A good fit: Church leaders reach out to the local Jewish community

With the sun setting behind a row of weathered barracks, the Rev. Doug Huneke was walking the gravel pathways of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Suddenly, he saw a ghost.

Passing by a grimy window –– behind which imprisoned Jews once awaited death –– he thought he saw someone “staring” at him. “The hair stood up on back of my head.”

Turns out, “I was looking at my own reflection.”

At that moment, during his visit to the Nazi death camp in 1977, Huneke asked himself an existential question: “Which side of the glass would I be on?”

The minister of a Presbyterian church in Tiburon came down solidly on the side of the Jewish people. And for more than 30 years, Huneke has devoted much of his ministry to fostering interfaith relations, particularly with the Bay Area Jewish community.

As senior minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Huneke, 63, has championed Holocaust education and commemoration. At the height of the Soviet Jewry movement, he traveled twice to the USSR to meet with refuseniks. He has consistently offered unflagging support for the Jewish state (not so easy when factions within his denomination lobbied for divestment from Israel).

And he even offered up his sanctuary to nearby Congregation Kol Shofar while the synagogue is undergoes a two-year remodel.

The guy’s a mensch.

Rev. Doug Huneke. photo/lionel da silva

“I tell people in a previous life I was a Chassidic rebbe and before that I was a yenta,” Huneke said with a laugh. “I feel a great kindred spirit with the rabbis, with [Holocaust] survivors, and I find I am constantly on the same side of issues that really matter in the world.”

He is not alone. For decades, Bay Area Protestant ministers, Catholic priests and Muslim clerics have collaborated with Jewish counterparts to promote interfaith understanding. Setting doctrine and dogma aside, they have chosen to seek shared values and common goals.

“We’ve seen the great danger in history of not understanding each other, of accusing each other of things that are not true,” said Father John Talesford, a Catholic priest at San Francisco’s 116-year-old Saint Mary’s Cathedral. “[Interfaith work] is a great opportunity to clarify those, to be able to hear someone articulate their faith and repeat back what we’ve heard, to make sure we understand each other.”

Talesford has a long history of working with the Jewish community and the San Francisco Interfaith Council, for which he’s served as a board member for more than three years — and no one had to push him into it.

“If for some reason I left the church, I would more easily find a home of faith, a tradition I could embrace, in the Jewish community,” he said. “I realize [Jews] do not recognize Jesus as the messiah or our interpretation of Hebrew scripture, but I completely embrace the Jewish understanding of the scriptures and realize the value of that, and the covenant God has with the Jewish people.”

Talesford, who grew up in San Francisco, remembers how impressed he was with the towering neighborhood synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El. He remembers his neighbors, the Goldbergs, with whom his family often celebrated Passover and Chanukah.

Rev. Archer Summers. photo/joyce goldschmid

He also remembers a shopkeeper on Clement Street with a strange numbered tattoo on his arm. Talesford’s mother had to explain to her son how it got there.

Talesford and his parish have collaborated with local synagogues on winter shelters, Darfur activism, food banks and other issues of mutual concern.

One of those issues is anti-Semitism, which flares up from time to time, often in the guise of virulent anti-Israel sentiment.

Though the Jewish community counts on the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League to combat anti-Semitism, it often gets an assist from non-Jewish clergy.

When he was passing by a Palo Alto art gallery in 2007, the Rev. Archer Summers noticed a piece of anti-war art on display. It depicted a bloody American flag with Stars of David in place of the normal stars. The senior minister at Palo Alto’s First United Methodist Church was so incensed  that he contacted his friends at the JCRC, which successfully pressed the gallery to remove the canvas.

Like Talesford, Summers has lifelong ties to Jews and Judaism. He has a Jewish uncle, and as a child he learned the alef-bet. As a seminarian, he studied Kabbalah and participated in an Israeli folk dance class. “In college we had to take a modern language,” he said. “I chose modern Hebrew. I went to an ulpan at Hebrew University.”

As a Methodist minister, Summers even challenges Christian doctrine that may be interpreted as diminishing Judaism. He uses his bully pulpit to speak up for Judaism and the Jewish people.

“We’ve got the historical enmity by the church toward the Jewish community, which is a cultural phenomenon,” Summers said. “Unfortunately it’s been popularized that somehow Christianity has superceded Judaism, rather than that we benefit because of Judaism.”

He even takes umbrage at some of Christianity’s Holy Scripture, such as the Book of Revelations.

“We closed the canon [scripture] too early,” Summers said. “I would add [novels] ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘Silas Marner’ to it, and I would get rid of the Revelation of John. It’s bad Greek. It probably was a political tract, written with a  religious agenda in mind, coupled with anger at Rome. Bringing that into the 21st century is loony tunes.”

Pastor Steve Harms

It doesn’t stop there. Summers also strongly defends Israel when some in the Methodist Church urge divestment from the Jewish state, which predictably comes up at the quadrennial church conclave. At last year General Conference several divestment proposals made it onto the agenda. None was adopted.

“My interest in speaking about the importance of Israel and its integrity as a state is because of historical fairness,” said Summers.

Occasionally, interfaith partnerships bring about lasting personal friendships. In Danville, Rabbi Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim Congregation and Pastor Steve Harms of Peace Lutheran Church consider each other friends first, colleagues second.

For years, before Beth Chaim’s new hilltop spiritual synagogue was built, Harms’ church served as the spiritual home for Goldblatt’s congregants.

“For the longest time,” Goldblatt said, “when the interfaith movement began in this country, it used to mean ‘I come to your prayer service and tolerate it, you come to mine, tolerate it, and we go home.’ [Harms and I] have pushed so far beyond that in witnessing each other’s prayer and educating each other.”

Father John Talesford

The two met in 1993 when Goldblatt first came to the synagogue. That year, anti-Semitic vandals had painted swastikas on the windows of a Danville Jewish bookstore. It shook up the local Jewish community. And it shook up Harms.

“I got a call from [Harms],” Goldblatt recalls. “He had heard what happened and wanted an emergency meeting. Ten [Christian] clergy showed up and they took over the meeting. I was sitting there going, ‘Wow.’ They said this is not simply an act of hate against the Jewish community, but an affront on all people of faith.”

Harms drafted a letter, signed by 60 faith communities in the area, which was printed in the Contra Costa Times. “I was so amazed at the clear commitment to true interfaith work,” Goldblatt continued. “It wasn’t an issue of ‘mine’ or ‘yours,’ but truly an act of courage and solidarity.”

Harms considers Goldblatt “the closest of colleagues.” Over the years, the two have brought their congregations together countless times for interfaith services and socializing. They also collaborated on social justice projects, including working on farm workers’ rights and traveling together to Ecuador to confront environmental degradation caused by Chevron Oil, whose corporate offices are in San Ramon, right next to Danville.

But nothing makes the two clergymen more proud than their outreach to the local Muslim community. After 9/11, the San Ramon Islamic Center drew intense community hostility, especially when it asked the local zoning commission to expand its hours of operation of its leased building.

The center’s request “generated this incredible outpouring of suspicion, fear and hate,” Goldblatt recalled. “One business said these are the people in al Qaida. So we mobilized and wrote a letter to the zoning commission. When the commission met, Steve and I spoke about how long we’ve known these folks, what good neighbors and good citizens they were, and how appalling it was to hear this hateful response.”

Rabbi Dan Goldblatt

Up to 50 members of the Islamic Center were there. “Many were in tears, feeling under siege, very isolated and alone,” Goldblatt says, “and to have people come to speak so powerfully in support was a pivotal moment.”

The two later spearheaded a series of monthly interfaith gatherings with the Islamic Center to promote mutual understanding. When Goldblatt and Harms visited the center’s mosque, they prayed alongside the Muslim worshippers.

Like Summers in Palo Alto, Harms regrets Christianity’s residual anti-Jewish or, more precisely, anti-Judaism sentiments, and he works hard to combat them.

“The critical missing element in Christianity today is the identity of Jesus as a Jewish person,” says Harms. “Without that, he becomes a superficialized Western white male. Christianity simply becomes ethereal, an escape from reality, a wait for heaven.”

When it comes to strengthening ties between Christians and Jews, Huneke has long believed heaven can wait. The Bay Area native found his portal to interfaith work through extensive Holocaust studies, as well as a friendship with author and survivor Elie Wiesel.

Earlier in his career, Huneke learned Hebrew, lived in Israel and wrote a biography of Hermann Graebe, a Righteous Gentile who saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. When Huneke came to Marin County

28 years ago, he was ready to work with his Jewish neighbors.

That meant creating ties with Michael Berenbaum, then rabbi of San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom, with whom he launched the Marin Interfaith Council in 1983. He also allied with the JCRC, joining missions to Moscow at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement.

“We traipsed off to the former Soviet Union just as Andropov came to power,” Huneke recalled. “That was another benchmark experience in my life.”

Huneke extended his respect for the Jewish people into the sanctuary of his Presbyterian church in Tiburon. When it came time to refurbish, he and his congregants decided to forego many of the normal Christian symbols found in most churches, all to make sure non-Christian visitors would feel comfortable. Even the cross is removable.

“We thought about putting a sign up there that says ‘Dogma-free zone,’” Huneke said. “Dogma, doctrine and creed are not biblical — they are man-made and invariably create barriers to authentic human understanding, mutual respect and the possibility that there are many ways to worship and connect with the divine.”

He even has a problem with one of Christianity’s core tenets: spreading the Gospel. He views Christian missionary attempts to convert the Jews as an abomination akin to a pogrom.

“When I get into that debate, I say, ‘I’m sorry, and I mean this with all respect: You want to do spiritually to Jews what Hitler wanted to do to them physically.’”

Still, evangelism of Jews continues unabated. Mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church, include strongly anti-Israel factions that routinely call for divestment from Israel. Some elements within the Catholic Church, such as the renegade British bishop who openly denied the Holocaust, continue to cause hurt and friction.

But for local Jewish leaders involved in interfaith work, cooperation is the norm.

“One of my great privileges is [working] closely with some remarkable leaders in other religious communities,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the region’s prime movers in interfaith work. “There are many examples of leaders in different faith traditions who have stood up when our community has needed it.”

Kahn’s organization has collaborated with non-Jewish clergy through groups such as the S.F. Interfaith Council, Marin Interfaith Council and Interfaith Center at the Presidio. These efforts not only foster improved civic relations, but also help non-Jewish clergy deepen their appreciation of Jews and Judaism.

They bring “around the table representatives from every community that had experienced hate and violence, and serve as an early warning system,” Kahn said. “Tensions could be identified early on to avoid an explosion, and allow us to speak with a united voice when others religious groups are victimized.”

With that united voice, the chalice is usually half full for those working to cement interfaith ties.

“The language from within both Judaism and the Christian tradition has concern with relationship with the other,” says Harms. “When the one or the other doesn’t feel connected, let alone, respected, we’ve created not only boundaries but dead ends. Transcending these walls is what the courage of faith is about. Until that happens, nothing has happened.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.