Rabbi Jason Edelstein’s students at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe had a hard time figuring out what to call him when he first started teaching there in 1968.
“They called me Father Edelstein,” he recalled with a laugh. “And I answered to that, because I am a father.”
Most of his students back then had never met a Jew, much less a rabbi, he said.
But while having a rabbi on staff at the Benedictine institution was novel 47 years ago, Edelstein since has become a vital and beloved member of the Saint Vincent community. He will be honored there on Nov. 19, Founders’ Day, as the college establishes a Chair of Catholic/Jewish Dialogue in his name.
Edelstein, who lives in Monroeville, retired as the spiritual leader of Temple David in 1995 after serving that congregation for 35 years and is currently its rabbi emeritus.
For over four decades, Edelstein has been a fixture at Saint Vincent, teaching classes on such topics as the history of Jewish thought and the Holocaust as well as courses in Catholic/Jewish dialogue that he team teaches with another member of the faculty.
Edelstein, who had a career as a psychologist prior to his rabbinic training at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, also teaches pastoral counseling at Saint Vincent Seminary, preparing those studying for the priesthood.
Edelstein’s appointment at Saint Vincent goes back to the years shortly following the passage of Nostra Aetate in 1965, in which Pope Paul VI decried anti-Semitism and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Jews and Catholics.
“I was chairman of the Theology Department in 1968 when Rabbi Edelstein started,” recalled Father Campion P. Gavaler, 86, who worked for years alongside Edelstein teaching Catholic/Jewish Dialogue at the college. “It was obvious we had to have a Jewish scholar present. I went to the president’s office, and we talked for about three minutes. He said he thought it was a good idea. Things were not as complicated back then. There was no search committee.”
The college hired Rabbi Robert Brenner as its first Jewish scholar, but Brenner left to assume a pulpit in another locale after one year.
In seeking Brenner’s successor, Gavaler called Rabbi Walter Jacob, spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, to see if he was interested in teaching at Saint Vincent.
“He said he was too busy,” Gavaler said. “So I asked him to recommend a scholar who was a good teacher. In those days, things were different. Rabbi Jacob recommended Rabbi Edelstein, and I called him up, and we talked for about 10 minutes. I asked him if he would do it, and he said, ‘Sure.’”
Now, 47 years later, Edelstein has made an enduring mark on Saint Vincent. The rabbi previously has been honored as “best teacher” at the school, said Gavaler, and has made a positive impact on countless scholars and clergymen in training.
The experience has been rewarding to Edelstein as well.
“There have been many times when students who have taken my courses in Judaism in the Theology Department said they had become better Catholics because of it,” Edelstein said. “That has happened quite frequently. And I have had a wide range of contact with persons who have gone on to become priests, who have indicated to me that they’ve benefited a great deal through my seminary pastoral counseling course. That has been most rewarding.”
The current Archabbot of the Saint Vincent Archabbey was a student of Edelstein’s in 1968, and he has trained several rectors of the Seminary as well.
His contacts, he said, “have been rather deep.”
“The effect of that is I became a part of their community,” Edelstein said. “Our interactions took place on a profound level.”
During the Founders’ Day presentation of the Rabbi Jason Edelstein Chair of Catholic/Jewish Dialogue — which will ensure that the post Edelstein has filled will continue for subsequent generations — a video will be presented highlighting the relationship of Edelstein and Gavaler. Edelstein also will present an address.
“The idea of the Chair is that after the rabbi retires, we will try to find a good scholar who will teach courses in Jewish studies, or team teach courses,” said Gavaler. “The Chair will not only support that, but we will also try to add funding to expand it beyond the classroom.”
The dialogue has already expanded beyond the confines of the classroom, as Gavaler and Edelstein have formed a close friendship and have had lunch together on a regular basis “all these years,” Gavaler said.
“We know each other’s brains pretty well.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.