Bishop Richard J. Sklba, left, and Rabbi Ronald Shapiro, right, senior rabbi at Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee, congratulate Richard Lux, center, on the kickoff of the Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology, during an event May 11 to inaugurate the center. (Submitted photo courtesy Sacred Heart School of Theology)

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.)

In academia, it often happens that “If you have someone with a particular passion or interest,” and who has created a niche for it in the institution, “when that person retires or leaves, it ends.”

And as Richard Lux said in a telephone interview on April 18, he doesn’t want his “particular passion and interest” to end when he completes his 37-year tenure this spring as professor of Scripture studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology (SHST).

Why should the Jewish community care what happens at this Catholic seminary that primarily trains men for the Catholic priesthood, and has at present 100 seminarians and 40 other students in other programs?

Because Lux’s “particular passion and interest” for much of his career has been Catholic-Jewish relations; and that has made him a significant figure in the Milwaukee Jewish community.

Both in his academic and his community-service activities, Lux has worked with Milwaukee Jewish religious and interfaith leaders to create what is one of the strongest such interfaith community relationships in the country.

“If I had to point to one person who changed the landscape of Catholic-Jewish relations in Milwaukee, it would be Richard Lux,” said Kathy Heilbronner, interim director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and longtime co-chair of the Milwaukee Catholic-Jewish Conference. “He has been the quintessential bridge-builder.”

But with his coming retirement, Lux said, “I was afraid that what I had done at the school” in this area “would fall into a black hole.”

So with the help of several people in the Jewish community, the school is taking steps to continue his work.

In March, the school announced its plans to create the Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies. According to Lux and Heilbronner, this will be the first such center ever to be established at a Catholic seminary in North America.

The school inaugurated the center with a dinner on Tuesday, May 11, at the Boerner Botanical Gardens, Hales Corners.

Rabbi Ronald M. Shapiro, senior rabbi at Congregation Shalom, is co-chairing the center’s advisory board with Bishop Richard J. Sklba, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“I am honored to have this privilege. I just think the world of [Lux],” said Shapiro, who has known and worked with Lux ever since Shapiro came to Shalom in 1978. The new center, said Shapiro, will maintain Lux’s vision “that it is important for seminarians to know the intellectual and spiritual treasures of Judaism.”

Jewish members of the center’s 11-member executive committee are Heilbronner, local Jewish educator Sherry Blumberg, and Robert Peterman of the Milwaukee Catholic-Jewish Conference.

Lux said the center’s organizers have “great ideas and plans” that involve serving both the students and the general community. It will do this via four projects:

  • Beginning in the summer of 2011, the center hopes to offer SHST seminarians the opportunity to participate in a month-long study program in Israel that the center will partly subsidize.
  • The center is planning to hire an adjunct faculty member to teach Jewish studies.
  • The center also hopes to offer a named lectureship that will bring Jewish studies scholars to Milwaukee for lectures and seminars that will be open to the general public.
  • Finally, the center wants to increase the SHST library’s Judaic holdings from the “modest 1,100 items” it now has and make that collection available to the general public.

However, the school needs to raise money to begin all this. Lux said the center will need “a minimum of a $350,000 endowment to start all these projects. We hope to build more over the years, but this is the threshold figure.”

Lux said his interest in Catholic-Jewish relations began when he was a student in Israel in the summer of 1966, doing archeological work and attending The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

During that time, he was “being in all the biblical places and seeing the vibrant Jewish community,” and experiencing “the pain of having to go Cypress and fly to Amman [Jordan] in order to go to the Old City of Jerusalem,” which was then in Jordanian control.

He also read a classic history of anti-Semitism, “The Anguish of the Jews,” written by a Catholic priest, Fr. Edward Flannery, published in 1964. Lux said that in spite of his having attended Notre Dame University, he “was unaware of this long and sordid history. I resolved that the future had to be different.”

As a result, he plunged into Milwaukee Catholic-Jewish relations within a short time after he arrived at SHST in 1973. Highlights of his work in that area have included being one of the co-chairs of the sixth national workshop on Christian-Jewish relations, the first such event ever held in Milwaukee, attended by some 650 people.

Most recently, Lux has written a book, “The Jewish People, the Holy Land, and the State of Israel: A Catholic View,” published this year by the Paulist Press (175 pages, $19.95 paperback).

And he said that after his retirement from the school, he will remain active in the local interfaith dialogue. “I am not a golfer or a fisherman,” he said. “I have no plans like that.”

(Formerly op-ed editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Leon Cohen has written for The Chronicle for more than 25 years.)