John Merkle named director of Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning

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September 22, 2009

John Merkle, professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, has been named director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning, which is co-sponsored by Saint John’s University and the University of St. Thomas.

The announcement was made jointly by Rita Knuesel, provost at CSB and SJU, and Susan Huber, executive vice president and chief academic officer at St. Thomas.

“For more than three decades, John Merkle has been making major contributions to interfaith learning, particularly in the field of Christian-Jewish relations,” Knuesel said. “Under his leadership the Jay Phillips Center is bound to excel in fostering interfaith understanding and cooperation and to thereby honor the legacy of Jay Phillips and the other generous benefactors who have made this center possible.”

“Dr. John Merkle’s appointment brings both intellectual energy and organizational stability to the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning,” Huber said. “His unique blend of scholarship in the field and his administrative ability make him especially suited for directing the center.  We feel privileged to work cooperatively with Dr. Merkle and to co-sponsor the Jay Phillips Center with Saint John’s.”

Merkle served as associate director of the Jay Phillips Center for 13 years before becoming its interim director earlier this year after the retirement of Rabbi Barry Cytron. 

From its establishment in 1996 until January 2009, the center was known as the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning.  In the last several years the center began to expand the scope of its interfaith work, and the new name reflects its expanded mission.

A scholar who has been involved in interfaith relations since the 1970s, Merkle has been the chair of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations, a national organization of Christian scholars engaged in the study of Judaism and of Christianity in relation to Judaism, and co-editor of Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, the electronic journal of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations.

In addition to dozens of published articles, Merkle has written and 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, both published by Liturgical Press.

Karen Schierman continues as associate director of the center, a position she has held since its beginning. She is also the coordinator of the center’s High School Interfaith Learning and Service Project.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who joined the center in 2007, is the coordinator of the center’s Interfaith Conversations Project, which facilitates interfaith learning and activities in Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations in the Twin Cities area.  

“We at the Jay Phillips Center remain as committed as ever to fostering interfaith learning and friendship between Christians and Jews, while we also embrace the challenge of doing whatever we can to promote interfaith understanding and harmony among people of various religious traditions,” Merkle said.

The center sponsors a host of interfaith activities, including courses and programs for college and high school students, workshops for clergy and religious educators, and art exhibits and lectures for the general public. The events are held at the two sponsoring universities and other schools, as well as at churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship.