Submitted by Dr. Barbara Poliks
A senior rabbi of greater Philadelphia’s Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Rabbi Lance Sussman, Ph.D., gave a talk titled “There is a Place for Us: Jews, Catholics and the American Experience” at Binghamton University.
He spoke Nov. 12 at a seminar co-hosted by Binghamton University’s Newman House and Hillel. Newman House serves the Catholic campus community; Hillel is one of the most active student organizations on Binghamton’s campus, host to about 3,000 members.
“For me, it was a great personal honor to help Jewish and Catholic student groups build a bridge of understanding between them,” Rabbi Sussman said.
He started the talk by estimating the current populations of Catholic and Jewish people in the United States — 70 million and about 5 million respectively (it is much more difficult to determine the size of the Jewish population, which does not have baptism certificates or something of the like).
“Jews and Catholics share a historical paradox in American history,” Rabbi Sussman said. “While both are large communities in their own respective contexts, both are minority and even outsider communities in much of American history.”
In the British colonies, prior to the Revolution, both groups were relatively small, minority traditions. Subsequently, both played a major role in defining and broadening the American concept of freedom of religion. With the massive waves of immigration that characterized the 19th century, discrimination against both Jews and Catholics rose; at the same time, the two groups also increasingly conflicted with each other. In recent years, the official relations between the two faiths have improved considerably and the rate of mixed marriages between the two communities has increased.
“The last 50 years have witnessed remarkable improvements in Jewish-Catholic relations in America,” Rabbi Sussman said.
About 200 people heard Rabbi Sussman describe the deep, complex, and intertwined history of both Catholicism and Judaism in America. The reception was enthusiastic. “I was so happy to see members of the Jewish community, colleagues from the university, Catholic friends, clergy of many stripes, and so many students come out on a Sunday night to learn together,” Rabbi Sussman said.
He is the author of numerous books and articles, including “Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism” and “Sharing Sacred Moments,” a collection of his sermons. In the ’90s, Rabbi Sussman was an associate professor of history and for a year an acting chair of the Department of Judaic Studies at Binghamton University, leaving in 2001 when he moved to the Philadelphia area. He was one of the founders of Binghamton University’s Hillel chapter.
During his time in Binghamton, Rabbi Sussman served at Temple Concord, a block away from St. Patrick Church. Following his initiative in 2000, members of both communities organized a tree-planting ceremony to acknowledge them as co-communities that should know each other and be able to help each other if needed.
Two ginkgo trees were planted: one at the temple and one at the church. The ginkgo tree is a symbol of unity, a bearer of hope, and a symbol of love. The planting ceremony was a great success, bringing together the neighboring Jewish and Catholic people. Pope John Paul II was informed about this event and he gave his approval by embossing his papal seal on the pictures from the ceremony — these pictures are now in the archives of both sanctuaries. The ginkgo trees planted in 2000 are still small but they are growing.
Dr. Barbara Poliks is vice president of the board of the Newman House at Binghamton University.