Rabbi Leon Klenicki, one of the Jewish community’s leading voices for rapprochement with the Catholic Church, died Jan. 25. A resident of Monroe Township, N.J., he was 78.
Rabbi Klenicki, a native of Argentina, served as the Anti-Defamation League’s director of Interfaith Affairs until his retirement eight years ago, and as the ADL’s co-liaison with the Vatican, meeting frequently with Church leaders in Rome, the United States and other countries.
“I was born in a country that was 95 percent Catholic,” he said. “I was deeply curious about their faith.” The rabbi wrote his undergraduate thesis and his rabbinical thesis on aspects of Catholic belief.
Rabbi Klenicki studied at the University of Buenos Aires and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He served as director of the Latin American Office of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and as spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El in Buenos Aires.
He was a pioneer in Jewish-Catholic relations. He devoted his life to making sure that Vatican II,” which liberalized Catholics teachings about Judaism and relations with the Jewish community, “was real,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director. “He understood anti-Semitism … he experienced anti-Semitism in Argentina. His own experience motivated him to try to bridge the gap [with Catholicism] and reconcile.”
Rabbi Klenicki was the author or editor of “Biblical Studies: Meeting Ground of Jews and Christians,” “Toward a Theological Encounter: Jewish Understandings of Christianity,” and “A Dictionary of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue.”
“We have not always agreed on certain issues … but he really has gone the extra mile in trying to explain to Catholic groups in Europe and South America, as well as in our own country, the position of the Jewish community,” said Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, a participant in several ecumenical activities.
Rabbi Klenicki, honored by the Holy See’s Commission for Interreligious Relations with Judaism in 2001, was made a Papal Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
He is survived by his wife, Myra; a son, Daniel; a daughter, Ruth Finkelstein; and a grandson, Eliyahu Finkelstein.