The Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies, although currently unoccupied, is an integral part of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning. A national search for a new occupant of the chair will be conducted in the near future. In the meantime, duties related to the chair are being carried out by the center's visiting scholar in Jewish studies and rabbis-in-residence.
The chair's mission is to promote the study of Judaism, with special emphasis on the relationship of Judaism to Christianity and other religions, through undergraduate courses at Saint John's University and the University of St. Thomas. Named after the Jewish philanthropist who endowed it, the Jay Phillips Chair was established at SJU in 1969 upon the recommendation of Fr. Colman Barry, SJU's president from 1964 to 1971. It was the first chair in Jewish studies at a Christian college or university in the United States.
The chair brought to fruition a vision shared by Jay Phillips and Colman Barry about the importance of interfaith learning and cooperation. "This world needs far greater understanding among all of its people," Jay Phillips stated at the announcement of the establishment of the chair. "I believe that one way to create better understanding is by the study of each other's traditions and religions." Fr. Colman added, "We begin together an exchange that will enrich the students who benefit from this grant as well as the American community badly in need of mutual striving for spiritual values."
The chair was established to permanently fund a faculty position for a Jewish scholar to offer courses in the study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian dialogue at SJU and to sponsor programs for the wider public. 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).
In 1996 the Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies at SJU and the Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at UST were brought together as the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning with the chair as part of the center, which in 2009 was renamed the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning.
By promoting the study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations, the Jay Phillips Chair 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.
Noting "the spiritual bond" linking Christians and Jews, Vatican II's 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 for "mutual understanding and appreciation" between Christians and Jews, especially "by way of biblical and theological inquiry and through friendly discussions."
Acknowledging and repudiating traditional Christian misrepresentations of Judaism and anti-Jewish articulations of Christian faith during the course of Christian history, official church statements since Vatican II have emphasized the need for Catholics to study Judaism with Jewish scholars and to engage in interfaith dialogue and activities with Jews, which is precisely the mission of the Jay Phillips Chair.