The Cardinal and the Jews

Rabbi Leon Klenicki is a native of Argentina who headed the Department of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League. The rabbi and Cardinal O’Connor published a booklet together about the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel.

I met him in the very beginning, when he first came to New York as the new archbishop. He gave a speech in which he said that abortion was “the Auschwitz of American life.” I heard this, and I wrote to him immediately and said that I thought it was very improper to use words like “Auschwitz” to describe abortion. In the United States, I said, a woman can have the child, put the child up for adoption or have an abortion-there are several possibilities. In Europe, for a Jew, we had no possibilities. As a Jew, you were destined for death.

He was very touched by that, I think, and he wrote an essay in the newsletter of the Anti-Defamation League explaining what he meant by that. It was very important to him.

Not long after that, he decided to go to Israel. He went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and he wrote “A Note from Yad Vashem,” which was also published. He stressed the horror of the Holocaust and said that it is a Jewish tragedy and that we have to be careful how we use language in relation to the Holocaust.

We had an ongoing and very close relationship after that. We would visit each other and talk over the problems of our communities. Sometimes, when there were confrontations between the Catholic and Jewish communities, I would go to him, because I knew he would understand. This was an ongoing thing. He talked to Jewish audiences, and encouraged me to teach in a Catholic seminary. He was also very much interested in programs about education and the presentation of the New Testament and Judaism.

Once, the Cardinal was invited by some group to go down to Argentina and give a talk. He asked me if I had ever heard of the group. I had, I told him, and I knew them to be a little peculiar. They were a right-wing group. This was certainly not the sort of group that had ever been particularly open or friendly towards the Jewish community. When I told him this, the Cardinal asked me whether I wouldn’t come with him. So I did.

After he addressed the group, he was invited to speak at a Mass in the cathedral in Buenos Aires. I remember that in his speech, O’Connor really gave it to the people about anti-Semitism during Mass, during the homily. He told them a Hasidic story about Jews in Poland who were taken to the woods to be killed, to be shot, and one father covers his child. So this child is saved, but when he emerges from the woods and goes to his neighbors for help, covered in blood, they tell him: “Get out, Jew.” This happens a number of times. Finally, the boy appears on the doorstep of an old woman, and when she asks him who he is, he says that he is Jesus. She believes him and takes him in, and he is saved that way. It created such a reaction there.

The Cardinal was also a personal friend during moments of great agony. I lost a daughter in a car accident, and it took me a long time to recover. Whenever we would meet after that, we would talk about it. He would say a word or touch my arm. When he talked to me, it was as a friend. He was not the Cardinal, he was a pastor listening to someone in pain. He would also remember my daughter, Myriam, every February at Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He never forgot to mention her and say a prayer for her. I once even got a call from a Catholic friend of mine in Rome. He had been at a meeting with O’Connor, and at this meeting he had mentioned Myriam. In Rome! [Pauses.] That was precious.

Parading for Israel

A political activist and former president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Martin Begun was a witness to Cardinal O’Connor’s fierce dedication to the State of Israel. In 1998, Mr. Begun brokered a historic and symbolically important agreement for the Cardinal to make an appearance at that year’s Salute to Israel Day Parade.

I remember when I went to see Cardinal O’Connor in his First Avenue office. It was a meeting that came at a pretty rough time for me personally. My mother had just passed away a week or two before. I guess the Cardinal knew that-he had already sent me a note, before we met, expressing his condolences-and when I came, he took both my hands and told me how sorry he was.

So we sat there in his office, with Father Pat Loughlin, who was the liaison to community-based Jewish groups, around a coffee table. The Cardinal was immediately very disarming, joking around. Father Loughlin, it turned out, had forgotten his collar. So, of course, the Cardinal, being a former chaplain in the Navy, pretends to scold him for being out of uniform. He was joking, of course, but that got us all to laugh. It lightened things up. The Cardinal talked about all sorts of things-New York, what he wanted to do here, and those sorts of things. He also told me, very generously, that I should always call him if he could ever help us out with anything.

Before this meeting, I had discussed the idea with my colleagues of inviting the Cardinal to the Israeli Parade. It was an unusual idea-it would have been the first time a Cardinal had attended the event. Now, the meeting was going so well that I decided to do it. So as the meeting was drawing to an end, I said, with some trepidation, “I would very much like to extend an invitation to Your Eminence …. ” Before I even finished he said, “I would love to.” He turned to Father Loughlin and told him to make sure that his schedule would be free. His enthusiasm at that point was such that I decided to go for broke-I asked him if he would consider getting some Catholic students in marching bands to participate in the parade. He not only agreed, but said that he would help in any other way he could. I think Father Loughlin was the only one who might not have been delighted, because his workload was doubling by the minute. But I was thrilled.

An Historic Apology

Howard Rubenstein is the head of Rubenstein Associates.

I had been doing some publicity work for the Inner City Scholarship Fund, and we were doing really well. And then he asked me to join the fund’s board-there aren’t many Jewish people on it, maybe one other at the time. I got really friendly with him, and I joined him at some of the schools he visited. I became very, very enthusiastic about what he was doing, and what I was doing. I encouraged clients to give money to the fund, and many did.

Parallel to this, we were about to do the dedication of our new building at the Holocaust Museum here in New York. I suggested to Manhattan District Attorney Bob Morgenthau, another founder of the museum, that we invite the Cardinal to speak. Some of the Orthodox Jewish people fought it. They were saying, “He’s Catholic, there were some problems with Catholics during World War II, the Holocaust period.” They were pretty vocal, but it had nothing to do with the Cardinal personally. Bob Morgenthau and I overruled everybody. We just said, “It’s done.” And they said, “Well, maybe he shouldn’t say a prayer.” And we said, “He’ll say whatever he wants to say.” Then I spoke to him, and I suggested that this is an opportunity to say whatever he cared to say, in any format that he wished.

He came to that dedication, and he delivered the first speech I ever heard issuing an apology to the Jewish community for what happened during the Holocaust. The handful of people who resisted his participation thanked him and thanked me and thanked Bob Morgenthau for standing up for what we thought was right. I loved that man from that moment on. I always liked him, but I loved him for what he did that day.

‘I Haven’t Forgotten’

As a religion writer for The New York Times , Ari Goldman covered Cardinal O’Connor from 1983 to 1993. Mr. Goldman, author of The Search for God at Harvard and Being Jewish, is now a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

In 1995, my mother was in the last stages of battling cancer. She was in Sloan-Kettering [Cancer Center], where they were aggressively treating her, but it became clear there was nothing more they could do. My stepfather and my brother and I looked for the best place for her, and it turned out to be a Catholic hospice in the Bronx called Calvary. We learned that Jews are good at keeping people alive through aggressive treatment-that they knew how to save sick people-but Catholics were good at providing for the dying. We were an Orthodox family and wanted her in a Jewish environment, but nothing came close to Calvary Hospital, run by the Archdiocese of New York.

Before bringing my mother there, we wanted to make sure she would be in a comfortable environment. We met with social workers and other staff, who arranged for the crucifix to be taken down in my mother’s room and provided kosher food. We were a family in crisis, and it was like the whole hospital was turned over inside-out for my mother’s comfort. The medical director greeted us at the door and saw my mother to her room.

A few days later, I was in a quiet moment with the medical director, and I said, “This is the most amazing facility I’ve ever seen. My mother is as comfortable as she could be.”

And he smiled and said, “It’s not every day that the Cardinal calls.”

That blew me away. There are 17 Catholic hospitals with something like 1,300 beds in the Archdiocese of New York. And Cardinal O’Connor knew that Ari Goldman’s mother was moving into one of those beds in the Bronx.

Six months after my mother died, I got a personal note from the Cardinal. Remember, I was no longer a Times reporter. He had no reason to be nice to me. He owed me nothing. But I received this personal note, which I saved. The Cardinal wrote: “The loss of a parent is so hard …. We often get a lot of attention when we lose a parent, then six months goes by, and everyone forgets, but you don’t forget. I haven’t forgotten either.” [Pauses.] There are 2.3 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York, and I’m a Jew, and he writes that kind of letter to me.

Extraordinary Sensitivity

Rabbi Michael Miller, the longtime head of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a member of the Orthodox Caucus, partnered with Cardinal O’Connor on a number of high-profile interfaith endeavors. “He was a pastor to all New Yorkers,” the rabbi said. “He was our cardinal. Jewish New Yorkers felt that close to him.”

In November 1988, we held a 50th-anniversary event for the commemoration of Kristallnacht , when the Nazis attacked Jewish shops in prewar Germany, and we invited the Cardinal to be our keynote speaker. I don’t know how many communities would invite their cardinal or bishop to be their keynote speaker for an event commemorating the Holocaust. But Cardinal O’Connor was a cherished friend by then.

The commemoration was held at Congregation Kehilath Jeshuren, on 85th Street between Park and Lexington, an Orthodox synagogue. So the Prince of the Church in New York was addressing a subject matter regarding the Holocaust in an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan. There were so many aspects to this event and his participation in it that were unique. Foremost was his speech. I recall quite vividly how he referred to himself as a “spiritual Semite.” It was remarkable. I wouldn’t presume to try to explain why he felt that connection to the Jewish community, but he clearly felt a kinship.

Also, if I remember correctly, the Cardinal was dressed in his black tunic and his red belt and his hat, and, of course, a big gold cross. He tucked the cross into his tunic. It was a measure of his sensitivity. I think that was a display of the measure of the man. He always seemed to know what to do around us. He just possessed extraordinary sensitivity.

To me, he was a quintessential fatherly figure. He was someone with whom I felt very comfortable talking through issues, as if he were my rabbi, talking through personal concerns. I always felt very much at ease in his presence. That was a gift he had.


Rachel Fader is a 12-year-old girl from California, the great-niece of Sandi Merle, a midtown resident who is on the media commission of the New York Board of Rabbis. Ms. Merle was a friend of the Cardinal, and she turned to him for comfort when Rachel was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm in 1998. Rachel started writing to the Cardinal after her diagnosis, and finally met him in New York. Their correspondence continued until the Cardinal’s death.

We went to New York to see him. We were in his office, waiting, and then I heard a voice from outside the office saying, “I hear there’s somebody named Rachel waiting for me in the other room.” And I knew it was him. He came in and saw me and hugged me for such a long time. He brought me over to the window, and he was pointing out all the things you could see from the window-the Chrysler Building and the other buildings. He asked me how school was, and what I was doing in extracurricular activities. He spent over an hour with us, and that was so surprising, you know? It was wonderful talking to him, and he was such a wonderful person. He seemed so happy to see me, and I was so happy to see him. I loved being in that room and talking to him, because he was a great listener. It was a wonderful experience.

Before we left, he gave my mom a really beautiful kiddush cup. And he gave me a replica of the Statue of Liberty and a medallion with his coat of arms on it. I have it in my room now. It’s in a red velvet case.

I wrote him a letter about how wonderful it was that two people from two different religions could be such wonderful friends and share so many things in common. I had thought, since he is a Cardinal very involved in his religion, I thought maybe we would have a lot of differences. But it actually turned out that I learned a lot about the things that Jews and Christians have in common. And from being with him I learned not just the technical religion stuff, but about people interacting with each other. I think that was pretty nice.

I think about him often. I think about the wonderful time we had together, and I replay scenes in my mind from when we met. Sometimes it makes me sad, but he’s not gone from me. He may have left the world, but he didn’t leave me. I have a picture of him on my desk, and I look at it often and I think about him. Sometimes, you know, when I’m having a bad day, I talk to him and he’ll help me through it.

Ellen Cohen is Rachel’s mom.

I wrote several letters of my own, thanking him for the Mass he said for Rachel and for showing such interest in her. Eventually, I wrote to him about something I thought he might want to know about me. My father is my Aunt Sandi’s brother. They come from an Orthodox Jewish family. He married my mother, who comes from an Irish-Catholic family. My parents divorced when I was 2, and I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school until 10th grade and later converted to Judaism. I thought he should know that. I wrote to him about that, and in response he wrote a beautiful letter of acceptance to me, and ended with him saying that he understood that this is something I thought that God wanted for me, and the best thing I could do is be the best Jew I could be.

He really was a refuge for us. I still feel his presence, and I know he will always be with us.

Comforting the Afflicted

Former Mayor Ed Koch

The Cardinal was extremely important to me during the corruption crisis [in the mid-1980’s, when several city politicians were found guilty of theft and other crimes]. I went into a state of what I believe was clinical depression. I couldn’t discuss it with anybody or go to a psychiatrist, because nobody wants the Mayor to be perceived as nutty. [Laughs.] I had it all bottled up. My fear was that people would think I was corrupt. I didn’t have wealth. Whatever I did, I did because the people believed me and believed I was honest. I thought to myself, “Will the people think I’m dishonest?” I couldn’t stand it. I thought of suicide. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I loved my job, but I could hardly move. I was lying in bed on Sunday, and there was a call from the Cardinal, who said, “Ed, I know you feel terrible, and that you’re suffering so. But everybody knows you’re an honest man.” Now, I had never discussed this with him. But he knew intuitively what I was going through. I was amazed. My own family didn’t know. My sister said later, “Ed, why didn’t you tell us?” I couldn’t. The Cardinal intuitively knew, and he said to me, “There’s nothing you have to worry about.” I said, “Oh, Your Eminence, I can’t tell you how much this call means to me.” And he said, “Oh, it’s nothing.” And I said, “Oh, yes. The Lubavitcher rebbe didn’t call me.”

I attended the cathedral for a memorial on the first anniversary of his death. Cardinal Egan asked a dozen people to go with him down to the crypt. I did, and I was shocked. On a tiny ledge in front of the coffin area beneath his name were three pebbles. That means three Jews had been there to honor him and thank him. I told Cardinal Egan, “From now on I’m going to carry pebbles, because if I had had one, I’d have put one there.”

Pebbles in the Crypt

Sandi Merle , Rachel Fader’s great-aunt

When I go to the crypt, I leave a stone. Jews do that for two reasons: No. 1, that we are not forgotten. And No. 2, that’s the way we build a monument, stone by stone by stone.

There was a reception in the Cardinal’s memory sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society and the Jewish Community Relations Council, and one of the speakers was Ed Koch. And he said that he was at the crypt on May 3 [2001, the first anniversary of the Cardinal’s death] and he saw three little pebbles on the ledge, so he figured that three other Jews had been there before me. I didn’t say a thing, and Mary Ward, the Cardinal’s sister, started to cry, but she was smiling at the same time. We had visited Oskar Schindler’s grave in Israel together, and we picked up some pebbles from the area around the grave, and I put one there each time I visited the Cardinal. May I live long enough to fill up that ledge.

From Full of Grace: An Oral Biography of John Cardinal O’Connor © 2001. The Cardinal and the Jews