S.F. Jews and Catholics discuss confession, connection

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Steve Berley of the American Jewish Committee accidentally referred to the Rev. Steve Maekawa as rabbi when he introduced him at a dialogue between Jews and Catholics last week.

Although Berley immediately corrected himself, his mistake appropriately kicked off a gathering designed to bring young professionals of the two faiths together in a discussion-group setting.

Prayer — and the different ways of addressing God among Jews and Catholics — was the focus of the event at St. Dominic's Church in San Francisco, held Tuesday of last week. The dialogue followed a similar session in April at Congregation Sherith Israel.

The gatherings are part of a series called "A Tale of Two Tribes," which is turning into an ongoing dialogue between Jews and Catholics, held every other month.

The session opened with Maekawa of St. Dominic's and Associate Rabbi Helen Cohn of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El speaking on Catholic and Jewish interpretations of prayer.

Maekawa defined prayer for Catholics as a "conversation with God" and identified the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In contrast, Cohn said the Jewish view of God is less anthropomorphic and more abstract, particularly among kabbalists or Jewish mystics.

"One thing that really grabbed me was the connection that Rabbi Cohn made about how Catholics pray to different sections of the Trinity and Jews use different names for God in different contexts," Berley said. "And at a more basic level, we learned how Catholics personify God in a way that Jews don't."

Berley, one of the two organizers of the event, is on the steering committee of Open Circle, the young leadership division of AJCommittee's San Francisco chapter. Mary Jansen, a parishioner at St. Dominic's, is the other co-organizer.

Later in the evening, participants broke into small groups to compare spiritual experiences. Topics included Jewish forms of confession and repentance, and the importance of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism.

About 40 percent of the participants were Jewish; a similar ratio of Jews and Catholics attended the April event.

While the Catholic participants were from St. Dominic's or other churches in San Francisco, most of the Jews were affiliated with Open Circle but not necessarily with a synagogue.

"Most of the people talked about their own experience praying, and it's not something I really do," said Richard Stromberg, a San Francisco resident.

"I consider myself very Jewish culturally, but the Catholics that were there go to Mass every day or several times a week," said Stromberg, who attends High Holy Day services at the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley but does not belong to a synagogue. "It surprised me that young adults are so deeply religious."

After the discussion, St. Dominic's parishioners Mirentxu Saizarbitoria and Scott Moyer gave a tour of the Gothic-style building, which was completed in 1928.

Moyer and Saizarbitoria pointed out the religious elements of the building, including the baptismal font in the foyer, the crucifix, the confessionals and the shrines. Moyer, who attended an interfaith seder in April at Sherith Israel, said he was particularly struck by the holy elements of the sanctuary during a tour led by Rabbi Martin Weiner.

"The biggest difference for me was entering the two different worship spaces," Moyer said. "At St. Dominic's, there seems to be a sensory overload — there are a tremendous number of different areas and things to focus on. Sherith Israel is focused on the Torah scrolls at the front of the synagogue. There is some ornamentation but the iconic images I'm used to at St. Dominic's are not there."

Berley decided to start the "Two Tribes" dialogue to extend the interchange experienced in AJCommittee's high school-age Catholic Jewish Educational Enrichment Program to young professionals in Open Circle. He contacted the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which put him in touch with Jansen in March. Jansen was interested because she had joined a group of 30 young adults from St. Dominic's on a trip to Israel in October.

Many of the Catholics involved in "Two Tribes" said they wanted to learn about Judaism partly because it was the religion of Jesus. Saizarbitoria, who is on the planning committee and grew up Catholic in a Jewish neighborhood of Miami, became interested in Judaism when she was living with a man who was born Jewish but was not religious.

"I was looking for ways to open up some hunger for faith in him, so I started reading Jewish writers, and it opened up some hunger for me [in Catholicism]," said Saizarbitoria. "Because of [rabbi-author] Harold Kushner and [Jewish theologian] Martin Buber, I ended up back in the Catholic Church and, when I heard about this event, it was a natural for me to jump right in."

Berley said future topics could include comparing Passover to Easter and dealing with instances of disagreement with one's religion. In addition, he said, the group could expand its mission, perhaps volunteering together in a homeless shelter.

The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 14 at a site still to be determined.