'Blessing' exhibit spurs interfaith dialogue

Rabbi Albert Plotkin meets the pope during the pope's 1986 visit to Phoenix.

As the local opening date for "A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & the Jewish People" draws close, its supporters are working on bringing the lessons of the national touring exhibit to life.

The exhibit - chronicling the childhood friendship of Karol Wojtyla, later known as Pope John Paul II, and Jerzy Kluger, the pope's personal emissary to Israel - will be presented by The Blessing Project AZ and the Arizona Ecumenical Council and hosted by the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center from Oct. 26 to Dec. 11.

In addition, a handful of programs corresponding with the exhibit will take place, starting with a private kickoff in the sukkah of Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, who is serving as a rabbinic adviser to the Blessings Project AZ. Leaders from multiple faith communities have been invited to attend this "Sukkat Shalom," or sukkah of peace.

"One of the things that was important to me was not just to feel good about it - and it is a feel-good exhibit - but to utilize this ... as a springboard (for) fostering relationships within the faith community," Sharfman said. "If we don't get to know each other, it's hard to be a blessing to one another."

On Nov. 3, a Faith Community Leader Day - "a day of study, discussion and fellowship for faith community leaders," according to a release - involves historians from Arizona State University, including Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of the Center for Jewish Studies, and theologians discussing prejudice and religious tolerance.

The Nov. 10 screening of the documentary, "A Dream in Doubt" - which tells the story of Rana Singh Sodhi's "journey to revive the true meaning of freedom" after his brother, a Sikh businessman in Mesa, was killed in America's first post-9/11 revenge murder - will include a commentary and a Q-and-A session led by Sodhi. Bill Straus, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, will facilitate the discussion.

A presentation and panel discussion about "Law, Justice and the Holocaust: Lessons for Today," will take place on Nov. 29.

"We feel that this is a chance for the community to really come together," said Nancy Splain, Blessing Project AZ committee member. "We know that Arizona is going through a rough patch right now, but we also know that we're heading toward our centennial. It's a time for us to get together and reflect on our past and some of the challenges facing us and ... really build the future we want for our community."

All the events are free and will take place at the museum. Seating is limited, and reservations are required (contact information is listed in the "Details" box on this page).

Plans to bring the Blessings exhibit to Phoenix started in 2007, when Splain met Valley resident Miryam Salter at the Arizona Interfaith Movement's Golden Rule Banquet. Salter invited Splain to hear Rabbi Abie Ingber, a visiting scholar at Temple Chai, speak about the project.

The "Blessings" exhibit contains photographs, videos, artifacts and historical documents from U.S. and European lending institutions and was created and produced by Xavier University, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and the Shtetl Foundation.

Another feature of the exhibit is a 20-foot replica of part of the Western Wall. Visitors can write their own prayers and insert them into the wall; afterward, the notes will be taken to Jerusalem to be inserted into the real wall, Splain said.

An auxiliary exhibit on Rabbi Albert Plotkin, Arizona's "master bridge-builder" between faith communities, according to Splain, will also be on display at the museum.

"We needed to do something to honor our local connection to this subject through the person of Rabbi Plotkin," said Lawrence Bell, executive director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, who has been involved with the Blessing Project for at least three years. The AZJHS will present the auxiliary exhibit.

The Blessing exhibit will be closed to the public on weekday mornings to allow for school field trips for middle-school and high-school students. "We believe it's important to offer to our children and youth the lessons of history," Splain said, "but also the inspiring message there of what the friendship of two children can do to change the world.

"This is a story that comes out of 2,000 years of troubled history between Christians and Jews and so is a tremendously historically important story of reconciliation. But it isn't limited to those who are Christian and Jews. It is a story of openness and willingness to reach out with respect to others that really has a very important message for every one of us."

  • Details

  • What: "A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & The Jewish People" exhibit
  • Where: George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 415 E. Grant St., Phoenix
  • Hours: noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Oct. 26-Dec. 11
  • Cost: $5, children 12 and under are free. To schedule a school or group tour, call 602-274-1113 or email info@blessingprojectaz.org.
  • Visit: blessingprojectaz.org

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