Xavier exhibit achieves global acclaim

By: Emily Linginfelter ~Staff Writer~

Xavier Exhibit
Photo courtesy of blessingexhibit.org | Rabbi Abie Ingber and friend of John Paul II, Jerzy Kluger, among others, helped create the “Blessing” exhibit.

The multimedia exhibit “A Blessing to One Another” retells the story of John Paul II and his relationship with the Jewish community. Since its humble start on Xavier’s campus 11 years ago, the exhibit has travelled the world, achieving widespread recognition and success.

Its story begins in 2004 when Dr. Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and visiting professor at Xavier, proposed the idea to Dr. James Buchanan, executive director of The Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue, Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of Interfaith Community Engagement and Dr. William Madges, the chair of theology at Saint Joseph’s University.

“In response to the suggestion, the three of us decided to create an exhibit to inform people about the life-long positive relationship between Karl Wojtyla, the future pope, and the Jewish people, beginning with his childhood in Wadowice, Poland, and to encourage people to emulate the example of his friendship with Jerzy Kluger, Wojtyla’s closest Jewish friend,” Madges said in an email.

The idea was then presented to Fr. Michael Graham and the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, and both contributed funds. This became a historical moment for Xavier and Cincinnati, because it was the first time a Catholic institution and a Jewish organization collaborated on an extensive project in Cincinnati.

“I have been a strong proponent of interfaith relations for a very long time, and the exhibit was a wonderful way of telling a story also invites people to reflect on what they might do to build bridges of understanding and celebration of people who are different from them in some significant way,” Graham said.

In the fall of 2004, Buchanan, Madges and Ingber went to Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II, where they proposed the plans to open the exhibit on May 18, 2005 for the occasion of his 85th birthday. From then until January, they created a rough dioramic design that aimed to simulate the sense of walking into another world.

The three men typically completed their day jobs and then turned to the “Blessing” exhibit to stay on track with a pressing timeline. They routinely met around the Bruggeman Center’s dining table at 6 p.m. and worked until the early hour of 3 a.m.

More than 20 lending institutions and private donors contributed materials, and some items were lent from Auschwitz, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Papal Household. Film crews and photographers also uncovered information by interviewing researchers and historically relevant individuals in the U.S., Israel, Poland and Italy. In addition, a Kentucky-based exhibition manufacturing company called Murphy-Catton Inc. turned the designs into a tangible experience.

“Somehow, and to this day none of us know how, we opened exactly on time in the Cohen gallery at Xavier,” Buchanan said. The exhibit also traveled to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, now called the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, in Washington D.C. It was featured at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City for five months. From there, “Blessing” was never off the road until 2014. More than a million people experienced the exhibit at 18 different venues throughout the U.S., and the final viewings took place at Xavier and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

“It was the perfect combination of Hebrew-Catholic collaboration, and the perfect ending to the exhibit in the U.S.,” Buchanan said.

Madges and Buchanan had been in contact with the Vatican about the possibility of opening the exhibit at the Vatican for the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, a document that redefined the interfaith dialogue among world religions.

“It was the first moment in 2,000 years when the Jews were told that there can be a relationship between the two religions. It became very, very significant,” Ingber said.

The exhibit was released to the public at the Vatican on July 28, 2015. The opening press conference was expected to be small, but it ended up having more than 200 representatives from six countries. The exhibit successfully ran until Sept. 17, 2015.

The three directors donated the exhibit to the Saint John Paul II Center and Sanctuary in Krakow, Poland. The center accepted the gift and $150,000 to help create space in the museum. Ingber mentioned that the latest hope is to open the exhibit in time for Catholic World Youth Day, scheduled to occur midsummer 2015. If plans follow accordingly, two million young people and Pope Francis will have the opportunity for first looks at the exhibit’s permanent residence in Krakow, Poland.

“This is the story of ‘Blessing.’ The lesson is to take some risks, work together and see what happens,” Buchanan said. “Don’t slight yourself by failing to dream big. Pursue those opportunities, and if the dreams don’t occur, it is okay because you tried. That’s all we have done with this project. We tried and we were lucky.”