Most of the Jewish women in the group are old enough to remember a time when Jewish kids got beaten up by Catholic kids for being "Christ-killers." Most of the Catholic women are old enough to have been taught that the Jews, as a people, were partners in the Romans' murder of Jesus.
But all were witnesses to the sweeping changes the Second Vatican Council brought to the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1960s, and for 23 years, they have been coming together to talk about how they're different and what they have in common.
The Catholic-Jewish Women's Dialogue, one of the best-kept secrets in the Jewish community, was created in 1977, its instigators a group of Catholic religious sisters. Since the Vatican had issued the document "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Times") in October 1965, which called on Catholics to repudiate all forms of anti-Semitism, Catholic groups had been involved in a number of interfaith encounters, and the nuns suggested an exchange between Jewish and Catholic women.
Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple selected the Jewish women for the first Catholic-Jewish Women's Conference from among Jewish community leaders, said Joan Teller, one of the first Jewish women to become involved in the dialogues. All the Catholic women who joined them at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu that first year were nuns, primarily teachers who wanted to pass on a more accurate knowledge of Judaism and Jews to their students.
The Jewish women at the 1977 conference asked that Catholic laywomen be involved in the group, and today they greatly outnumber the sisters who attend the yearly conferences.
"I came to the conference and heard the dialogue and thought it was just wonderful," said Gladys Sturman, a Valley resident who has been involved with the group for 10 years and served as the Jewish co-chair for this year's conference, held at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in November.
Doris Nelson, a Catholic woman from West Los Angeles, was brought to her first conference by a Jewish friend at least 20 years ago. "It's never stale," she said. "It's always both an interest and a challenge."
The focal point of the dialogue group is its conference, which attracts 150-200 women and is presented alternately at a Catholic or Jewish site each year. In addition, a large steering committee meets once a month for a two-hour session, the first hour of which is spent planning the conference, with the second hour devoted to a specific dialogue topic.
Small-group dialogue is also an important feature of the all-day conferences, which begin with presentations from a Catholic and a Jewish keynote speaker, who then take questions from the audience. After a bag lunch, participants break into groups and continue discussing the ideas presented during the morning and whatever other concerns arise.
It's during these exchanges that some of the most meaningful revelations occur. At one steering committee meeting, for example, women were asked to react to religious symbols, such as the cross and the Star of David. The Catholic women, who associated the cross with their love for Jesus or perhaps a cherished heirloom, were astounded to hear Jewish women describe it as a symbol of persecution and oppression. One month the steering committee dialogue was about the Jewish opposition to a Carmelite convent opened on the grounds of Auschwitz concentration camp. "The Catholics really had a hard time understanding the feelings against the convent at Auschwitz, but the Jewish women were able to listen to our questions," Nelson said. "We came to understand these feelings, and they came to understand why it was hard for us to understand."
Barbara Durand of Thousand Oaks, who was the Catholic co-chair for the 2000 conference, said that while the discussion can get emotional, there's a high level of trust that allows women to share feelings openly. "Everybody feels very free to express what they think and what they feel," she said. "You never understand the other person and you never understand yourself until you put it out there."
Although the dialogue group has Jewish organizations as sponsors, including the American Jewish Committee and agencies within The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, it's received very little attention in the Jewish community; most of the Jewish women who come to conferences are brought by friends.
By contrast, the archdiocesan newsletter Tidings promotes the conference every year, as do other local Catholic newspapers and the Council of Catholic Women, the counterpart to Jewish sisterhood organizations such as Women of Reform Judaism and Women's League of Conservative Judaism. "We have a tremendous problem getting Jewish women to the dialogues because nobody knows about them," Sturman said. "We're more fragmented than they are." This year's conference had a unusually sharp disparity in participation, she said, with 40 Jewish women and more than 100 Catholics.
Sturman added that Jewish institutions have not been as generous in offering monthly meeting spaces for the steering committee as Catholic churches have.
The conferences have presented a number of provocative topics, sometimes on historical or sociological themes, but more often on issues of religious tradition and spiritual practice, frequently with an orientation toward women's concerns.
During the past decade or so, Jewish keynote speakers have included rabbis such as Carole Meyers of Temple Sinai in Glendale; Janet Marder, former director of the Reform movement's Pacific Southwest region; Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at USC; and Lisa Hochberg of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, along with academics such as Rachel Adler of Hebrew Union College and Miriyam Glazer of the University of Judaism.
Participants learn things they never knew about the other religion -- and sometimes their own. "I've learned a lot about Judaism, both in terms of history and the [doctrinal] intersections and divisions and issues of interpretation," Nelson said, adding that she had read a lot about Judaism over the years, but "you learn in a different way when you're talking to someone in that tradition, who has that history." "It clears up a lot of misinformation; we learn a lot about each other," Sturman said. "We learned that not all Catholics think alike; we used to think they all just did whatever the Pope told them to." Nelson added that Jewish women were able to gain a greater understanding of some of the ethnic differences among Catholics.
Durand, who calls herself a "cradle Catholic," said the dialogues have helped her gain a deeper understanding of Catholicism. "Many times I have to rethink and learn more about my own faith," she said. Most important to many of the participants is the realization that they and their traditions have more in common than they might have thought.
Nelson pointed out that in both faiths "our traditions treated women ... not well" and that both Catholics and Jews have faced discrimination, sometimes violently expressed, in the United States.
"We've learned that a great deal of our history is generated from one source," Sturman said, adding that because the Catholic Church is the oldest form of Christianity, it has the most in common with Judaism liturgically and stylistically.
Episodes in history of persecution occurring long after the early Christians' break with Judaism caused the acrimony between the two faiths, not doctrinal differences, Sturman said. "It's a matter of historical chance that we're two different religions."
"I've learned that women of faith [in all religions] face the same problems of community, of child-rearing, of living with tradition," Teller said. "What unites us is much greater than what separates us."