Before "Nostra Aetate" – the 1965 proclamation by the Roman Catholic Church that among other things denounced hatred of the Jewish people and rejected discrimination – relations between Jews and Catholics were progressing but there were always stumbling blocks, such as the belief that Jews killed Jesus after rejecting him as the messiah.
Today, 40 years after the release of that historic document, members of both faith communities report that relations between them are strong, but that work still needs to be done to encourage mutual understanding.
"The results that we're seeing now represent a sea change in Catholic-Jewish relations," said Murray Gass, a founder of the Catholic-Jewish Commission of Southern New Jersey.
The group's 40th anniversary commemoration of "Nostra Aetate," attended by 70 people at the Cherry Hill Public Library on Dec. 4, featured an interfaith panel of theologians discussing the impact of the declaration.
Giving a historical perspective, Rabbi Eugene Korn stressed that after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, Europeans were eager to move toward understanding.
"World War II had devastating consequences for European culture. It destroyed assumptions of enlightenment," said Korn, national director of Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Congress and adjunct professor of Jewish thought at Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution located in South Orange, N.J. "We had to start all over with what kind of culture we were going to build."
Sister Mary Boys, a professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary, told the group that since the document's adoption, Christian leaders have been actively trying to expand their knowledge of the Jewish religion.
"For the first time in history, many in the Christian churches are beginning to learn about Judaism from Jews," said Boys. "They are beginning to develop something closer to a true understanding of Judaism."
One of the most revolutionary proclamations in "Nostra Aetate" was the church's rejection of the claim that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.
"That's a major shift in what was taught before that," said Boys, who told the audience that Christian textbooks had to be "thoroughly rewritten."
She believes that although the church rejected its previous claim of Jewish culpability, it's still up to individual teachers to educate accordingly.
"Unless you really shape how educators think," said Boys, "it's a lot of window dressing."
Korn said that to incorporate the ideals in "Nostra Aetate" into everyday practice, there needs to be more than just education.
"The way it can be most successful is when human beings interact," said the rabbi. "Jews meeting Catholics and Catholics meeting Jews face to face, sharing with each other. That does more to destroy the old stereotypes than all the books in the world."
The South Jersey group also gave its first ever "Nostra Aetate" awards to two members of the community – one Jewish and one Catholic – for their leadership in interfaith understanding and cooperation. Gass, the Jewish recipient, was honored for his work as chair of the interfaith committee for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey. Gloria Mazziotti, the Catholic recipient, won her award for her service as treasurer of the Richard C. Goodwin Holocaust Museum and Education Center of the Delaware Valley.
Upon accepting her award, Mazziotti told the group of her affection for Jews.
"It is a much better place and a much better world as long as Jewish people are in it," said Mazziotti.
Korn stressed that acceptance is not a process that happens overnight; it needs to develop over time.
"You have to realize that for 1,900 years, the Roman Catholic Church was the worst enemy to the Jews," said Korn. "You can't just wash that away. One document won't do it. It has to evolve over time. This is just the beginning of both a historical and theological evolution."