More than two years after the Presbyterian Church USA angered many Jews by issuing a strong rebuke of Israel at its national general assembly, a group of clergy representing the 2.5-million-member Presbyterian denomination concluded a series of consultations with Jewish leaders that organizers hoped would lay the groundwork for better relations between the two religious communities.
"We are really at the very beginning of interfaith dialogue," Rabbi David E. Straus of Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, said at a public event held Oct. 30 at the Media Presbyterian Church titled "What We Have Learned Together: Presbyterian and Jewish Leaders Reflect."
The event kicked off a two-day conference held in nearby Swarthmore that involved about 20 religious leaders and scholars, who addressed both religious traditions' understanding of evangelism and conversion.
The Divestment Issue
Tensions arose between the area's Jewish community and the Philadelphia Presbytery — the local governing body for the denomination — in 2003 when it funded a Messianic church in Plymouth Meeting they called Avodath Yisrael, which sought to attract and convert unaffiliated Jews. Later, the Philadelphia Presbytery severed it ties with Avodath, which combined elements of Jewish and Christian worship. Without that backing, the church closed.
The recent conference in Delaware County was the final of three organized by the Presbyterian Church USA — based in Louisville, Ky. — and the National Council of Synagogues, an umbrella group that represents the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, and is geared toward interfaith activities.
According to Rev. Joseph Small, director of the office of theology and worship for the Presbyterian Church USA, previous conferences took place in Atlanta, and in Princeton, N.J. These forums examined interpretations of the importance of land, God's promises and the modern-day State of Israel.
"Understanding our relationship to Jews and Judaism is about understanding ourselves, and it is the most important work we can be doing as Christians," said Small in an interview.
In 2004, the Presbyterian's national general assembly passed a series of resolutions that called for the dismantling of Israel's security fence, and for the denomination's divestment from companies that do business with Israel.
According to church officials, those moves prompted a severe backlash from members, leading to internal strife within a religious community that is bitterly divided over theological, political and social issues.
Earlier this year, the church's general assembly more or less reversed course, passing a resolution that essentially ended the process of divestment, though it did not officially strike the 2004 resolution from the books.
"The majority of us know the difference between South Africa and the State of Israel," said Rev. William Borror, senior pastor of the Media Presbyterian Church, who observers said was instrumental in convincing the national body to change course.
"We must be more prudent in our public affirmations," he said.
Small hoped that the academic-style papers presented at the three conferences would eventually be published in book form.
"Those two incidents were kind of wake-up calls," acknowledged Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, who attended the public program but was not an organizer. "There is obviously a real commitment to dialogue on the part of top Presbyterian leadership, and that is very encouraging."