My teacher Elieser Slomovic grew up in Solotvina, on the Ukraine-Romanian border. He and his community experienced the horrors of World War II, and much of his family was lost in the camps. By the time he came to America, he thought that if you were Jewish, most Christians wished to either degrade you or kill you.
After the war he came to Los Angeles, where he taught rabbinic literature at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University). In his first months he was asked to attend a Christian-Jewish interfaith conference. Having never heard of such a thing, and being fundamentally distrustful of Christians, he refused. But he was strongly encouraged, and since he was both new to the country and the university, he reluctantly agreed.
I vividly recall Professor Slomovic telling me of his experience. He traveled to Northern California full of apprehension. The proceedings opened with a meal involving all the clergy and scholars, and he took his place in a far corner, trying to be inconspicuous. The minister who was leading the conference raised a piece of bread to begin and said: “I would like to start this meal the way our Lord Jesus would have done: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz. (Blessed are you O Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.)” Elieser got tears in his eyes. That a Christian would pay tribute to Jesus’ Jewish origins and begin with a Hebrew blessing was something he never thought to hear in his lifetime. America really was different.
On Christmas we should remember that Christianity all over the world is different from what it once was. For centuries Christian holidays were a time of dread for many Jews. Because of the label “Christ-killer,” Jewish men, women and children were beaten and sometimes killed by Christian mobs wreaking theological “vengeance” on innocents. Even as we bemoan the history we must be grateful for the changes that have made our world one in which Christianity and Judaism coexist in common devotion to ideals of freedom and mutual respect.
The Vatican recently declared that the church should not seek to convert Jews. For most of the history of the church, a Pope who would visit synagogues, pray together with rabbis, or have close friendship with Jews across the world would be unthinkable. Strong Christian support for Israel exists across the board in the U.S. and particularly in the evangelical community, and Jews are the most admired religious group in the U.S. Anyone familiar with history can only be astonished and grateful at the change.
My relations with Christian colleagues of all denominations have been among the most rewarding aspects of my rabbinate. Without asking, when I told Pastor Rick Warren that I was writing a book on faith, he offered to pen a forward. Many ministers have spoken in my synagogue, and I have been invited to reciprocate in their churches. Acknowledging and valuing each other’s faith traditions is the fruit of much determined goodness and a blessing of the modern world.
This Christmas, Jews should not only volunteer to help in soup kitchens and shelters, eat Chinese food and go to movies (traditional Jewish occupations at this time of year). We should also acknowledge and salute a Christian world that has genuinely changed. And together, believers of all stripes ought to pay tribute to our Creator by proclaiming our own traditions and faith while honoring others. God is greater than any division and is exalted by our embrace. To my Christian neighbors and friends, Merry Christmas. May this be a season of goodwill to all.