Mission and History
The Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning is a collaborative enterprise of Saint John's University and the University of St. Thomas also serving the College of Saint Benedict. After many years of fostering Jewish-Christian relations, the Jay Phillips Center expanded its mission to promote interfaith learning, friendship, and service among people of various religions. It does this by supporting a chair in Jewish studies and classes at both universities and by sponsoring a host of interfaith activities, including public lectures, artistic performances, retreats for college students, and seminars for clergy and religious educators. The programs are held on the two campuses and at synagogues, churches, mosques, and other places of worship.
By promoting interfaith learning, friendship, and service, the Jay Phillips Center is carrying out a mandate of the Vatican Council II (1962-1965) and subsequent official Roman Catholic teaching, and it is thereby supporting the Catholic identity of its host universities.
Since Vatican II the importance of interfaith dialogue has been emphasized by many church leaders, especially Pope John Paul II. The council document Nostra Aetate (from its opening Latin words meaning "In our time"), issued in 1965 and also known as "The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," calls upon Catholics to engage in "dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions."
Nostra Aetate claims that the Church is "ever aware of its duty to foster unity and charity among individuals, and even among nations," and it challenges Christians to "acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians" while at the same time "witnessing to their own faith and way of life."
Remaining deeply committed to the enhancement of Jewish-Christian relations, the Jay Phillips Center is now equally committed to its expanded mission of carrying out the wider interfaith mandate of Vatican II as an essential feature of Catholic identity--and therefore of the identity of its host institutions--and as an indispensable means of strengthening the fabric of community.
The Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning was established in 1996 by bringing together Saint John's University's Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies and the University of St. Thomas' Center for Jewish-Christian Learning.
The Jay Phillips Chair, named after the Jewish philanthropist who endowed it, was established in 1969 upon the recommendation of Fr. Colman Barry, SJU president from 1964 to 1971. Rabbi Nahum Schulman served as the chair's first occupant until 1983, followed by Rabbi Michael Goldberg (from 1983 to 1985), Rabbi Mark Verman (from 1987 to 1993), and Rabbi Barry D. Cytron (from 1996 to 2009). A national search for a new occupant of the chair will be conducted in the near future.
The Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, endowed by a number of Jewish and Catholic benefactors led by Sidney R. Cohen and Thomas P. Coughlan, was established in1985. Upon the recommendation of Msgr. Terrence J. Murphy, University of St. Thomas president from 1966-1991, Rabbi Max A. Shapiro, senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Minneapolis from 1963 to 1985, served as the center's director from its beginning until his retirement in 1996,
Arthur E. Zannoni served as the center's associate director from 1985 to 1991, followed by Karen L. Schierman who continued in that role after the 1996 reconfiguration and renaming of the center. Among his many services to the center, Zannoni edited the first seven volumes of the Proceedings of the Center for Jewish-Christian Learning. Sr. Mary Christine Athans, B.V.M., professor emerita of church history at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity, was closely associated with the center from its beginning, and she served as editor of volumes eight to eleven of the center's Proceedings.
Under Rabbi Shapiro's guidance, collaboration between the University of St. Thomas and Saint John's University brought about the jointly sponsored Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning with Rabbi Barry D. Cytron serving as its director while also holding the Jay Phillips Chair until his retirement in January 2009. Throughout Rabbi Cytron's tenure as the center's director, John Merkle and Karen Schierman served as associate directors of the center.
Under Rabbi Cytron's leadership, the center began to extend the scope of its interfaith work beyond Jewish-Christian relations. In 2007 Rabbi Amy Eilberg became a consultant to the center and initiated its Interfaith Conversations Project to engage adult members of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations in interfaith learning and activities.
At the request of Edward Phillips and Dean Phillips, grandson and great grandson respectively of Jay Phillips, the center's advisory board recommended that the center expand its mission to promote interfaith learning among people of various religions and that it be given a new name to reflect its new mission. The governing boards of Saint John's University and the University of St. Thomas approved the recommendation, and in February 2009, as the center's newly appointed interim director, Dr. Merkle publicly announced the new name and expanded mission.
In August 2009 Dr. Merkle was appointed director of the center. Karen Schierman continued in her role with the center until her retirement in May 2010. The following month Lois Dament became the center's administrative assistant at St. Thomas and Carol Johannes assumed the same role at St. John's. Also in June 2010 David Jordan Harris became the center's interfaith arts special consultant. In June 2011 Hans Gustafson assumed the role of assistant director. After winding down her Interfaith Conversations Project in June 2011, Rabbi Amy Eilberg became the center's special consultant for interfaith conversations beginning July 2011.