Rabbi, Priest Find Common Ground

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Rabbi, Priest Find Common Ground


Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Jonathan Seidel and Tom Yurchak sometimes like to share jokes with each other. Rabbi-priest jokes, to be precise.

They probably can be forgiven, since Seidel is rabbi of Eugene's fledgling Or Hagan Light of the Garden minyan, and Yurchak is the parish priest at St. Jude Catholic Church. But the two men's shared passions go far beyond a good punch line.

When Seidel decided last year to start a new, conservative Jewish congregation, he knew he needed to find a worship space to rent. So he went to St. Jude, widely regarded as Eugene's most liberal Catholic parish, to inquire about the availability of its chapel sanctuary - on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, not Sundays.

That's when he first met Yurchak, who had arrived at St. Jude only months earlier after serving St. Patrick Catholic Church in Canby for 10 years.

"We just really hit it off right away," said Seidel. "He has a good sense of humor, and we recognized right away that we both had an interest in scholarship and religious studies. I'd studied Christian thought and he'd studied Judaism. We had a language to speak to each other."

And so speak they did. Yurchak learned that Seidel had written articles and part of his doctoral dissertation on amulets - religious icons worn on the body because of their supposed power to protect against harm.

Seidel, in turn, learned about Yurchak's remarkable personal library -25,000 volumes, on virtually all aspects of religious history and church law, not to mention a Yiddish Bible - and his collection of nearly 100 crosses, amulets and other religious icons.

The shared interest has elevated Seidel and Yurchak's relationship beyond tenant-landlord: Beginning this week, they're teaming up to offer a five-week adult education class. The topic: "Folk Religion, Piety and Art in Judaism and Christianity."

The idea of a conservative rabbi and a liberal priest jointly teaching such a class strikes neither Yurchak nor Seidel as particularly unusual. Yurchak, for example, sees plenty of similarities between conservative Judaism and orthodox Catholicism.

"Our religions are not just something of the head or the heart, but of the ordinary and everyday," he said. "We have everyday ceremonies - the frequent prayer, the ritualized practice, the sacred objects.

"We're aware of the richness of our traditions, and we're just trying to expose people to those riches."

Yurchak, 55, identifies another reason for offering the class: "My people are very interested in the Jewish faith because they know that we have Jewish roots - that Jesus himself was a Jew."

Yurchak said his interest in ecumenical and interfaith matters evolved as he began officiating at more and more weddings in which a Catholic was marrying a Protestant, a Jew or, in at least one instance, a Muslim. His ecumenical involvements include a stint on the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon's theological education committee.

Seidel, who previously served as assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, said he, too, sees the class as a way to build bridges between faith traditions. "Christians have a lot to teach Jews, and Jews have a lot to teach Christians," he said.

Seidel, 49, said he started the Light of the Garden minyan at the request of local Jews interested in an alternative to Temple Beth Israel, which is affiliated with the more liberal Reconstructionist branch of Judaism.

Light of the Garden has 30 to 40 core members and big plans that include a religious school and teen program, Seidel said. "We're creating a safe place that's welcoming to all Jews and people interested in Judaism," he said. …

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