request from the genial Shapiro to participate in the lectures - not preacher-politician Pat Robertson, not Israeli scholar-statesman Abba Eban, not Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, not Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel or Pulitzer Prize journalist Thomas L. Friedman, not novelist Rabbi Chaim Potok or Andrew Greeley.

The lectures are only one way the center carries out its mission, which Shapiro says is primarily to bring increased understanding of Judaism to the Christian community and secondarily to increase the Jewish community's understanding of Catholicism.

The center does not grant academic degrees or offer a Jewish studies program. However, each semester it offers classes for credit to undergraduates and students in the university's School of Divinity.

Typical courses are in basic Judaism or the Judaism of American Jews. The center also arranges for St. Thomas seminary students to study in Israel at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as well as at Catholic centers.

Locally, "people think we are the source of all wisdom," said Shapiro, so Minnesotans contemplating Jewish-Christian marriage bring their questions. So do people wondering about possibilities of employment in Jewish-Christian relations, said Schierman.

The center aims high. It is developing an interfaith library Shapiro said he hopes will become the best in the Midwest, and it sends Jewish speakers into area Catholic schools and churches as well as Catholic speakers into synagogues and temples.

Its newest project is helping to finance production next fall of the play "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," about Jewish children's World War II experiences at Terezin transit concentration camp near Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia. Based on a book of the same name, the play was written by Celeste Raspanti, director of special projects for the university's development office.

The center evolved from the friendship of two businessmen, the late Thomas Coughlan, and Sidney Cohen, both of whom served on the St. Thomas board.

In 1983, the friends concocted a trip for themselves, for Temple Israel's senior rabbi, who at the time was Shapiro, and for Msgr. Terrence Murphy, then president and now chancellor of St. Thomas.

Shapiro said the plan was that he would show the Catholics Jewish Jerusalem, and the Catholics would help the Jews learn more about Catholic Rome. Murphy had long hoped to establish an identifiable Jewish presence at St. Thomas.

By the time they returned to Minnesota, Coughlan and Cohen's vision was on its way to reality, for Murphy asked Shapiro to write a proposal for it. He did, and Coughlan and Cohen agreed to raise funds in their respective Catholic and Jewish communities.

Shapiro became director of the new center in 1985. However, be credits Arthur Zannoni, now a center consultant and then an associate professor of Old Testament, with working out the myriad details involved in starting the center.

Through the center, Shapiro has brought the Jewish presence Murphy sought to St. Thomas. "For Jews, it helps educate Christians about Jewish history, traditions and values," he told the university magazine. "It creates a community in which they can live as Jews with an understanding of Christianity and without apprehension."

And for Christians, he said, "the center offers the opportunity to recognize their relationship with Judaism, to understand their background and contemporary Jewish life, and to put into practice the current teachings of the Vatican about Jews and Judaism," notably that Jews did not crucify Christ.

In Washington, D.C., the Holocaust Memorial Museum was dedicated in April. The center may inaugurate a course on the Holocaust next year, and Shapiro said he hopes the St. Paul area will host the 1995 or 1996 International Conference on the Holocaust.

Shapiro, now 76, said the remembering and the dialogue are vital. Jews "couldn't possibly have the powers prejudice has endowed us with," he said.

To Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman, too, such dialogue as the center sponsors is crucial.

Schaalman, rabbi emeritus of Emanuel Congregation of Chicago, said during the center's 1991 program on the Holocaust: "If this sort of dialogue had happened in the interwar years in Germany, I would be almost willing to wager that Hitler could not have done what he finally was able to do."
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Title Annotation:Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, University of St. Thomas
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 21, 1993
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