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Michael Signer: THE JEWISH PROFESSOR

Andrew Thagard | Thursday, February 19, 2004

Walking down a second-floor corridor of Malloy Hall, there are so many office placards with the letters “CSC” following the occupants’ names that it’s easy to stop paying attention to the abbreviation for the Congregation of the Holy Cross order altogether. But another religious man shares the same floor as these priests – Michael Signer, a theology professor and rabbi who has been working to advance Jewish-Catholic dialogue at Notre Dame for the past decade.Before knowing about his life and work, it might be difficult to imagine what exactly a Jewish professor from the West Coast is doing in Notre Dame at a school that is more than 80 percent Catholic.For this medieval studies scholar, however, the move to Notre Dame made perfect sense.”I think we were looking for an adventure,” Signer said regarding he and his family’s decision. “I was looking for somewhere where I could use the whole Latin side of what I was doing.”Signer grew up in Los Angeles in a community with a rich variety of religious traditions that coexisted well together.”I lived in a kind of multiracial, multi-religious area. We got along,” he said. “L.A. in the 1950’s was a very open place.”From a young age, Signer took advantage of his backyard’s religious pluralism and worked to bring together people of different traditions. As the president of his synagogue’s high school youth group, for example, Signer organized an interfaith program with students from the Buddhist temple and Catholic, Methodist and African-American churches.After earning his undergraduate degree at UCLA, two priests whom he became friends with and a Vatican II document – “Nostra Aetate” -which affirmed a more positive relationship with non-Christian religions, drew him toward Catholicism in particular, a religion whose tradition of intellectualism he had always admired.Signer earned his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto’s Center for Medieval Studies. There, he worked with Father Leonard Boyle, and the student and professor became friends.”He was the best teacher I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said of his mentor. “I was the first rabbi he had ever met and he was the first priest I had talked to in an in-depth level.”The experience set the tone for how Signer envisioned communication between members of different faiths.”He was who he was and I was who I was,” he said. “He respected me in the fullness of what I was and I respected him for who he was. I learned so much from him.”Later, Signer returned to Los Angeles and worked with Monsignor Royale Vadakin, the Ecumenical Officer for the archdiocese. Vadakin was impressed with his work and Signer admired the monsignor’s enthusiasm and energy. Signer’s work also caught the attention of a Notre Dame faculty member who invited the rabbi to attend a conference at the University on “Nostra Aetate” in 1985. Signer said he was received warmly by the Notre Dame community. After the conference, he accepted an offer for a year-long fellowship at the University and he came to Notre Dame permanently in 1992.Signer uses his time here to expose mostly Catholic students to other religious faiths and traditions, and he distinguishes the general concept of diversity from what he believes its definition to be at Notre Dame.”When Notre Dame talks about diversity it’s about ethnic and racial cultural diversity among Catholics,” he said. “What Notre Dame does not seem to address … and I can see the reasons, is the question of religious diversity.”Signer can relate to concerns among some members of the University who are wary of promoting religious diversity and said similar hesitation exists within Jewish communities. After all, many Catholic parents – like their Jewish counterparts – send their children to a religious institution to grow in their own faith, or at least meet a future husband or wife with a strong religious background, he said with a smile.”In many ways there is a resonance between what’s going on here and what’s going on within the Jewish community,” he said. “The fear is that if you open the window too wide you dilute the specific claims of your own community. How can we do things that open up doors without opening up the floodgates?”Signer said that he views Notre Dame as a parish and approaches efforts to promote religious diversity here with that idea in mind. He believes that students here can be exposed to other faiths without compromising or endangering their own. He and his wife Betty take a group of students to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland every other summer, and he teaches courses on campus that focus on the historical relationship between Jews and Catholics.”I have to deliver a lot of bad news to my students,” he said. “I don’t tell them this to demean the faith community of which they are a part.”Rather, he said, an understanding of the past can facilitate better relationships in the present. Students and members of the Notre Dame community have been supportive of his efforts and presence on campus, Signer said, citing a request from a freshman to discuss his perspective of “Nostra Aetate” as an example. He praised the work of Pope John Paul II in seeking forgiveness for his Church’s prior transgressions against other faiths and emphasis on the value of other religions.”You can’t have reconciliation without penitence and you can’t have penitence without reflection,” Signer said. “At the core of Catholicism is reconciliation and love.”Despite progress in promoting education in different religions and the support of the University community, Signer still sees some problems at Notre Dame.He said the fact that the University’s calendars don’t include the dates of the other major religions’ holidays often means that meetings or events get scheduled on Jewish or Muslim holy days. He feels frustrated and detached from the Notre Dame family, he added, during remembrances that take place on campus for the anniversary of September 11 because they’re centered on Catholic tradition. “All public observances at Notre Dame are Catholic observances – there’s the rosary and the Mass,” he said. “That’s when I realize how alone those of us who are spiritual people of other faiths [are here].”