The revelation that John Cardinal O’Connor’s mother was Jewish (she converted to Catholicism) made me reach back to the many Jewish-focused addresses by the Cardinal at events at which he was either an honoree or keynote speaker. What struck me were the Cardinal’s passionate directives to his Jewish audiences.
At the April 1997 Anti-Defamation League Dinner at the New York Hilton at which the Cardinal was presented with its “America’s Democratic Legacy” Award, ADL national director Abe Foxman opened with: “The Jews of New York City are under the watchful eyes of a courageous voice.” Foxman told the audience which included two Jewish New York mayors — Abe Beame and Ed Koch — “No one in the American-Catholic hierarchy is as sensitive and caring about the Jewish people as is his Eminence, the Cardinal.”
Ed Koch, Cardinal O’Connor, Abe Beame // Photo: Karen Leon
Award presenter — Rabbi Ronald Sobel, [then] senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, said: “Whenever there were manifestations of anti-Semitism, the Cardinal’s voice was heard…. He has received hate mail of which ‘Jew lover’ was the mildest. When President Ronald Reagan was going to meet Gorbachev, the Cardinal told him: ‘Mr. President, you cannot meet Gorby without making a strong case on behalf of Soviet Jewry.”
Pointing to his black and crimson garb, a cheery Cardinal said: “”Here are the reasons why I am dressed this way. One—this is the way I normally dress for a Catholic event. Two—always like to embarrass my good friend Rabbi Sobel by wearing a yarmulke (kipah) because he never wears one. Three — whenever I dress like this—the yield is an extra $500.” He concluded his address with: “Our work is still unfinished… I plead with you Jews to never forget who you are—your values, your roots. We are all in your debt [and] don’t be embarrassed to be Jews. Be proud!”
At the April 1999 Museum of Jewish Heritage dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria honoring Cardinal O’Connor, museum chairman Robert Morgenthau reflected on the Cardinal’s post Dachau visit vow: “’As long as I have breath in my life, I will do everything I possibly can to assure that it will never happen again.’”
At another event that year at which Cardinal read three of “Yaffa Eliach’s” haunting “Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust” his charge was: “I ask those of you who are Jewish, you must remember, you have a sacred charge. We Christians have the privilege to join you…. and I thank you most of all for being Jewish.”
At the May 27, 1999 Fleet Week Gala aboard the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, the cardinal was presented with the Intrepid’s “Freedom Award” by Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig. In the presence of 1,000 uniformed and civilian guests, Secretary Danzig praised the Cardinal — who had been chief of chaplains for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps — “for reaching out to all — and in particular — for fighting anti-Semitism.”!