2017-07-05 / Voice at the Shore

Beth El honors Bishop Sullivan at colorful and moving interfaith service

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor


Bishop Sullivan entered the Beth El sanctuary leading a procession of clergy, escorted by the Knights of Columbus. Bishop Sullivan entered the Beth El sanctuary leading a procession of clergy, escorted by the Knights of Columbus. “Shalom.”

That was the greeting offered by Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan to those attending an interfaith service at Beth El Synagogue in Margate on June 8, where Sullivan received the Father Thom Schiavo Award, an annual award recognizing devotion to community service and interfaith harmony.

“This is a great honor, not just for me but for the archdiocese I represent,” said the Bishop of Camden, who entered the sanctuary leading a procession of roughly 20 clergy members of many faiths, escorted by a cadre of the Knights of Columbus dressed in the colorful plumed hats and capes traditionally worn by members of the Catholic fraternal service organization. The combined choirs of Beth El, Holy Spirit High School, Holy Trinity Parish, and Music Ministries provided musical accompaniment for the procession’s grand entrance.

“Fifty years ago, no one could imagine a Catholic Bishop receiving an award in a synagogue,” Bishop Sullivan told the 100-plus congregants and community members of all faiths and races attending the service.

The Father Thom Schiavo award is given out annually at Beth El Synagogue’s annual Father Thom Schiavo Brotherhood Service. The service and the award are named after a young pastor from Blessed Sacrament Church in Margate who sought to create bonds of friendship and understanding with his neighboring synagogue and its Rabbi, Aaron Krauss. After Schiavo’s untimely death in 1984, Krauss started the service and award to honor the pastor and his devotion to unity.

In accepting his award, Bishop Sullivan praised Beth El, noting how unusual it was for a synagogue to hold an annual memorial service in memory of a Catholic priest. He also praised and thanked Rabbi Krauss. “Rabbi, you have served the people of South Jersey as an interfaith leader and a true mensch,” he said. “You are respected and esteemed by the Catholic community and I am proud to call you my friend.”

Bishop Sullivan, the eighth Bishop of Camden, has long served in pastoral ministry to immigrants. He also has a long history of friendship with the Jewish community. Sullivan recalled how as pastor of St. Theresa’s Church on Henry Street in New York City, a poor neighborhood with a large Jewish presence, he turned to the nearby JCC for help when his church’s roof collapsed in the 1990s. The JCC director invited him to hold mass in the auditorium until the repairs were completed.

The Bishop has more recently spoken to Jewish community members at the JCC in Cherry Hill and in several synagogues. He also took part in a symposium of Catholic and Jewish clergy marking the 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” a Vatican document issued in 1965 that called upon Catholics to stop teaching “contempt of Jews,” Sullivan said.

According to Sullivan, Nostra Aetate instructed Catholics to regard Jews “as elder brothers” and emphasized the significance of the fact that Christ was a son of the Jewish faith. Sullivan called this “one of the biggest changes in the history of the Catholic Church” and “a change that was needed.”

“As Catholics we share a unique relationship with the Jewish people. It is one of complimentarity,” he noted. The Catholic Church now aims to bring “our peoples together in understanding and friendship,” he added.

“I pray that gatherings such as the one this evening will continue,” he concluded.

Other clergy who spoke at the service echoed this sentiment.

“This gathering is a bridge of faith over the troubled waters of intolerance and violence,” said Father Jon Thomas of Atlantic City’s parish of Saint Monica. “By being here we are making a difference. This gathering in and of itself has power.”

Kaleem Shabazz, a Muslim community leader and president of the local interfaith group Bridge of Faith, agreed. “At this time in our country, there is no better resolve than to…foster mutual respect across all differences. That is one of the great challenges of our times,” said Shabazz, who is a past recipient of Beth El’s Father Thom Schiavo Award.

The beauty and possibilities of interfaith unity were further underscored through collaborative musical performances throughout the service by the choirs of Beth El, Holy Spirit High School, Holy Trinity Parish and Music Ministries. Singers offered stirring renditions of Sim Shalom, Mozart’s Hallelujah, and God Bless America. 

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