Last January, dozens of well-heeled New Yorkers gathered at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria to raise money for the archbishop of New York’s last gesture toward the Jewish community he held so dear.
The archbishop’s birthday dinner raised $1.5 million for the establishment of the John Cardinal O’Connor Distinguished Chair in Hebrew and Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, the Westchester institution that trains future priests. O’Connor wanted to teach seminarians greater respect for the Jewish roots of Christianity.
But weakened by his months-long battle with brain cancer, O’Connor could not attend the program’s first public lecture, delivered on April 4 by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"There was absolutely an atmosphere of sadness, that we were celebrating his leadership and legacy and he was not there to celebrate with us," Rabbi Schorsch recalled.
Last week O’Connor lost his battle.
His death at age 80 has prompted an outpouring of deep sadness from many sectors of New York’s diverse Jewish community. It demonstrates the strong bonds this working-class Philadelphia native forged during his 16-year reign as leader of New York City’s 2.4 million Catholics.O’Connor is being praised by Jewish leaders for his unprecedented and unyielding denouncement of anti-Semitism, his evolved understanding of the continued trauma of the Holocaust on Jews, and his pioneering role in pushing the Vatican to finally establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994.
"It’s the end of an era," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, longtime director of interreligious affairs for the America Jewish Committee. "His impact on Catholic-Jewish relations was historic and indelible."
The remarkable transformation of O’Connor from a small-town bishop and career military chaplain into one of the world’s leading spokesmen for Catholic-Jewish relations is a testament not only to his personal growth, but his ability to navigate the political minefield that is New York’s Jewish community.
Even though his unwavering dedication to strict Catholic doctrine (such as his pro-life and anti-gay stands) put him at odds with the majority of Jews, his sense of grace and compassion, as well as a deep empathy over the Holocaust, turned him into a beloved spiritual leader for New York’s Jews.
"He traveled a journey," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "He told Jews to be proud Jews. I think during his term of office support from the Jewish community for Catholic projects was more significant than ever before."
But O’Connor’s relationship with New York’s Jews was not love at first sight.
When he first came to New York from Scranton, Pa., where he was bishop, O’Connor upset Jewish leaders by repeating comments comparing abortion with the Holocaust.
"I always compare the killing of 4,000 babies a day in the United States, unborn babies, to the Holocaust," O’Connor said in a 1984 interview. "To me it really is precisely the same."
Reform Rabbi Balfour Brickner called the analogy "an obscenity." The controversy led to closed-door meetings with Jewish leaders, Foxman recalled. "He came out of an environment (Scranton and the military) which at best was asensitive to Jewish issues. We talked to him about why we were offended. He didn’t agree with us immediately. But the fact is he never said it again."
Said Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Englewood, N.J.: "It was an evolution to the sensitivity of how certain terms that were common theologically in Christian discourse were very, very questionable from a Jewish perspective."
Nonetheless, O’Connor always heard their concerns with grace and compassion. "There was no resentment; on the contrary, he was always grateful," Rabbi Bemporad said.
While learning about Jewish sensitivities, O’Connor immediately signaled to New Yorkers that he would fight anti-Semitism. In his first speech to a Jewish organization on May 2, 1984, he told an AJCommittee gathering that a person "cannot be a Catholic practicing in true communion with the Catholic Church and be anti-Semitic." He would repeat that phrase often.
O’Connor also revealed that a visit to the Nazi death camp of Dachau, in Germany changed his life.
"I put my hand on the semicircular floor of the red brick oven and felt the intermingled ashes of Jews and Christians, men, women and children. I don’t think I had grasped the sacredness of the human person until that moment."
He told Jewish friends that he regarded the Shoah as a crucifixion of the Jewish people, and the creation of Israel as its resurrection.
But another flash point occurred in 1986 when O’Connor upset both Jewish and Vatican officials while preparing for a trip to the Middle East. On one hand he called for a homeland for the Palestinians, saying that by keeping hundreds of thousands in refugee camps in horrible conditions "we are creating a monster." Simultaneously he supported Jews’ right to a secure homeland. In the midst of this, the Vatican ordered O’Connor to cancel official meetings with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem: which the Church does not recognize as Israel’s capital. Some distressed Jewish leaders wanted O’Connor to cancel the trip, but he plunged ahead. He later apologized for the diplomatic faux pas in Israel, met with several leaders unofficially, and had a moving visit to the Western Wall.
But O’Connor was distressed when he learned Jewish groups continued criticizing him publicly.
"When he came back, there was a very bad scene," Rabbi Rudin recalled. "He called his critics and friends to his residence and he said, ‘Look, I’m your friend, why didn’t you let us discuss this.’ He was angry and hurt."
The relationship improved around 1987 after a series of public and behind-the-scenes gestures by O’Connor, some of which bucked official Vatican policy.
Long Island Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, one of the deans of interfaith dialogue, credits O’Connor with smoothing relations with the Vatican after Pope John Paul II’s controversial meeting with Nazi-linked former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. "The result was a face-to-face meeting with the Pope, leading to an important paper on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust," said Rabbi Waxman, one of only four Jews in the world knighted by the Pope.Rabbi Waxman also credited O’Connor with neutralizing a 1987 American Catholic statement that would have blasted Israel on the intifada.
"The first draft was heavily anti-Israel, and had nine pages of human rights violations," he recalled. With O’Connor’s help, the violations were reduced to one paragraph. "He said to me at the time, ‘We managed to sink it didn’t we?’"
And there were countless other actions by O’Connor:
# His support to free Soviet Jewry;
# His annual letters to Jews on Jewish holidays, culminating in last year’s profound High Holy Days message, in which he personally appealed for forgiveness for the historic Christian persecution of Jews.
In 1998, he became the highest-ranking Church leader to call for the Vatican to open its Holocaust-era archives.
Perhaps the capstone was the signing of the Vatican-Israel accord.
O’Connor hosted a champagne celebration and was called a chief architect by Rabbi Rudin.
Even on his deathbed, O’Connor sent a statement that he was praying for the 13 Iranian Jews on trial for spying for Israel. Some noted that O’Connor befriended a wide range of New York’s elite, including wealthy developers and publishers who supported his causes financially.
Among his close friends were former Mayor Ed Koch, Holocaust author Elie Wiesel, and prominent builder Jack Rudin.
It was Rudin who suggested the chair in Jewish studies at the seminary.
"He liked the idea, but said, ‘I don’t want my name on it.’ "
At an emotional service Sunday night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York-area rabbis eulogized their late friend.
"If anyone deserved the title ‘tzaddik umot haolam,’ a righteous man of the nations of the world, it is certainly his Eminence John Joseph O’Connor, whom we now mourn," declared Plainview Conservative Rabbi Moses Birnbaum, interfaith expert for the Long Island Board of Rabbis.
Each of seven rabbis stood at the podium of the magnificent marble and gold Fifth Avenue sanctuary, only a few feet away from O’Connor’s open casket, recalling the late cardinal’s many supportive actions on behalf of the Jewish community.
"He was not only your good shepherd, but our good shepherd, too," said Reform Rabbi Marc Gellman, president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
"The one word that describes the life of Cardinal O’Connor is holiness," eulogized Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
"Cardinal O’Connor was the best example in my lifetime of a man who lived in God’s shadow," said Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, director of the Center for Christian Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut."
This faithful prince taught us it is possible for the hearts of Christians and Jews to be open to God in new and wonderful ways," proclaimed Reform Rabbi Ronald Sobel of Manhattan’s Congregation Emanu-El.
A visibly moved Father James Loughran, O’Connor’s interfaith point man, told the hushed audience that "the Jewish community was very dear to the cardinal.
"Todah, clal Yisroel," Loughran said, thanking the rabbis in Hebrew for their words.
Ironically, not in attendance were any of the New York City Orthodox rabbis to whom O’Connor had arguably developed an even closer bond, due to their mutual dedication to dogma and biblical morality. Orthodox leaders could not participate because of the religious restriction from entering a Catholic Church.
"If it would have been halachically [religiously legal] permissible, I would have been there," said Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, chairman of the interreligious committee for the Rabbinical Council of American and the Union of American Orthodox Congregations.
Rabbi Schonfeld, revealed that for the last five years, he and a group of Orthodox leaders quietly met with O’Connor twice a year to discuss issues of mutual concern, such as abortion, gay rights, school vouchers and Israel.
"Absolutely, he had deeper connections with Orthodox Jews because we had much more in common."
"He had a special affinity for Orthodox Judaism because of our steadfast commitment to tradition," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, noting that O’Connor helped install him as president of the New York Board of Rabbis in 1998 and gave him a red cardinal’s skull cap.
The outspoken O’Connor also established strong ties with the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, and particularly its late leader Rabbi Morris Sherer, who died in 1998 at 76.
In a 1993 newspaper column deriding lewd public bus ads, O’Connor noted that he and Rabbi Sherer "have consistently shared the same moral values. If anything, he has been even more watchful than I and unfailingly courageous."
Agudah leader David Zwiebel recalled that shortly after O’Connor came to New York, Agudah teamed up with him to successfully fight then-Mayor Koch’s order banning employment discrimination against gays in social service programs.
"He reminded me in certain ways of Rabbi Sherer," Zwiebel said. "Both were down-to-earth people who had the ability to translate the eternal values which each of them held so closely into policies and pragmatic strategies for a very imperfect real world."
Reform leaders also grew to befriend O’Connor despite sharp differences on social issues. "In terms of our concerns about social justice issues [such as supporting pro-choice and gay rights], we were going to agree to disagree," explained Reform interfaith leader Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granator. But they worked together on other issues of common ground, such as abolishing the death penalty and teaching respect for Catholics in the Jewish community.
"I think we had a very profound relationship with the cardinal. He was remarkably personable and charming. It was almost impossible not to like him."