Should have seen that dancing rabbi

Did you catch any of the Chabad Telethon yesterday?

I was between football games when I came across the annual telethon, at least a portion of which was hosted by Larry King. It was on Channel 9, I think.

I’ve seen bits and pieces of the telethon before, which the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect uses to raise money for a variety of social programs. The interesting thing is that they are able to attract lots of big name talent to the cause.

I always get a kick out of seeing people like King introducing acts and working the phones with black-hatted, long-beared Chabad rabbis (who always seem so energetic and excited).

According to Chabad: “Past participants include Bob Dylan, Martin Sheen, Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, Dennis Franz, Anthony Hopkins, Howie Mandel, Jimmy Kimmel, Matisyahu, Edward James Olmos, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bernie Mac, and Mike Piazza.  The casts of numerous television shows, including ‘Friends’ and ‘Everyone Loves Raymond,’ have also made appearances.”

Yesterday, they had a dancing rabbi who danced for six straight hours while he answered questions about all the good work that Chabad does. Rabbi Yossi Cunin told JewishJournal.com that he trained with a celebrity trainer who is said to be responsible for LL Cool J’s physique.

Cunin said he was trying to demonstrate “joy in the extreme.”

Watch him train:

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Catching up on 9/11

It’s been a few days since I posted, as I’ve been trying to transition to my new life as a GA — general assignments — reporter.

I’ve been busy roaming around around, talking to people about the war in Afghanistan. Should we increase troops, pull the troops out or what? My story is out today, on the anniversary of 9/11 (which I’ll get to in a moment).

I have to say that I really appreciate the many emails and phone calls I’ve gotten from people about the demise of the religion beat here at LoHud/The Journal News. It means a lot to hear that people appreciated my coverage of religion for the last 12-plus years.

I understand that people feel it’s a mistake for LoHud/TJN to stop covering religion. But I also understand the very difficult challenges facing this business. We’re cutting back in many ares and trying to do other things well. Sometimes, there are no easy answers.

This is a tough week for me because the Religion Newswriters Association is holding its annual conference, in Minneapolis this year, and I’m not there. I’ve been to 8 or 9 conferences and  really enjoyed getting to know a group of reporters dedicated to covering religion as best they could.

It’s a smaller gathering this year, as many newspapers have been cutting out their religion coverage. The Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson, who is in Minneapolis, writes on his blog about the religion beat being “endangered” (and has a few nice words to say about me).

So today it’s 9/11.

It was in the days after the attacks — and the weeks and months — that many people wrote and said that religion coverage was especially important to highlight and explain everything happening in the world today.

And explain we did.

Much of the coverage has focused, of course, on Islam, which was still a pretty mysterious (world) religion to most people before the attacks. I think it’s safe to say that people who want to know something about Islam now do.

Covering Islam has been no easy task for most journalists in this country. Why? We talk to and write about Muslims in America, who often see the world very differently from Muslims in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Iraq.

Many of the outrageous things we read about Muslims in the world — people being stoned, people being arrested for converting, a woman facing trial for wearing pants — are outrageous to Muslims who live and work in the U.S. And I can tell you, American Muslims are beyond tired of having to explain and apologize for the actions of people far, far away.

A new study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Americans, by and large, see Muslims as facing a great deal of discrimination — more than any group in society other than gays and lesbians.

Forty-five percent of the public says Islam is no more likely to encourage violence than other religions. Thirty-eight percent say that Islam is more likely to encourage violence.

But which Islam are we taking about? How it’s practiced in Pakistan or in Ohio?

A surprise to me: 45 percent of Americans say they know a Muslim personally. I would have expected 20 percent or something like that.

But get this: Only 41 percent of those polled could identify the name Muslims use for God (Allah) and their holy book (the Koran). I mean, what have you been doing for the last eight years?

Regardless, if you want to relive the emotions that Americans felt after 9/11 and the many questions that people asked, check out some of the video excerpts and interviews that made up the PBS special “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.”

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, the prominent theologian from NY, said this:

*****

What does that mean? It means a boundary has been broken that opens up the floodgates to unstoppable horror, because human is all we are, all we can be, all we can appeal to. It’s our safety net. … But here, the more you show your humanity, the more you’re hated. I’ve never seen anything like this. And I saw it.

To me, to distract one from this, to look for explanations, is obscene. It’s an offense against the reality of what happened — an offense against our humanity — to look for political explanations, economic explanations, diplomatic explanations. “Oh, it’s American foreign policy. It is the arrival into our shores of the Palestinian-Israeli fight. It is globalization. It is the cultural wars. It is American imperialism.” All of that is proposed by the “Yes, but” brigade who got to work immediately after the explosion. It is obscene and irresponsible, because we were facing an attack, a hatred of humanity which is what we all have in common. It’s our line of defense, our only one. And now that was gone. …

The people who did this, who planned it, who brought it about, I don’t know what their theology or their ideology is. I take them at their word; they died with the name of God on their lips. People say they were sincere; well, yes, they were. They believed. This is an act for them that was a sincere act, the worship of their God. I take them at their word. Does that make them any less evil? Oh, but no, that precisely is the monstrosity. If they were not sincere, it would be a terrible thing, but … it is the sincerity, it is the free will. I mean, they willed this to happen. They willed the destruction of humanity, of humanness, of everybody in that place on that day at the World Trade Center. This was a freely willed act, very sincere. And this sincerity is one of the horrible characteristics of the face of evil I saw that day. …

Change

My days as a full-time religion reporter are over. For now.

You may have heard that the newspaper business is hurting, big time. We’ve seen massive cutbacks across the industry for years and the demise of several newspapers.

Here at LoHud/The Journal News, the news staff has been shrinking for some time.

The week before last, we lost more than 40 reporters and editors. The NYT even wrote about a major reorganization here.

I was fortunate to be “rehired.” But some beats had to go. Religion was one of them.

Newspapers across the country have been eliminating their religion beats. It seems that religion is seen as a “soft news” beat and a luxury at a time when newspapers are emphasizing breaking news on their Websites.

Clearly, I think religion news is important in many ways — and that the beat is perhaps the most interesting in journalism. I’ve written about this many times.

But these are tough times for everyone and the newspaper industry is going through a brutal transition period. No one knows what the news media might look like, say, a decade from now.

So I am now a general assignments reporter — as I was before I started covering religion in March 1997.

I’ll cover some religion stories, for sure. But I’ll spend most of my time reporting and writing on other subjects.

As far as this blog goes, I hope to continue writing it.

But I won’t post 3 or 4 times a day, as I have done for the past three years. I’m thinking one post a day — and we’ll see where things go.

Change is tough, especially when I’ve loved (mostly) covering the God Beat. But I’ll continue to look out for the big stories and trends and I’ll try to note some of them here.

Thanks for reading.

Clarifying the Catholic view of the Jewish covenant

This is an interesting moment in the long journey that is…Catholic/Jewish relations.

As I’ve noted before, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement not long ago to clarify the church’s relationship with the Jewish people. The statement noted that while the Catholic Church does not proselytize the Jewish people, it does invite the Jews, like all others, to follow Christ.

Many Jewish leaders did not react well, and talks have been held.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told the Catholic News Agency: “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”

The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg wrote: “Forty-four years of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, set in motion by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and nudged forward by thousands of hours of dialogue and theological review, appear to be in jeopardy right now, threatened by an ideological battle inside the Catholic Church.”

More recently, the Vatican has approved a revision to the Catholic Catechism that further clarifies what Catholics should believe about the Jewish covenant with God.

The first version: “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”

The revision: “To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his Word, ‘belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.’”

A statement from the Bishops Conference said the teaching is not new: “The clarification reflects the teaching of the Church that all previous covenants that God made with the Jewish people are fulfilled in Jesus Christ through the new covenant established through his sacrificial death on the cross. Catholics believe that the Jewish people continue to live within the truth of the covenant God made with Abraham, and that God continues to be faithful to them.”

More talks, you can bet, will be held.

ELCA bishop: Tears of ‘joy and sorrow’ over gay-clergy vote

Bishop Robert Rimbo, leader of the ELCA’s Metro NY Synod, reflected this week on his denomination’s much-publicized recent decision to allow people who live in committed, monogomous same-sex relationships to serve as ministers.

He writes, in part:

*****

I fully expect that our call process will fundamentally remain the same, with congregations finally determining whom to call as their pastor in a process guided by the Holy Spirit. I am grateful for the spirit of communal discernment in our church and at our Churchwide Assembly. Through it all we have come to recognize the deep love people have for this church, even as our views might vary about how best to live this out. This love was evident in the tears in the eyes of many in the Assembly hall upon the announcement of all of the critical votes. There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow and I found the tears in my own eyes to be a mixture of the two.

When difficult decisions are made, trust levels are often shaken. So let me offer some thoughts on why I believe there is reason for trust in our church to be affirmed:

The process was consistently open and democratic, sometimes to the dismay of those who wanted the authorities in our church to dictate what could or could not be. Debate was robust and outcomes were not known until announced. The 1,045 voting members made these decisions.

There was impressive respect for the deep feelings of others as votes were announced. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson reminded us that given the gravity of all of these decisions, the announcement of results should be followed by respectful silence and prayer rather than clapping or outbursts. And that’s exactly what happened: response was always restrained and prayerful. I think these are important signs of our care for each other and the growing maturity of our church.

The depth of people’s engagement on the floor of the Assembly and in many gatherings throughout our time before and during the days in Minneapolis is a clear sign of people’s great love for this church. I find hope in that, and I trust that we can continue to listen attentively to one another.

*****

When I interviewed Rimbo a year ago, shortly before he became bishop, he told me: “After years of personal struggle, of study, of conversations, I believe that people who are gay are created that way. Who am I to deny something that God has created?”

Preparing future priests for dinner conversation, email usage and dealing with the media

I had the privilege yesterday of addressing about 35 Catholic seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

The topic: How to “interact” with the media.

I was on a panel with John Woods, editor of Catholic New York, and Beth Griffin, a writer for Catholic News Service. They’re both real pros whose work I respect.

We each chatted for a few minutes and then took an interesting assortment of questions from the group.

As you might expect, I argued in favor of “openness” with the media. I tried to make the case that it’s in everyone’s best interest for priests to take calls from reporters, arrange interviews and try to explain their beliefs and actions (in a clear, concise and careful way). The opposite approach — not returning calls, offering a “no comment,” turning your back on a reporter — never makes reporters go away and ultimately contributes to less accurate and meaningful news reports.

Does interaction with the media ensure accurate and thorough news reports? Of course not.

The panel was asked about reporters with an “agenda,” the questionable accuracy of bloggers, the messy fall-out from the high-pressure, 24-hour news cycle and other factors that can make the media quite scary for clergy.

All good points. No question about it. But the Media Machine is not going away and many priests will have to face it at some point.

Beth, John and I all had the same message: Be truthful. Be helpful. Be clear. Be careful.

Father Gerard Rafferty (that’s him), who teaches Scripture at the seminary and introduced us, may have said it best: “We can’t be afraid of proclaiming what we believe.”

Our presentation actually came at the end of a two-day seminar called “The Priest in the Public Eye.” The idea was to help future priests fully realize that they will live much of their lives in the public eye and to understand what it really means.

They started on Monday morning with a presentation on — get this — social etiquette. How should you look, introduce yourself, greet others, even offer handshakes. How to interact with staff and parishioners. What it means to be a good host and a good guest. Even how to offer a toast and work a receiving line.

This is the life of a priest, right?

Bishop Gerald Walsh, rector of the seminary, covered basic communication, from the parish bulletin and the parish website to answering invitations and writing thank-you notes.

Father Stephen Norton covered the advantages — and potential dangers — of Internet networking and email use. For example: Choose an appropriate email name, even for personal accounts.

Yesterday morning — and I wish I could have seen this — the seminarians learned about dinner etiquette. We’re talking how to deal with forks and spoons, how to make appropriate conversation (avoid politics and religion, anyone?) and knowing when it’s time to leave. Also: Silence the cell phone.

Then came our program about dealing with the media.

Griffin had one of my favorite bits of advice for the day: Don’t refer to your archbishop as an “ordinary” or an unknowing reporter may report that you referred to Archbishop Dolan as, well, an ordinary joe.

A ‘schism’ in the lockerroom? Yuck!

Normally, the only time you see the word “schism” in the media is when a Protestant denomination appears to be heading toward a break-up of some kind.

So it’s been amusing (at least to me) to see sportswriters wrestling with the word for the last week or so.

A couple of weeks ago, a football writer reported that there was a possible “schism” facing the Minnesota Vikings because of the recent signing of star QB Brett Favre. Apparently, some Vikes want him there, some don’t.

The word “schism” — How do you say it? What does it mean? — quickly became part of the story.

Favre himself said: “I don’t even know what that means,” he said. “I’ve got no reaction. I’m just hopefully trying to help this team win. Just trying to fit in. I’m not worried about that. That’s for you guys to have some fun with. Once again, I have no idea what that means. I’m assuming it’s controversial. Good.”

Then Jared Allen, another member of the Vikings known for his outspokenness, came up with this beauty: “I don’t think anyone on this team knows what schism means let alone use it in a sentence form. At first I thought schism was an STD, and I was like WOAH we practice abstinence here!”

I love sports!

When the Vikings play Favre’s old team, the Green Bay Packers, this season, I hope some headline writer describes Favre’s divided fan base as “the Great Schism.” That would be too much.