Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning expands mission, adopts new name

The Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning – a center sponsored jointly by the University of St. Thomas and St. John's University – has expanded its mission and adopted a new name.

The center now is named the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning. Its mission to promote understanding and combat prejudice has expanded to encompass Islam and other world religions.

Dr. John Merkle

Dr. John Merkle

Dr. John Merkle, a theology professor at St. John's and the College of St. Benedict, is the center's interim director. A scholar who has been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue for more than 30 years, Merkle served as the center's associate director for the past 13 years. Rabbi Barry Cytron, who served as the center's director since 1996, retired in January.

"Interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews remains a burning issue worldwide," Merkle said, "and our center's commitment to that dialogue is unwavering. But it also is imperative that Christians and Jews engage with others in combating prejudice of any sort and in fostering appreciation for religious diversity.

"We at the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning want to do whatever we can to promote such appreciation."

The center is involved with a host of interfaith activities: sponsoring congregational, college and high school programs; hosting retreats for clergy and religious educators; and sponsoring art exhibits and public lectures. The events are held at the two sponsoring universities as well as at seminaries, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship.

Cytron, who before his retirement had begun to expand the center's interfaith efforts, also held the Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies at St. John's and was associate professor of theology at St. Thomas. A national search will be conducted to fill the professorship.

"Rabbi Cytron carried on the work of his predecessor, Rabbi Max Shapiro, in building a center that has a national reputation for excellence in interfaith programming," Merkle said.  "And in his teaching at both St. Thomas and St. John's, Rabbi Cytron enlightened the minds and enriched the lives of hundreds of students." 

The Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning was formed in 1996 by bringing together two thriving programs: the Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies at St. John's and the Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at St. Thomas.

The chair at St. John's was established in 1969 and named for the Jewish philanthropist who endowed it. The chair was held by Rabbi Nahum Schulman from 1969 until 1983.

The St. Thomas center was established in 1985 under the leadership of Shapiro, former St. Thomas president Monsignor Terrence Murphy, and business leaders and benefactors Sidney Cohen and Thomas Coughlan.

Shapiro, who had served many years as rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, led the St. Thomas center until the 1996 merger with St. John's.

In addition to teaching at St. John's and St. Benedict, Merkle has been chair of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations and a co-editor of Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, the electronic journal of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. He is the author of dozens of articles and reviews and has written or edited four books, including the 2003 Faith Transformed: Christian Encounters With Jews and Judaism and the 2009 Approaching God: The Way of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Karen Schierman

Karen Schierman

Karen Schierman will continue to be the center's associate director, a role she has held since the early years of St. Thomas' Center for Jewish-Christian Learning. A member of the Archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs and the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, Schierman has long been involved in Holocaust studies and was on the National Planning Committee of the Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches. She is especially involved with designing interfaith programs for high school teachers and students.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg joined the center in 2007 and will continue to serve as its Interfaith Conversation Project coordinator. The project helps foster interfaith learning and friendship among Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Twin Cities. In 1985 she became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the Conservative Movement. Eilberg is engaged in efforts of peace and reconciliation, especially in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She lectures and writes on issues of Jewish spirituality, healing and spiritual direction.