Former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) believes it is time for religious leaders to unite and take a stand against a growing social ill in America — poverty. The former Democratic presidential candidate with the trademark bow tie notes that it has been more than a generation since religious leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Berrigan Brothers and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel joined together for causes of moral concern.
“We have not had a coming together of the religious community on any issue since the civil rights struggle of a few decades ago,” Simon told The Jewish Week in a recent telephone interview. “Poverty is a moral issue, as is civil rights.”
Simon is organizing a daylong conference March 25 at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where he serves as director of the Public Policy Institute.
The goal, he says, is to formulate a statement on the question of poverty, what government can and should do, and what individual congregations can and should do.
Participants include the head of the American Baptist Church, and representatives from Armenian Orthodox Church and the Seventh Day Adventists. Televangelist Pat Robertson has also agreed to participate.
Simon says invitations have also been sent to various rabbis from all denominations. Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the mainstream Orthodox group, was among the first to say yes. This despite the view of some right-wing Orthodox leaders who ban interreligious meetings.
“I believe we ought to be there in a domain where dialogue and discussion takes place,” said Rabbi Rubenstein of the Young Israel of White Plains. “I believe it behooves us as Jews to be a party to better enhancing society.”
Simon cites statistics showing the national poverty level for children has swelled to 21 percent. And he says there is great concern that as drastic changes to federal welfare policies take effect over the next two years, the numbers of poverty-stricken women and children will multiply.
Simon acknowledges that government statistics show that many Americans are prospering right now.
“There is some truth to the fact that most of us are doing pretty well,” said the former legislator. “But if 21 percent of our children live in poverty, you just can’t ignore that. It’s the future of the country. I believe [this meeting] has the possibility of changing the cultural map of this nation,” he said.
Simon can be reached at his institute at (618) 453-4004.
Soon, you can call him Sir Mordechai.
Rabbi Mordechai Waxman, 80, the spiritual leader of Temple Israel for the last 50 years, is scheduled to be knighted by Pope John Paul II. He will be become only the third Jew in recent times to be made a Knight Commander of the Pontifical and Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great.
Rabbi Waxman was chosen because of his decades of work to bring Jews and Catholics together, said Rabbi Mark Winer, outgoing president of the Synagogue Council of America. “He has helped the Catholic Church understand the concerns of Jews,” said Rabbi Winer.
The honor was apparently arranged by William Cardinal Keeler, the Archbishop of Baltimore, and is slated to be given in May. Keeler’s office said it was premature to discuss the knighthood.
Rabbi Waxman, who has recently been feted with a huge jubilee celebration at his own synagogue, appeared humble about the honor.
“I’m the recipient of something quite rare,” he told The Jewish Week. “Obviously this is highly regarded by the church and they are according me a great honor.”
He noted that one of his congregants also has received an honor from the pope, Conductor Gilbert Levine, who conducted the Holocaust concert for the Pope in Rome several years ago.
Rabbi Waxman left for Israel and the Vatican last week with an interfaith group of rabbis and bishops co-sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Bishops and rabbis traveling together is an important positive message in a world torn by religious extremism,” said participant Rabbi James Rudin.
Speaking of the Vatican, the Jewish interfaith community is abuzz over the much-anticipated document promised by Pope John Paul II about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
The document has apparently been ready for some time but is the subject of intensive debate within the top levels of the Vatican. Officials there are struggling over when the document should be released, and how far the statement should go in addressing the church’s responsibility for anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
Rumors were flying this week that the statement may be issued when the International Jewish Commission on Interreligious Consultations convenes in Rome next week.
The promise of such a document was first made 10 years ago by the pontiff after a crisis in Jewish-Catholic relations when former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who assisted in acts of Nazi atrocities, was invited to the Vatican in spite of being barred by most other countries.
Some top Vatican officials want to limit the scope of the document, sources said.
One Jewish official said he expects the document, whatever form it takes, to be the last word from this Pope on Jews going into the new millennium.
But some fear the document may never see the light of day. “Widespread feeling is if it doesn’t come out before he dies, we don’t know if it will ever reach the public,” said one veteran Jewish interfaith leader.
This is the first in a new column on the growing dialogue and cooperation between Jews and people of other faiths. Interfaith Affairs is interested in religious diversity programs and activities happening in your community. Please contact us at Interfaith Affairs, The Jewish Week, 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10035 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.