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Flanagan-Monsky example of social justice and interfaith harmony still shows the way seven decades later

May 31, 2010 9 comments

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When I became aware of the fact that Father Edward Flanagan, the Catholic priest and Boys Town founder whom Spencer Tracy won an Oscar portraying in the classic MGM movie, was close friends with prominent American Jewish leader Henry Monsky, I was intrigued. Then when I discovered that Monsky was a key figure in the formation, survival, and growth of Boys Town, I knew there was a story to be told.   I like how men of two different faiths found enough common ground to work together for the greater good. My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

It’s interesting to me that this interfaith bond should happen in Omaha, a decidedly Catholic and Protestant communnity.  At the time when Flanagan and Monsky forged their solidarity, the local Jewish population was much larger than it is today.  But as my story points out, the relationship between Boys Town and the Omaha Jewish community remains strong all these decades later. And Omaha is receiving national attention these days for its ambitious Project Interfaith, a union of the local Episcopal, Jewish, and Muslim faith communities that is trying to lay the groundwork for a planned tri-faith campus.  One can only think that Flanagan and Monsky would be pleased.

You can find more stories by me about Boys Town on this blog, including one that charts the story of the 1938 MGM movie Boys Town (“When Boys Town Bwecame the Center of the Film World”), another that explores its athletic glory years (“Rich Boys Town Sports Legacy Recalled”), and still another that looks at the investigative newspaper reporting that uncovered Boys Town’s hidden wealth (“Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun‘s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Expose of Boys Town”).

 

 

Fr. Edward Flanagan

 

Flanagan-Monsky example of social justice and interfaith harmony still shows the way seven decades later

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Even as the world grows ever flatter and more interconnected, political, religious, ethnic differences still separate people into divisive factions. One need only consult history or today’s news to see how this distrust of the other is the cause of conflict. Inroads to understanding can be made. The efforts of the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Conference for Community and Justice and many other organizations bring disparate groups together in a spirit of cooperation.

Macro alliances can start at the micro level. All it takes is two persons willing to work toward the greater good. Ninety years ago in Omaha two men — a Catholic priest and a Jew — forged an enduring friendship that made famous a haven for homeless boys, shined a light on at-risk youth and demonstrated the power of unified action. Father Edward Flanagan was an Irish immigrant prelate dedicated to rescuing men from the bowery and children from delinquency. He dreamed of a home for wayward boys but lacked funds. Henry Monsky, a Jew from the Orthodox tradition, was a social activist and attorney with a law degree from Jesuit Creighton University, where he graduated top in his class (1912).

As legend has it, Monsky is the mensch who loaned Flanagan $90 to start Boys Town in 1917. For the next 30 years he served, without pay, as Flanagan’s confidante and legal counsel. Monsky also drew his law office of Monsky, Grodinsky, Marer & Cohen into tending to the home’s affairs. One partner, William Grodinsky, joined Monsky in serving on the BT board of trustees.

Like his fellow mensch, the priest, Monsky was involved in assisting children in the juvenile justice system, a cause he “felt deep in his bones, as Flanagan obviously did, too,” said Omaha historian Oliver Pollak. Recognizing they shared a vision for helping lost boys, they formed an association “of legendary proportions,” Pollak writes in his article, “The Education of Henry Monsky,” published in the journal Western States Jewish History. That association is much documented, even dramatized in the 1938 movie “Boys Town.” A Jewish merchant-benefactor in the film, Dave Morris, is based on Monsky, whose desire for anonymity led him to secure a promise from producers that neither his real name nor profession be used. Columnist Walter Winchel later revealed Monsky as the real Dave.

In 1989 the Boys Town Hall of History and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society co-curated an exhibition, “Father Flanagan and Henry Monsky: Men of Vision,” telling these men’s story. The exhibit, which showed at Boys Town and the Jewish Community Center, traveled widely. Boys Town plans to display the exhibit again next fall for the home’s 90th anniversary celebration. 2008 is the 60th anniversary of Flanagan’s death. 2007 marked the 60th anniversary of Monsky’s passing.

“The close friendship between Father Flanagan and Mr. Monsky was very unique for its time,” said Boys Town Hall of History director Tom Lynch. “…Father Flanagan had developed an ecumenical outlook on life, especially when it came to helping children in need…Father forged many bonds with like-minded individuals of different races and religions. The first such friendship was with Henry Monsky, who represents the thousands of supporters who have assisted Boys Town…”

The bond of brotherhood these men exemplified lives on today.

“There is a respectful mutuality in the relationship between the Jewish community and Boys Town,” said Father Steve Boes, national executive director of Boys Town. At the 2005 ceremony introducing Boes as BT’s new leader “Rabbi Jonathon Gross of the Beth Israel Synagogue offered a prayer for our kids, our organization and for me. Since that day and in the spirit of Henry Monsky and Father Flanagan, we have developed a friendship meet monthly.

“Our discussions range from the social problems that affect our community to personal issues like family, exercise and prayer. I have come to value our time together and see it as a great extension of Father Flanagan’s legacy. We also have a relationship with Beth Israel Synagogue. Members have helped serve Christmas dinner to our kids who can’t return home at the holidays.”

Just as Boes and Gross make an intriguing contrast today, so did Flanagan and Monsky. Flanagan, the pale, soft-spoken, bespectaled Irish priest. Monsky, the dark-complexioned, loud, lion-headed, larger-than-life Jew.

Just as having a top flight attorney and lay Jewish leader in his corner was a coup for Flanagan and BT, having a preeminent child welfare advocate and Catholic priest on his side was a boon for Monsky and convergent Jewish interests. Each was a Great Man in his own right. Flanagan owned the ear of powerful figures on the national-international stages, traveling the globe on speaking, goodwill and fact-finding tours. He commanded large audiences through personal appearances he made, including many addresses before Jewish crowds, and interviews he gave. He openly supported interfaith alliances and Zionist causes. At the time of his death he was acting at the behest of President Harry S. Truman in appraising the war orphan situation in Europe, a mission he made the year before to Korea and Japan.

Monsky served on many civic and charitable boards and from 1938 to 1947 presided as international president of B’nai B’rith, the largest Jewish service club, at a crucible time in history. As an ardent Zionist he implored U.S. and world leaders to intervene on behalf of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He helped form the American Jewish Conference (Congress), served as editor of the National Jewish Monthly and consulted the U.S. delegation at the formation of the United Nations.

He and Omahan Sam Beber also established the AZA, the world’s largest Jewish youth organization.

Like Flanagan, Monsky was in high demand as a public speaker, addressing audiences of all persuasions, and enjoyed entree into halls of power. He, too, encouraged interfaith collaboration and served on many Catholic boards.

 

 

 

 

Henry Monsky, Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive

 

 

No one knows precisely when or how they met but there’s no question they saw each other as kindred souls working to save endangered or abandoned youth. The fact one was Jewish and the other Catholic seemed to matter little to them.

Monsky’s widow, Daisy (Hirsch) Monsky, makes these points in the book she co-authored with Maurice Bisgyer, “Henry Monsky: The Man and His Work”:

“The profound friendship and loyal devotion between Henry and Father Flanagan was based on the fact that, despite the vast difference in their formal religion, both believed in social justice and both were willing to work to achieve it. There are innumerable stories of the bond between them…Father Flanagan always knew that Henry could be depended upon to act for the benefit of the underprivileged.”

In her book Daisy recounts the time Flanagan borrowed $25,000 from a board member in order to post bail for a boy charged with murder in Iowa. The priest learned of extenuating circumstances in the case and decided the lad would be better served at BT rather than in a youth detention center while awaiting trial. In a letter Flanagan asked Monsky to smooth over the legalities of it all:

“…Henry, this home is for saving boys, and we cannot let that boy stay in jail over there…I hope you will present the matter properly at the next meeting of the board, and explain what has been done.”

Always the trusted servant, Monsky persuaded the board to approve the loan and its repayment. Up until his trial the boy remained at Boys Town.

The story illustrates how the men shared an implicit understanding of how BT matters should be handled. The symbiotic way they operated is not surprising when you consider the two knew each from the time they were young men.

Ireland born and reared, Flanagan first came to America in 1904. That year or the next he arrived in Omaha on the coattails of older brother Patrick, a priest who started Holy Angels Church on the north side. It’s then that Edward may have first met Henry, who lived nearby. When Edward expressed interest in the priesthood, the Omaha bishop — a fellow Irishman named Harty — accepted him as a seminarian and sent him off to study in Rome. Ordained in 1912, Flanagan was assigned to Omaha, where he celebrated his first mass at Holy Angels. Monsky was studying law at nearby Creighton. After a stint in O’Neill, Neb. Flanagan returned to Omaha in 1913 at St. Patrick Catholic Church. He and Monsky soon worked together — to establish a Boy Scouts of America council and to advocate for youth with juvenile justice system judges and social workers.

A 1945 address by Flanagan at a B’nai B’rith tribute for Monsky at the Commodore Hotel in New York City alludes to their longtime friendship:

“…we have come here to honor a great man — a man with a brilliant mind and a loving heart. A man whose outstanding virtue is his love for his fellow man…Unlike most of you here, I have known him as a boy, a student at the university, a young lawyer entering upon a professional career — a fellow worker with whom it was my privilege to engage in charitable and welfare fields. He is a member of the board of Father Flanagan’s Boys Home, and my own attorney. He is my personal friend.”

The fondness they felt for each other is seen in their correspondence:

Flanagan to Monsky on the receipt of a gift:

“My dear Henry, I have received your wonderful gift…It is very kind of you, dear Henry, to think of me in this way — I don’t know what other gift would be appreciated as much right now. Wishing you God’s every blessing and success, I remain, dear Henry, Yours most sincerely…”

And on the occasion of Monsky’s marriage to Daisy:

“…I am very happy to hear this good news, for I know it makes you happy, and my whole household joins with me in wishing you both every blessing and happiness that this old world can bring to people of good will…”

Monsky, in appreciation of that note, references an honor conferred on Flanagan:

“…I know how interested you are in my welfare, and I assume that happiness that comes to me gives you the same thrill as I experienced when I witnessed your elevation (to monsignor) in last Sunday’s ceremony. I think I know as much as anyone does how well merited this recognition is. With kindest regards…”

And on the occasion of his election to international B’nai B’rith president:

“I appreciate very much your telegram…It is delightful to know, in undertaking a responsibility of this character, that one has the confidence of those with whom he has been intimately associated for so many years…”

Monsky’s admiration for Flanagan is evident in a speech he gave at a 1942 dinner celebrating BT’s 25th anniversary.

“This is a privilege that I would not like to have missed…Father Flanagan, you can be very proud for what you have contributed in the past 25 years…those of us who have been on the board have enjoyed the great privilege, not only in that we have worked with you, but accepted your philosophy of this unique institution that ‘there is no such thing as a bad boy”…It is perfectly understandable that he has become the outstanding individual in America for his work with boys.”

 

 


Fr. Flanagan interviewed by Lyle DeMoss

 

 

In 1921 Monsky chaired the speakers bureau for BT’s inaugural capital campaign, which bought the land and erected the first building for the campus.

In a letter to Daisy, Flanagan wrote about his departed friend’s service on behalf of that campaign, which raised some $25,000:

“He spent much of his time then in training our boys who constituted his principal speakers on the public platforms throughout Omaha and its environs for this campaign. He took even more interest in making this campaign a success than he did his own business, but it seems to me he did this with everything he took up…That is why he was a great man, a great friend and a great citizen.”

Perhaps the tug of the home and its mission led Monsky to build a home on 90th Street — on then still undeveloped farm land — to be near his “brother,” the padre.

The home and Flanagan became national icons thanks to savvy marketing and the success of MGM’s 1938 hit Boys Town. Superstar Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his endearing portrayal of Flanagan and popular Mickey Rooney won new legions of fans as the plucky Whitey.

Even before the movie Flanagan and the home gained national exposure via a weekly coast-to-coast radio broadcast he delivered. But the movie brought a whole new level of attention. From its two-week, on-location shoot in Omaha to its September 7, 1938 premiere at the Omaha Theatre downtown, Boys Town was a phenomenon. Thousands of curious onlookers descended on the campus for a glimpse of the stars during the filming, which unfolded in the middle of a July heat wave. There’s some suggestion the Monskys put up Rooney at their home and that Rooney and Henry’s son, Hubert, went out on the town more than once.

At the movie’s world premiere, an estimated 30,000 people filled the streets, sidewalks and roofs around the Omaha Theater. Daisy recalled the excitement of that opening night in her book:

“…the stage setting was irresistible…Klieg lights, loud speakers, all the Hollywood paraphernalia stretched for blocks…as we left the car..the master of ceremonies stopped my husband for a broadcast over the loud speaker…of his speech…In the theater we sat just in front of Father Flanagan, Bishop Ryan, Mickey Rooney and his date and other visiting celebrities. Mickey…wept at all of the touching scenes, including his own. So did Henry, whose emotions were always easily stirred.”

Besides being invited to make remarks for the pre-show program outdoors, Monsky was among the guests introduced inside the theater.

Despite the hoopla, BT officials and MGM big wigs had little confidence in the pic. Flanagan-Monsky gave away the rights to the story for a measly $5,000. The story goes they didn’t think the movie stood a prayer of making money. And they probably weren’t wise to the going rates in Hollywood. Studio files indicate MGM boss Louis B. Mayer lacked enthusiasm for the property even after it’s completion, shelving it for months before Tracy-Rooney prevailed upon him to release it. The rest is history. When the movie hit big a new problem arose — donations dried up as the public assumed BT made a killing on it, not realizing the home saw nothing from the box office receipts. A desperate Flanagan, perhaps at the urging or with the blessing of Monsky, asked MGM to get the word out that BT needed help. Tracy signed his name to an appeal letter sent donors. The money flooded in. MGM, perhaps feeling guilty, gave $250,000 for the construction of a dormitory.

The sequel to Boys Town, 1941’s Men of Boys Town, was not well received but it still carried the home’s message and name. Where Flanagan-Monsky erred in securing a small rights fee the first time, they negotiated $100,000 for the sequel, which proved a shrewd move when the movie bombed.

Boys Town further capitalized on the films when a nationally broadcast radio serial aired weekly dramatizations based on the lives of residents there.

 

 

From the 1938 movie, Boys Town

 

 

Up to the time of his death in 1947 Monsky remained a close ally of Flanagan’s and key adviser to Boys Town. He was there for it all: from a fledgling start in an old 10-room house downtown; to the purchase of the Overlook farm for the present site; to an impressive campus build-out that turned corn fields into a “city of little men” with fine educational, vocational, residential and recreational facilities; to the household name status Boys Town gained and parlayed.

The measure of high esteem in which Flanagan held Monsky and his contributions to BT is expressed in this letter to Daisy:

“…Henry was Boys Town…He is as much responsible for the fine things the public sees out there as are my associates and me, for it was through his keen mind and advice that we were able to follow a pattern of prudence and good judgment. Never in all my association with men have I found one who seemed to understand what I wanted to do and who would advise me how best to do it. Over the years we have had many difficult problems…and Henry’s handling of all these matters was one of great satisfaction. I have received from him over the years hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advice for which I paid nothing. It is only within the last few years that I was able to show my appreciation in a small way, and never have I considered anything that I did for Henry a recompense for his legal work…”

The late Hubert Monsky confirmed the selfless nature of his father in an interview for the “Men of Vision” exhibit:

“…when my father passed away, in going through his desk…found a check written to my father for $25,000 by Father Flanagan…and a note attached to it which said, ‘Henry, dear, for years your services have been given to us with no renumeration, and now that we have the funds, you must accept this.’ That check was seven months old — my father would not cash it. That was very typical of the two people. Father Ed recognized what my father had done. He appreciated it deeply and in his fashion he was trying to say…’God bless you, Henry, for a job well done.’ But my father didn’t wish to be compensated for any work that he did for Boys Town because he felt that it was a project for everybody in Omaha.”

Referring to Monsky’s work as a board of trustee member, Flanagan wrote:

“He was one of the most active members of the Board in determining policies, and was constantly concerned with anything which would further the interests of Boys Town. His fine legal mind would shine forth at these Board meetings…and I know that in following his advice we have made very few mistakes.”

Flanagan trusted Monsky’s judgment enough that he involved him in nearly all aspects of the home’s operations and interests. Further testimony of this high regard is found in the following except from a letter the priest wrote to Daisy:

“He was one of the most active members of the Board in the founding of the Boys Town Foundation Fund and in this, as in all other legal matters, resolutions, etc., he personally dictated those and gave much thought and consideration to them.

“Henry’s last and final act was giving advice and counsel in the establishment of the training program in Boys Counseling to be established at the Catholic University of America in cooperation with…Boys Town, which offers a two-year graduate training program leading to a degree, M.A., in Boys Counseling.”

Although neither made a fuss over it, Monsky’s and Flanagan’s nonsectarian brotherhood transcended their vastly different backgrounds. From the start Flanagan opened BT to boys of all races and creeds. While Jewish youths have always accounted for a tiny percentage of residents, one, Daniel Ocanto, was elected mayor of the incorporated village in 2002-2003.

Whatever faith a youth professes, BT facilitates their practice of it. “If you’re a Lutheran, I’m gonna make you a better Lutheran than you are now. If you’re a Jew, I’m gonna make you a better Jew than you are now,”said former Boys Town director Father Val Peter. Current director Father Steve Boes said, “When we admit Jewish students to campus, we work with local synagogues to secure their religious training, and our kids are always welcomed with open arms.”

Monsky’s association with Flanagan modeled his belief in interfaith outreach. That’s why this prominent Jew served on the Catholic Commission on American Citizenship and the National Catholic Welfare Conference and on the boards of other non-Jewish organizations, including the Community Chest, the Boy Scouts, the Nebraska Conference of Social Work, the Church Peace Union and the Urban League.

Even though BT’s not Catholic per se, the fact a Catholic priest has always headed it lends it that church’s imprimatur. That was even more true during Flanagan’s regime. As far as the general public and media were concerned, the priest and BT were synonymous, making it a de facto Catholic ministry. That’s why the identification of a noted Jew like Monsky with BT was a model for how Jewish-Catholic relations could proceed both on a personal level and in regard to issues.

“They were men of different faiths,” writes Omaha historian Oliver Pollak. “Both had faith, particularly faith in the next generation….No doubt exists that Monsky and Flanagan were men of great faith whose concern for troubled youth transcended parochial boundaries.”

Every time Monsky’s involvement with BT made headlines, as it did when at Flanagan’s invitation he gave the commencement speech for the 1942 graduating class, it illustrated the possibility of Jewish-Catholic unity. Monsky’s address to the 90 8th grade and high school grads emphasized sacrifice at a time of war:

“You are, indeed, fortunate to have been taught here at Father Flanagan’s Boys Home…that life has significance, that life is purposeful…Thus conditioned, it is expected that you have the necessary equipment to assume and discharge adequately your share of the greater responsibility which each of us must bear in the present crisis…Not unlike other chapters in our nation’s history, the record of these difficult days will be resplendent with the glorious achievements of youth.”

Ties between the home and the Jewish community were strengthened by the Flanagan-Monsky bond. When elected to the BT board of trustees in ‘29 Monsky replaced another Jewish leader, the late Rabbi Frederick Cohn, of Temple Israel.

Just as Monsky’s link with BT generated Jewish outreach with the Catholic community, Flanagan’s link with Monsky led to a close relationship between B’nai B’rith and BT. Flanagan addressed several B’nai B’rith gatherings, including those in Omaha, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He spoke before the Jewish Ladies Auxiliary of the B’nai B’rith lodge in Detroit. He was the keynote speaker for the Jewish Children’s Home of Rhode Island, the Young Men’s Jewish Council for Boys’ Clubs in Chicago and the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Minneapolis.

 

 

 

 

Evidence suggests Flanagan and Monsky recommended each other for interfaith engagements and appointments, and took satisfaction in doing so. A 1939 letter from Monsky to Flanagan refers to an invitation for the priest to speak before “a very substantial group of Jewish people in Chicago, which I am sure will give you a very acceptable audience…If acceptance of this invitation is possible, of course, I would appreciate it.” The Monsky letter also mentions “reports” about Flanagan’s appearance before another Jewish group “have pleased me very much. I am happy to note the great demand on the part of my co-religionists, and particularly B’nai B’rith lodges, for the message of Father Flanagan’s Boys Home.”

In another letter to his friend Monsky describes the positive feedback a Flanagan appearance before a B’nai B’rith group in Phillie elicited, adding that members expressed “pleasure in the fact that we appeared to be very good friends.”

The BT-BB relationship is one that continues 60 years after the two friends’ deaths.

“The B’nai B’rith historically brings its sports banquet speakers to Boys Town to meet our children” and to do media interviews, said John Melingagio, Boys Town director of public relations. “Their members also have individually or collectively done charitable activities ranging from donations of funds, services or needed items to mentoring or creating opportunities for our children in the community,”

“I just can’t shake the feeling when we do that, that the two friends are looking down and smiling at the successful legacy of their dreams,” said Gary Javitch, president of the Omaha B’nai B’rith Henry Monsky Lodge #3306.

Melingagio added its only natural for BT and the Jewish Community Center, where the local B’nai B’rith is headquartered, should be on good terms as the organizations are neighbors. Each extends open invitations to the other for various programs and activities. Boys Town and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society at the JCC work cooperatively to update the Flanagan-Monsky exhibit.

Temple Israel senior Rabbi Aryeh Azriel said Jewish-Catholic relations ebb and flow but the “special relationshp” Flanagan and Monsky exhibited serves as an example of how people of two faith groups can interact in constructive ways. He would like to see more such comradeship and collegiality today in serious interfaith dialogues.

Examples of interfaith work abound locally.

Monsky’s alma mater, Creighton University, has a tradition of being welcoming to Jews and promoting Jewish studies. Monsky was invited to make the 1925 commencement address at Creighton. Jews Rodney Shkolnik and Larry Raful were longtime deans of the Creighton Law School. CU’s legal aid center is named after Milton Abrahams. The university is home to the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, a post held by Leonard Greenspoon. CU’s Kripke Center, named for Rabbi Myer Kripke and his wife Dorothy, promotes understanding between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faith communities. Despite its strong WASP roots the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts: the Rabbi Sidney H. Brooks Lecture Series in honor of the late Omaha religious leader who worked for social justice and unity; and the Leonard and Shirley Goldstein Human Rights Lecture Series in honor of the Omaha Jewish couple long active in the Free Soviet Jewry movement.

Additionally, Rabbi Azriel of Temple Israel has served on the United Catholic Social Services board and chairs the clergy committee for Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), a faith-based social action group. He’s won recognition for his human relations work, including a Black/Jewish Dialogue initiative he led.

These efforts to be inclusive rather than exclusive and to foster fellowship rather than division coincide with the work of Project Interfaith. The Omaha Anti-Defamation League program directed by Beth Katz brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together to share the gifts of their respective faiths. Katz has traveled to the Vatican and to Israel with interfaith groups.

“Fostering healthy interfaith relations…often begins with relationships. Friendships like the one Monsky and Father Flanagan enjoyed help humanize the other, enabling us to identify and appreciate the values common to both faiths while also allowing us to explore and hopefully to respect our differences,” Katz said.

Similarly, Beth Seldin Dotan runs the Institute for Holocaust Education at the Omaha ADL. The institute’s Bearing Witness project trains Catholic educators to teach the Holocaust in their high schools. She works closely with the Archdiocese of Omaha on project curricula. Sam Fried’s Heartland Holocaust Education Fund supports college-university teaching about the Shoah.

Tolerance is at the core of all these exchanges. Rarely have two men demonstrated the tolerance Monsky and Flanagan did. Their relationship grew out of fondness and, more fundamentally, respect.

As leader of B’nai B’rith Monsky emphasized the need for unity — both among Jews and the general American population, a theme that resonated strongly with Flanagan and his ideals for BT and the nation. In his speech at the 1945 B’nai B’rith banquet honoring Monsky, Flanagan said:

“I consider racial and religious prejudice one of the greatest and most insidious of all ills that attack our social life today…This grand and noble organization over which our honored guest is the international president is to be commended for its far-reaching influence toward bringing to public attention…the urgent need for greater unity and amity among the various nationalities and creeds…This is the mission that Mr. Monsky set out to do as a young man…How well he has done this, you and I know…God bless you, Mr. Henry Monsky.”

Wherever their mutual interests intersected each man embraced the other. The welfare of troubled youth was their common meeting ground. And so Monsky involved Flanagan in his work with the National Conference for the Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency. A 1946 letter from Monsky to Flanagan outlined the conference’s latest resolutions and activities and requested his feedback.

“Will you please, at your earliest convenience, send me your comments upon the foregoing…It was gratifying to work with you in the formulation of a program which has unlimited potentialities for service to the nation.”

Even as the men’s interests broadened beyond Nebraska’s and America’s borders they remained tethered in a way that only best friends do.

Rose Blumkin Jewish Home resident Esther Schwartz Segel was Monsky’s secretary for his three terms as international B’nai B’rith president. She can attest to the hectic schedule he kept flitting across the U.S. by train and plane for meetings, speeches, et cetera. His travel itinerary and business correspondence were so great, she recalled in 2003, she sometimes worked 18-hour days to keep up with it all. Flanagan’s scheduled was no less hectic.

Monsky was away attending to one of his causes, a meeting of the American Jewish Conference (Congress) in New York City, when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 2, 1947. At the time he was speaking about Jewish unity.

“It was such a tragedy that he died so young and with so many plans for the future of Jewish people,” Segel told a reporter in 2003.

News of Monsky’s death reached Flanagan via telegram while abroad on a war orphan mission. In a letter to Daisy, Flanagan described the circumstances of his final meeting with his friend and what the loss meant to him:

“The news of his death coming to me while I was in Tokyo, Japan was a great shock. Before leaving on that trip he prepared my Last Will and Testament. Little did I know…that this was my last business with my friend and legal advisor. His death was one of the great sorrows of my life.”

Flanagan died in Berlin, Germany on May 15, 1948, almost a year to the day Monsky died. A wire from B’nai B’rith officials to Flanagan’s successor at BT, Father Nicholas Wegner, noted the special regard Jews held for Flanagan:

“His warm friendship with our late President Monsky exemplified (the) spirit of brotherhood which we fervently hope will someday encompass all people. Your loss is ours as well.”

Each was mourned by thousands in services that attracted dignitaries from all fields. Testimonials, dedications and commentaries praised them as great men and leaders. In recognition of the special place BT held in the life and work of Monsky and Flanagan, condolences and memorial contributions poured into the home, including many from B’nai B’rith lodges.

Monsky is remembered today by BT in various ways. A street bears his name (and that of his law partner William Grodinsky), as does a donor recognition level. Then there’s the “Men of Vision” exhibit. Similarly, the Omaha B’nai B’rith lodge is named for Monsky. Photographs, paintings and a bust of Monsky reside at the JCC, where Monsky’s legacy looms large.

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A matter of faith: Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs

May 31, 2010 1 comment

Several of my most recent posts, including this one, emphasize a social justice theme. Beth Katz and her Project Interfaith bridge the divide that often separates different faith communities.  It is just the kind of effort there needs to be more of in a society that preaches tolerance but that often doesn’t practice it.  Katz and Project Interfaith bring people from different traditions together at the table in an attempt to better understand and appreciate each other and their differences.  In the divisiveness of the immigration debate and in a climate when negative attitudes still persist about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Fundamentalists, right on down the line, anything that people can do to promote harmony and unity is to be applauded.  My story about Katz and her project originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), which recently stopped publishing. Katz is active in an initiative here gaining national attention called Project Interfaith, a coalition of Jews, Episcopalians, and Muslims attempting to build consensus for an envisioned tri-faith campus.

 

A matter of faith, Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

 

 

Growing up in predominantly Catholic and WASP Omaha, Beth Katz was often the lone Jew in the room. That meant fielding questions about her faith. This sense of Otherness, combined with her natural curiosity, led the Central High grad to ask Christians about their traditions.

It all came to a head at Jesuit Creighton University in the early 2000s. She assumed living among Christians her whole life told her all she needed to know about Christianity. Then she found out different. “I might know something about Christianity in a cultural sense,” she said, “but I have a very shallow understanding of what it means in a spiritual sense. Don’t confuse familiarity with knowledge — they’re not the same thing.” When she had no answers to several questions friends asked about Judaism, she said, “I realized just how shallow my own knowledge of my faith was and it made me go back and investigate some of these issues. That was a very spiritual experience for me.”

When a required theology class glossed over Judaism and other non-Christian world religions, she raised the issue about inclusion.

“I got active on campus to try and change some of the curriculum requirements,” she said. That effort led her to CU’s Campus Ministry, whose then-director, Father Bert Thelen, “really wanted to create an environment where all students felt welcomed and felt their spiritual needs were met,” she said. “He encouraged us to become involved. The Muslim Student Association had just formed and we were just forming a Jewish Student Association. We created a multi-faith student group and started holding dialogues and different programs on campus that would engage students about issues of faith and identity.”

Fast forward to 2005. Katz, fresh from graduate studies in social work, public policy and community organizing at the University of Michigan, came home to do “something I felt called to do.” That was founding Project Interfaith, a resource and facilitator for interfaith and religious diversity issues. The nonprofit, which she directs with the aid of a part-time paid assistant and volunteers, is an extension of the mission she began at Creighton. More deeply, it’s an expression of her faith.

“I am such a product of Judaism. It’s really shaped who I am,” she said. “Community has always been so important to me. It’s not just about you, you have to think of yourself in the context of others.”

She felt so strongly about community she passed on a federal fellowship in the executive branch to, instead, create “a sustainable interfaith program for Omaha. I felt like the time was right and this was something that was needed,” she said. She laid the groundwork by talking to a cross-section of folks. Finding only “scattered, sporadic, grassroots interfaith initiatives, she saw an opportunity for “a formal, multi-pronged, comprehensive approach to engaging people on these issues.”

“I saw a hunger in our community to have these sorts of interactions, conversations, resources,” she said. “I think part of it is people don’t know where to go, and we can help connect people…I feel like we’re really doing something that’s meaningful, that’s making the community better.”

Project Interfaith is an affiliate of the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Regional Office. Reflecting the diversity Katz espouses she’s formed an advisory council and board of directors made up of representatives from 13 different religious communities and two universities. Religious tensions would have made such cooperation difficult in the not so distant past. The modern interfaith movement, Katz said, began in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, a document reconciling strained Catholic-Jewish relations, affirming shared values-histories and encouraging outreach and dialogue between faith groups.

Katz, who by virtue of not being a religious studies scholar and not aligning her organization with any one group avoids even the hint of favoritism, diplomatically brings parties to the table for discussion.

“We want to broker relationships. We like to partner with a lot of different organizations so that we can bring as many people into the conversation as possible,” she said. “I just want to…get people learning and talking and ultimately creating relationships. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

She also works to include “people across the ideological spectrum.” Said Katz, “I am so sick of how polarized things are. We want to offer an opportunity to transcend all that.”

An array of Project Interfaith programs and activities promote understanding and reflect her belief “interfaith work is multidimensional — it’s not just about sitting in a circle talking about your faith. We want to give people a lot of different ways to be involved…”

 

 

 

 

Community Conversations bring nationally known speakers to discuss interfaith issues. Vanderbilt University-based author and scholar Amy-Jill Levine presented a January 8 address entitled, “From the Academy to the Pews: What Clergy, Lay Leaders, Scholars and Community Members Need to Know About the Origins, Evolutions and Future of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Coming up on April 3 is a presentation by Krista Tippett, host of National Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith.

Perodic Jewish-Christian-Muslim Study Circles aim to foster an appreciation and respect for both the commonalities and differences of these faith traditions.

The annual Interfaith Architectural Tour on March 9 visits the Hindu Temple and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. The theme is the role icons and imagery play in shaping art and architecture in religious communities.

She organized a conference on interfaith dialogue in a post-9/11 world.

Katz plans reprising the Interfaith Storytelling Festival co-sponsored with the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Rose Theatre and the Omaha Children’s Museum in 2006. The event featured Jewish, Christian and Muslim storytellers and various art activities for youths and families. She’d like to expand the number of storytellers and faith traditions represented. An interfaith film festival is a possibility.

“I love to use the arts as a way to teach about religious diversity, as a vehicle for people to express and explore their faith,” said Katz.

In collaboration with the Cathedral Arts Project, a fall exhibition called Images of Faith: Private and Public Rituals is planned around the five major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. A collection of sacred objects from each will be displayed. Photo essays will examine the role ritual plays in these communities. A Web-based component will invite the public to submit images for posting online. A curriculum is being formulated with lesson plans built around the exhibit that teachers can implement in schools.

Project Interfaith’s formal educational side offers religious diversity trainings to educators, health care providers and nonprofit agency workers. The goal of these workshops is to help participants be sensitive to the religious orientations of the constituencies they serve. She said professionals want this training because “they recognize how religiously diverse our population is and they’re struggling to make sure they’re meeting the needs” of everyone.

“We do identity exercises where people look at their own attitudes about religion,” Katz said. “We develop a common language for talking about religious diversity issues. We bring in a legal expert to look at the legal parameters of dealing with religion in public schools.”

She said schools find the trainings useful because educators are given “concrete ways to teach about religion in public schools that are academic, neutral, constitutional and totally appropriate. We also give some guidance on what sort of accommodations are appropriate for students that do not impinge on their First Amendment right for religious freedom.”

The same considerations, she said, apply to students who do not affiliate themselves with any religion or who identify as atheist.

Katz, who hopes Project Interfaith can have an impact beyond Omaha, said schools in Wichita, Kan. and Lincoln, Neb. “have invited us to offer our religious diversity training for educators.” She added that an interfaith alliance in Des Moines, Iowa “wants to meet with us and learn more about what we do.”

She said Project Interfaith is doing “ground breaking work” that “can translate to other communities — locally, nationally, even potentially beyond that. We try to think outside the box. We deconstruct the box. Anybody, really, is a potential partner. I know a lot of businesses pilot products in Omaha — it’s a great test market — and I think we can be a test market for innovative interfaith work.”

Amy-Jill Levine has high praise for what Project Interfaith does. She said the January program she spoke at “demonstrated Omaha’s triumph over the religious and cultural battles that beset American society.”

Katz said Omaha’s well-suited for interfaith action because its individual faith communities don’t split “along ideological and ethnic lines” as they do elsewhere.

All Project Interfaith programs, she said, invite discussion. “It’s in a safe environment where people can be honest and we can get to the heart of some of the stereotypes and myths that are out there and break those down. I really feel honored at the amount of trust people give me and Project Interfaith because it takes a lot of guts to be honest and open. Faith is so personal, you know, and so fundamental to how people understand themselves in the world.”

One myth she said Project Interfaith tries overturning “is that we all have to agree or that at the end of the day we’re all the same. We don’t have to agree on everything but in order to get along we have to learn something about each other. Hopefully that understanding will evolve into respect. It’s important people appreciate their commonalities and recognize their similar values, but also explore and understand the differences that are so interesting and that create such rich and fertile conversations.”

She said another myth is that interfaith work weakens one’s own faith identity.

“My own personal experience is that it only tends to strengthen your identity,” she said, “because it’s provocative. As you’re asking questions of the other you’re beginning to reflect and understand and explore your own faith. I think it makes you want to go deeper and learn more about your own faith tradition.”

Two trips in 2007 affirmed this for her. Apropos for someone dedicated to interfaith exchanges, she made her first trip to Israel with a group of Christians. Then she went to the Vatican with a Catholic priest, a brother and a theology teacher as Omaha’s representatives at a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations.

She said each experience reinforced for her the importance of interfaith action. She came away with a better sense for the progress that’s been made, the challenges that persist and the path to take from this point forward.

“I love what I do. I feel inspired by the work and by the people I meet doing it.”

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