Since traveling to 17 venues around the United States and being seen by more than 800,000 people, the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People," is returning to Cincinnati for a last stop before beginning a European tour in 2013.
The exhibit opened Monday, Sept. 10 at the Skirball Museum on the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In a video interview with co-founder James Buchanan, director of Xavier's Brueggeman Center for Dialogue, the exhibit "offers an opportunity for interfaith engagement."
“There is particular importance to the message of the exhibit for both the Jewish and Catholic communities now,” Buchanan said. “The current pope, Benedict XVI, will be the last pope with direct memory and experience of the Holocaust. There is no way to predict where the next Pope might stand on this vital relationship. Therefore it is critical that the Jewish-Christian relationship gets on a firm foundation now.
The exhibit was launched in October 2004, when Buchanan and other representatives from Xavier, Hillel of Cincinnati and The Shtetl Foundation met with Pope John Paul II to ask his blessing for the exhibition documenting his life-long relationship with the Jewish people, the first exhibition on the subject ever assembled. The exhibit opened at Xavier on May 18, 2005, the pope’s 85th birthday.
After Cincinnati, the Blessing will be the opening exhibit at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which is now completing construction. From there, it travels through Poland, Germany, Austria, Italy and France and possibly to Israel.
The exhibit has had a positive impact on Christian-Jewish relations in each of the communities where it was displayed.
“How fitting it is that two leading organizations in interfaith relations collaborate on the return of this important exhibit to Cincinnati,” said Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, dean of Hebrew Union’s Cincinnati campus.
“We have seen a significant growth in Catholic and Jewish relations, in no small part because of the commitment of Pope John Paul II. His support has been crucial to the advancement of understanding between Catholics and Jews. As Hebrew Union College serves as a cultural resource for greater dialogue and understanding among all members of our community, this exhibition fits perfectly with our mission.”
The 2,200 square-foot exhibit takes its name from the pope’s 1993 letter commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world,” he wrote. “This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another.”
Buchanan, Rabbi Abie Ingber and theology professor William Madges were the principal founders and creators of the exhibit.
Visitors experience the 20th century through the eyes and experiences of Pope John Paul II from his childhood in Wadowice, Poland, his experience of World War II and the Holocaust, his years as a young priest in Krakow and his Papacy. At the end of the multi-media exhibit is a replica of a part of the Western Wall, where visitors can insert their own prayers on the back of a copy of the prayer that Pope John Paul II inserted in the Wall during his historic trip to Israel in 2000. These prayers are taken, unread, to Jerusalem and placed in the real Western Wall. To date, more than 80,000 prayers have been hand-delivered to the Western Wall.
Born Karol Wotyla, Pope John Paul II lived in Wadowice, where one quarter of his classmates were Jewish. He was especially close to Jerzy Kluger, the son of the president of Wadowice’s Jewish community. Scholars believe these early experiences instilled in him openness to Jews and a profound respect for their faith.
As pope, he broke the chains of 2,000 years of painful history between Catholics and Jews. He became the first pope to enter a synagogue, the first to officially visit and recognize the State of Israel, and the first to formally engage in an act of repentance for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of Jews.
The 2005 exhibit opening also gave concrete witness to the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a declaration of the common spiritual heritage shared by Christians and Jews and denunciation of all displays of anti-Semitism.
The exhibit’s video interviews with Kluger were conducted by Ingber. They are the most extensive ever given by Pope John Paul II’s closest Jewish friend.
“As both Karol Wotyla and Jerzy Kluger have died since the exhibit’s opening, it is up to us to see that their message lives after them,” Ingber said. “A Blessing to One Another inspires visitors to commit—or recommit—themselves to ideals of mutual understanding and fellowship.”
The return of “A Blessing” to Cincinnati is a collaborative effort of Xavier University, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, The Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Skirball Museum.
“A Blessing to One Other: Pope John Paul II & The Jewish People” is at the Skirball Museum, 3101 Clifton Ave., from Sept. 10 through Dec. 31. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. For museum hours, please call 513-487-3200 or visit hucinci.org.