James Rudin retires from career of interfaith dialogue

NEW YORK — In his youth, Rabbi A. James Rudin once served as judge for a Christmas decoration contest in his hometown of Alexandria, Va.

The future rabbi was also kicked out of his third-grade classroom for 10 minutes while his Southern Baptist teacher read from the New Testament.

It was, in part, those childhood experiences with interfaith relations that prepared Rudin for his career as interreligious director for the American Jewish Committee.

This week, after 33 years of service, he is leaving his post and going "off active duty," and on reserve duty, as the retired air force chaplain put it.

"My work's given me a ringside seat in seeing the beginning of building mutual understanding between Christians and Jews," Rudin said.

And he has the honors and photographs to prove it.

Rudin points out an award written in Polish, honoring him for his interfaith work, hanging prominently on one wall. On another, a smiling Rudin shakes the hand of Pope John Paul II.

"I've had a personal encounter with history," Rudin said.

Rudin, 65, worked his last day as director on Wednesday but will continue his interfaith work as the AJCommittee's senior adviser to the interreligious committee and as the author of a syndicated column for Religion News Service.

He will also serve as an adviser to the Catholic-Jewish studies center he helped establish at St. Leo University in Tampa, Fla.

His tenure at the AJCommittee began in 1968 as the committee's associate director. He has been the director since 1983.

"He has been a hard-hitting advocate for Jewish interests, but at the same time very dedicated to fostering good relations, particularly with the Catholic community and the Vatican," said Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.

Rudin was honored last month by IJCIC for his work to foster dialogue between Christians and Jews.

To Rudin, though, his most memorable contributions to interfaith relations came when events tied him directly to the pope.

He singled out the Vatican's Nostra Aetate decree of 1965, which repudiated the Catholic teaching that Jews are collectively responsible for Jesus' death as his contribution to Jewish-Catholic relational improvements.

"That document could've been put on the shelf, but instead, it was like a dam broke," allowing dialogue groups, interfaith programs and eventually official diplomatic relations with Israel, he noted.

Though it came a few years before Rudin joined the AJCommittee, the document eventually led Rudin to the Vatican for the church's 25th anniversary celebration of the decree in 1990.

Rudin vividly remembers the pope's response when he informed John Paul II that he'd be traveling to Poland the next day.

"Poland, Friday night, candles in the window, Psalms being said, Shabbat," Rudin said, imitating the pope, and taking on a very somber look of his own.

"A world that was and is no more."

More recently, Rudin, who has met with the pope 10 times, followed him to Israel when he made his historic pilgrimage in March.

"It didn't matter so much what the pope said," said Rudin, referring to criticism against John Paul II for eliminating mention of the Holocaust in his recent apologies. "But it's the images of their pope at the wall, their pope at the president's residence blessing the state of Israel" that will be remembered.

Rudin pointed to a picture of the pope placing a note in the Western Wall.

"This says it all," he said.

But Rudin indicated that more work needs to be done in U.S. interfaith relations.

"America," he said emphatically, "is soaked with religiosity."

Which makes his job of working to improve interreligious relations all the more important.

"We all do a very good job in affirming our own religion," said Rudin, "but our biggest step is to affirm the legitimacy of the religion of your neighbor."

He smiled as he remembered back to his days as an Air Force chaplain.

"We all had to share facilities," he said of the diverse religions that were forced to hold services in the same chapel. It was that experience that began to solidify his interests in interfaith work.

In fact, it was another religion altogether that peaked Rudin's interest in joining the rabbinate.

"I owe that to the Methodists," he said fondly.

Having to attend chapel as a student attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Rudin, who was raised with a strong Reform Jewish background, combined with religion courses, increased the pulpit's appeal for him.

For his next project, Rudin plans on writing a book about the history he has seen played out before him.

Rudin said his successor, unnamed as of yet, will have a large responsibility.

"The U.S. is a laboratory — every religion is represented," he said. Now, however, "we're developing a theology for pluralism," but "we've only started."