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Chicagoland Presbyterians, Jews work to heal rifts ahead of holidays

[This article could be viewed originally at the following link. It includes the report of picketing at a Presbyterian church in downtown Chicago.]

Daily Southtown, Chicago
Wednesday, September 15, 2004

By Allison Hantschel
Staff writer

Criticism of Israel has divided two religious communities which had been on the verge of developing a strong friendship in Chicago.

The Presbyterian Church at its national meeting in June delivered a rebuke of the Jewish state, directing the mainline Protestant denomination to divest from companies "whose business in Israel is harming innocent people."

The national church also condemned the barrier erected between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Jewish community saw the church's moves as a "smack across the face," according to Emily Soloff, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy organization.

"It looked like an attack on Israel and an attack on the Jewish community," Soloff said. "It was extremely one-sided and extremely blameful of Israel. It's not that we can't ever hear criticism of Israeli policy, it's that there was no attempt to have any kind of balance."

For the past several months, the Jewish community's response played out mostly in the Jewish press. The approaching Jewish holidays -- Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown tonight -- make the split in a developing relationship all the more painful, leaders say.

After a group of Jewish activists picketed Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago last month, representatives of the Presbyterian and Jewish communities here met to begin talking over their differences.

The local church leadership sent an open letter to the Chicago Jewish community last week that read, in part, "We know that trust between us has been eroded. As the High Holy Days begin, please know that we are committed to rebuilding our relationship with the Jewish community."

Presbyterians and Jews began a formal dialogue in Chicago in the early 1990s. The two groups co-sponsored events and discussions, including a forum on religious tolerance after the shooting rampage of white supremacist Benjamin Smith.

While local Roman Catholics have a tradition of communication with Jews stretching back decades, the relationship with Presbyterians here was fairly new and thus fragile, Soloff said.

"On the domestic agenda, we have so much in common with mainline Protestants, especially on separation of church and state issues," Soloff said. "But the concerns that mainline Protestants often have about Israel have precluded, in some ways, conversations between us."

Chicago's executive presbyter, the Rev. Robert Reynolds, the local leader of the denomination, said he highly valued the discussions the two communities had.

"We see embedded in the center of our mission as a Christian denomination effective relationships with people of other faiths," Reynolds said. "Our self-image as people of God includes this."

At its annual general assembly in Richmond, Va., the Presbyterian Church approved "overtures," or policy statements, one of which called for the church "to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel."

Another overture upheld funding "Messianic Jewish" congregations, which encourage unaffiliated Jews to explore the Christian faith under the guise of Jewish tradition. Many Jews view these congregations as a dishonest way of attracting converts.

Reynolds said the church's statements were consistent with past teaching on "extremely complex issues," and that they were not intended as an attack.

"We feel a great deal of love for our brothers and sisters and we respect their beliefs and their ties to Israel," Reynolds said. "When we take action as a denomination, which results in their feeling hurt and anger, then we care a lot about those feelings and we make sure we're listening to the reasons they feel that way."

Soloff said Reynolds' letter was sent to rabbis in the Chicago area, hoping to spur further reflection.

"I would imagine it's going to be a topic of discussion during holiday sermons," she said.

Representatives from both faith communities plan to meet again to discuss the matter in November.

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