Presbyterians, Jews gather for understanding Participants at two Main Line sites avoided major points of contention and focused on Scripture study.

Posted: October 26, 2004

With tensions between their communities on the rise, about 175 Jews and Presbyterians attended a two-day, closed-door convocation ending yesterday to "reexamine and strengthen" their interfaith ties.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) infuriated many American Jews this summer when it began exploring selective divestment from companies doing business in Israel and the occupied territories.

That followed a controversial decision by the Presbytery of Philadelphia last year to set up Congregation Avodat Yisrael, a church for Messianic Jews, who believe Jesus is the messiah. Local and national Presbyterian offices have pledged $250,000 to the Plymouth Meeting church.

After both local and national Jewish groups objected to Avodat Yisrael, local interfaith officials began meetings that resulted in the convocation for local clergy and lay leaders. Organizers billed it as a model for "a new relationship between Presbyterians and Jews."

Though those raw issues loomed over the event, participants said the proceedings stuck to Scripture study and avoided emotional fireworks.

"People viewed it as a very good starting place and were not turning it into something else," said Valerie Munson, who heads the presbytery's ecumenical and interfaith relations committee.

Munson, one of the organizers, said 16 synagogues and 16 churches sent delegations, with many indicating interest in being paired up for local interfaith study groups.

Sunday's session was at Main Line Reform Temple, and yesterday's was at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, with the bulk of the talking at each coming from two religion scholars, Patrick Miller of Princeton Theological Seminary and Arnold Eisen of Stanford University. They explored differences between Jewish and Christian identity, with Eisen stressing the hold of Israel on Jews.

"Nobody said, point blank, 'Why are the Presbyterians doing this [divestment]?' but there was a great deal of discussion of what Israel as a Jewish state means to the Jewish community," said Burt Siegel, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Siegel said he was "struck by the lack of understanding on the part of the Presbyterian community of the profound concerns of the Jewish community" about both Israel's security and Christian evangelizing of Jews. He said those "problematic issues" would reemerge at the local sessions, as people move from theology to sharing "what's on their hearts."

The furor over Avodat Yisrael had prompted the presbytery to name a special commission to oversee the project and issue a report. Munson said the report is due Nov. 23, "and people are holding their thoughts in abeyance until they hear that."

Meanwhile, Munson said, she senses most local Presbyterians are comfortable with the divestment resolution, which the 2.5 million-member main-line denomination adopted at its general assembly in June. She said she opposes it on principle and because its opponents weren't given a fair hearing.

The resolution called on the church's investment committee to consider divesting from companies "whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli." As an example, proponents cite Caterpillar Inc., whose bulldozers have been used to raze Palestinian homes.

The church has about $7 billion invested, but little is related to Israel. Presbyterian leaders say that no decision will come until 2006, and that divestment would be a last resort against a company.

Divestment has touched a raw nerve among Jews. The Episcopal and Methodist churches and the United Church of Christ are reportedly considering similar steps, raising alarms of a wider Christian divestment movement.

Main-line protestant groups have close working ties with Palestinians and Arab Christians in Israel, leading some national Jewish officials to accuse them of bias.

Protestant leaders, however, say some Jewish leaders are intransigent in their defense of Israeli policy. They object to being labeled anti-Semitic for expressing concern about Palestinians, and note that some Jewish peace groups support divestment.

Rabbi David Straus, head of Main Line Reform Temple, said his members would begin a dialogue with Bryn Mawr Presbyterian as a result of the convocation at his synagogue.

"We need to be able to hear each other's stories and each other's pain if we are to avoid the pitfalls that come from not talking to each other," he said.

Contact Faith Life editor Jim Remsen at 215-854-5621 or jremsen@phillynews.com.

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