Leading up to the October anniversary of the historic document Nostra Aetate, the Prairie Messenger is featuring “capsule biographies,” which are also posted on the “Catholic-Jewish Relations” section of the Scarboro Interfaith website (http://www.scarboromissions.ca/JC_Relations/dialogue_partners.php). By October there will have been featured material on numerous individuals — Jews and Christians, men and women — who have played key roles in drafting the conciliar declaration, or who have led local, national or international efforts to put Nostra Aetate’s vision into practice, through various forms of dialogue, action and scholarship. This is the ninth in the series.
For many people, “Orthodox Jewish,” “feminist” and “interfaith pioneer” are not words they would necessarily think to put together in a sentence. And yet, in the life of Dr. Debbie Weissman, each of these is a vitally important aspect of a dynamic and fruitful life — as an educator, a community leader, and a highly respected spokesperson for inter-religious friendship and dialogue, both in Israel and worldwide.A native of the United States, Weissman made aliyah in 1972, and today lives in Jerusalem. After her BA and MA studies in New York City, she pursued doctoral studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a thesis focusing on the social history of Jewish women’s education. Most of her adult life has centred around education in some capacity, working with local community organizations, and a range of international and national organizations (including the Israel Defence Forces), leading courses in Jewish sources, Jewish feminism, biblical interpretation, and issues in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. For nine years (1994-2003) she directed a program that trained Israeli high school teachers. She has taught on the faculty of numerous Christian educational centres in and around Jerusalem, including the Bat Kol Institute, St. George’s College, the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, the Ratisbonne Institute, the Swedish Theological Institute, Ecce Homo’s Centre for Biblical Formation, and the Pontifical Biblical Institute.
A prominent proponent of a modern understanding of Orthodox Judaism that cherishes both tradition and openness to others, Debbie is one of the founding members (and a leading congregant) of Kehillat Yedidya, a modern Orthodox synagogue in the Bak’a neighbourhood of Jerusalem. Yedidya seeks to be “a halakhically based community, equally concerned about traditional Jewish values, social justice, and democracy in Israeli society. (It) attempts to cross the conventional boundaries which currently define Jewish religious life in Israel.” Yedidya has become well-known, both for its friendly relationships with other “streams” of Judaism, and for its hospitality, regularly hosting multi-faith groups from around the world. For many years she has been an active leader in the Inter-religious Co-ordinating Council in Israel (ICCI; today part of Rabbis for Human Rights), and she speaks passionately about the need for justice and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Between 2008 and 2014, Weissman broke exciting new ground, serving two terms as the first Jewish woman president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ). In that capacity she travelled around the world, speaking to major interfaith gatherings and sharing a message of unity, healing and hope. Reflecting on her many years of service as an interfaith leader, Weissman said: “I’ve met some outstanding human beings in many different parts of the world, and I’ve been impressed with how vibrant the dialogue is in many different places . . . I love teaching Christians about Judaism, which I often get invitations to do . . . I find that most people are very eager to learn, and their questions are always stimulating. Often I have hosted Christians in my home for Shabbat and Jewish festivals, and overall, I’ve found that these experiences have enhanced my own spirituality.”
When asked about the biggest challenges facing interfaith dialogue today, she says: “I also think we’re realizing that we can’t take the main achievements of the dialogue for granted. In some places we are seeing something of a backlash, and trends toward a more fundamentalist approach to all of our religions, that wants to return to an idealized past. In some parts of the world we are seeing a resurgence of traditional anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry, hate crimes and xenophobia. But today, the church isn’t part of the problem; it’s part of the solution. The churches are our allies in fighting it.”
Weissman’s many contributions have been recognized by a number of major awards. She continues to speak regularly on interfaith topics, and to write essays and articles, including a chapter in the recently published volume A Jubilee for All Time: The Coperican Revolution in Jewish-Christian Relations. A woman of passion, wisdom and generosity, Dr. Debbie Weissman is playing a vital role in translating Nostra Aetate’s principles into a guiding vision for today — and for tomorrow.
An “oasis of peace” — for many religious Jews, Christians and Muslims, that is what they believe the Holy Land is meant to be, and what they hope and pray it will ultimately become some day. For the late Rev. Bruno Hussar, however, that was more than simply a dream: it was something he dedicated much of his life to building, and it is an important part of his legacy.
Born in Cairo (Egypt) on May 5, 1911, André Hussar (his birth name) grew up in a non-practising Jewish household, with a French mother and a Hungarian father. After high school he went to Paris to pursue university studies in engineering. It was during his university years that he began to feel strongly attracted to Christianity, and eventually converted to the Christian faith, being baptized in 1935. Of his earlier engineering studies, he would later remark that, “All I remember from those years was learning how to build bridges” — physical bridges, certainly, but also, bridges of understanding and dialogue between cultures and religions.As a convert from Judaism he experienced very deeply and personally the anti-Semitism of Europe in the the 1930s and 40s, and especially the events of the Holocaust. He also became friends with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife Raïssa, who were early leaders in the movement to change Christian attitudes toward Judaism. After the war he pursued studies in philosophy, and, when he was ordained a priest of the Dominican order on July 16, 1950, he chose Bruno as his religious name.
His religious superior, Rev. Albert-Marie Avril — conscious of Bruno’s desire to help heal some of the negative history of Christian behaviour toward Jews, and of his sense of solidarity with the young State of Israel — sent him to Jerusalem to help set up a Christian centre for Jewish studies there that would be comparable to the Dominicans’ Islamic study centre in Cairo.
Following his arrival in Haifa in 1953, he undertook studies in an Israeli ulpan (an intensive immersion program in the Hebrew language), and became part of a small group of French Catholics (generally members of religious orders) who came to Israel between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, who were exploring an appropriate way for Christians to be present in — and in dialogue with — Israel’s predominantly Jewish population . . . a Christian community that would have Hebrew as its day-to-day language, and could appropriately incorporate aspects of Christianity’s Jewish heritage. In this, they were supported by several high-level Catholic officials, including Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, a prominent figure in the Vatican.
In February 1955 he was one of the co-founders of the St. James Association, a small community of Jews who had converted to Catholicism, whose stated mission was “to fight against anti-Semitism in all its forms” and “to foster mutual understanding, sympathy and friendly relations between the Catholic world and Israel.”
With Cardinal Tisserant’s support, he obtained Vatican permission in 1956 for this small community to begin using Hebrew for certain parts of the mass (until 1967, this community was centred at the convent of the Sisters of Sion in Ein Kerem, and gradually grew to include several hundred members, and four centres, in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Beersheva; it continues today, in a much more extensive form, as the St. James Vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Catholics). Hussar also served as a chaplain to the Arab Catholic community in Jaffa, and these experiences gave him a keen sense of the complexities of contemporary Israeli life, and inspired him to seek out ways for Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, to live together in harmony. He once said: “I feel I have four selves. I really am a Christian and a priest, I really am a Jew, I really am an Israeli and if I don’t feel I really am an Egyptian, I do at least feel very close to the Arabs whom I know and love.”
In 1959, he founded (together with his brother Dominicans Jacques Fontaine and Marcel Dubois) the St. Isaiah House in Jerusalem, intended to promote Jewish-Christian friendship and prayer. A theological consultant during the Second Vatican Council, Hussar played an important and active role in the writing and development of the Council’s document “On the Jews” (which would eventually become the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate). In 1966, he became an Israeli citizen.
Hussar’s ultimate dream had been to establish a kibbutz where Jews, Christians and Muslims would model peaceful co-existence and friendship. In November of 1970, he signed a lease for a piece of property, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, that would be “an oasis of peace” (a phrase taken from Isaiah 32:18) — in Hebrew, Neve Shalom, and in Arabic, Wahat as-Salaam (today, often referred to by both these names, or simple as NSWAS). Here, Israeli Jews and Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) could live together as a concrete sign of hope for the Middle East. It was to be a community of mutual respect and equality, but its beginnings were very difficult (in the beginning, Hussar himself lived on the site in a bus!). In 1978, five families (one Palestinian family and four Israeli families) set up a tent commune on the site, in very modest surroundings. Today there are approximately 60 families who make up the community, divided evenly between Israelis and Palestinians (both Muslims and Christians), and there is a waiting list of people who wish to move there. NSWAS has been recognized by numerous international awards for its work and, although the kibbutz has experienced many ups and downs, its bi-cultural, bilingual education system is viewed by many as an important example of a creative, constructive approach to Israeli-Palestinian tensions. For his efforts, Bruno Hussar was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rev. Bruno Hussar, a visionary Catholic and extraordinary inter-religious and intercultural bridge-builder, died in Jerusalem on Feb. 8, 1996, and is buried on the grounds of Doumia (“place of silence”), a small sanctuary of prayer he established on the property of NSWAS.