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Ed. This article first appeared in The Hebrew Catholic #82, Fall 2005 -Winter 2006. All rights reserved.

Hebrew Catholic Connections Havurah
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Jacksonville, Florida

Trish Kessler and Alan Rees

The havurah at St. Joseph’s Parish in Jacksonville was founded in 2004 at the request and encouragement of our pastor, Father Dan Cody. The Ladies’ Bible Study had organized an annual Seder meeting in the preceding years and had been so successful that Father Cody wished to offer it to the entire parish. Trish Kessler suggested that a ministry be created – Hebrew-Catholic Connections – that would also explore the Jewish roots of our faith. With our pastor’s blessing, we held an organizational meeting of the new ministry. At the outset, we had Trish Kessler and Peter, her Jewish husband, Alan Rees and his wife, Dr. June Rees, and 15 gentile Catholics. This modest group decided initially to focus on hosting name speakers to achieve recognition and to attract members.

Our first guest speaker was David Moss, who talked on the topic of the Association of Hebrew Catholics and Jews in the Catholic Church. This attracted an audience of some 150 persons, including Bishop Galeone. Subsequent speakers were Athol Bloomer, who addressed a joint meeting of our ministry and the Eucharist Adoration Society. This attracted an audience of some 80 persons. Another talk by a local rabbi on The Jewish Origins of the Lord’s Prayer offended several members of our group when he wandered off his topic to make critical and disparaging remarks about Catholic teaching. This attempt at dialog was clearly unsuccessful. Alan Rees spoke in February on The Heritage of Abraham, which reviewed Catholic-Jewish relations since Vatican II [1965-2005]. This was intended to bring all members upto date. Our most recent speaker was Dr. Paul Chaim Schenck on August 5th who explained his conversion story and his current work with Priests for Life and the Gospel of Life Ministries. We had an enthusiastic audience of some 100 persons including Bishop Galeone, a longtime friend of Paul. Five of Paul’s eight children, together with his wife, were also our guests. Paul described how in Western New York he was arrested and convicted for demonstrating before abortion clinics and sentenced to several years in federal custody. After a long and expensive legal battle, his conviction was reversed on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. His talk was informative and inspiring, provoking good questions and discussion. A social gathering with refreshments followed each of these meetings.

Our first parish-wide Seder last year with Roy Schoeman attracted 400 persons and we had to turn some away. Several members of Hebrew-Catholic Connections produced a Power Point slide show to accompany Roy’s commentary. We are planning a second Seder for 2006 with more focused individual participation.

We have promoted our programs with announcements broadcast on our local Catholic radio station, Queen of Peace. We sent an e-mail to some dozen neighboring parishes requesting that they include details of our meetings in their Sunday bulletins. An announcement was also sent to the diocesan magazine with a listing on the diocesan calendar. As a result of this publicity, we have attracted many persons from other parishes and have forged strong inter-parish links. Funding has been provided by a number of generous contributors and we have had a number of successful bake sales, which recently collected over $600. Trish Kessler has sold hand-made rosaries and bracelets at our craft fair each year and another member, Linda Pajank sold Jesse Tree ornaments. These fundraising efforts yielded an additional $500. A donation basket at each meeting was filled with further generous contributions.

We initiated last year a series of programs on Jewish festivals, the first of which was devoted to Chanukkah and Advent. Trish Kessler lit the candles in the Advent wreath and explained their significance, which was followed by the lighting of the Hannukah candles with the shamas (servant) candle. We recited the blessings and the Sheheheyanu with the Hanerot halalu. For food, we served latkes and birmuelos. In October, we will have a study session led by Alan and Linda on “Yom Kippur — Jewish and Catholic Perspectives on Sin, Atonement, and Repentance.” Other study sessions will focus on the significance of Purim, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Planning for the January 2006 Hebrew Catholic Conference in Jacksonville featuring David and Rosalind Moss, Father Mitch Pacwa, Roy Schoeman and others, started out as a project of our St. Joseph’s ministry but grew in terms of size and complexity into a project too large for us to handle. To deal with the finances and logistics, Trish and Peter Kessler created a non-profit organization, which established a Web site, registration procedures, and launched publicity for the Conference. For those who wish more detail on the Conference, or who would like to register online, we refer you to the Web site, Early registration is at a reduced rate. We are looking forward to welcoming you to Jacksonville in January [last snow was 20 years ago!] and will do all that we can to ensure your comfort and enjoyment of the Conference.

We are encouraged by our progress. In all of our efforts, we have enjoyed the support of our pastor, Father Dan Cody, and Bishop Galeone. We believe that we are following, at the parish level, the spirit of Nostra Aetate and the initiatives of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.“Whoever meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism.” [Pope Benedict XVI] We believe that “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us but in a certain way, it is ‘intrinsic’ to our religion. We have therefore a relationship with it which we do not have with any other religion.” [Pope John Paul II]. Our havurah is dedicated to exploring and consolidating this special relationship.