Sacramento-area Jews and Catholics join for prayer

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In many respects, the rabbi's sermon in Sacramento on Sunday was just like any other.

Citing scripture and relating it to those present, Rabbi Reuven Taff delivered a powerful message. The crowd welcomed him warmly with cries of "Shalom" and "Boker tov," and afterwards the rabbi thanked his synagogue's Men's Club for the reception, which featured a spread of kosher delicacies.

The distinguishing factor, however, was the setting.

Taff, of Mosaic Law synagogue, was surrounded by crucifixes and icons as he stood in the apse of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, addressing Catholic congregants as they attended Sunday mass.

Eighteen months earlier, Bishop William Weigand had spoken at Mosaic Law. The reciprocal visits reflected the growing sense of community and cooperation among Sacramento-area religious groups.

At the service, both clerics stressed they had more similarities than differences. Weigand quoted Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch, who said that religious Jews await their messiah in much the same way religious Christians await theirs.

Taff, meanwhile, quoted Leviticus 19:18, saying, "You should love your neighbor as yourself." That sentiment later is repeated in the Book of Matthew, he noted, where Jesus Christ cites that commandment as one of the most important in all the Bible.

But love means communication, Taff said. He recalled a Chassidic story in which two peasants are discussing love. "You don't love me," one complains. "If you loved me, you'd know what hurts me."

The other responds, "But you don't tell me what hurts you. Does that mean you don't love me?"

The moral of the story is clear, Taff said. "There must be no silence between us," he said emphatically, his voice echoing through the cavernous church.

The change is underway, he noted: In 1965, Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, which declared that Jews should no longer be targets of Christian hatred. Pope John Paul II has continued that tradition, he continued, at one point entering a synagogue in Rome and blessing the praying Jews. This was, Taff noted, the same synagogue where Pope John XXIII also blessed the Jews, but did not go inside.

The healing continues to this day, Taff said. When Weigand addressed Mosaic Law to mark Israel's 50th anniversary, he delivered a heartfelt message condemning the Nazi holocaust, saying "Never again. Never forget."

Taff related that there had been Holocaust survivors in the audience that day, and they were awestruck.

"They never thought they would in their lifetimes hear those words coming from a leader of the Catholic faith," he said.

Moreover, Taff said, the church's support for the Jewish community was in no way a purely academic exercise. When arsonists struck three synagogues in Sacramento last June, the Catholic reaction was swift and unequivocal. The local diocese contributed $20,000 to go toward rebuilding and a proposed museum of tolerance, while the national bishops' group gave $25,000.

"They did not wait to be counted," Taff said.

Now it's the Jewish community's turn to lend a hand in the face of tragedy: Mosaic Law and other congregations have offered assistance to a Catholic church in Stockton, which was damaged in an arson fire earlier this month.

Taff recalled the words of the late Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, who spoke at an anti-hate rally in the wake of the June arsons, saying: "When synagogues burn in Sacramento, I am a Jew."

To that, Taff offered his own message of solidarity in the wake of the arson attack on the Stockton church. "When Catholic churches burn, I am a Catholic," he said.

Taff finished to resounding applause.

Following the Mass, the churchgoers and about 100 Jews who also attended broke bread together in what Taff said was probably the first kosher meal ever served in a Catholic church.