In an unexpected development that could set back relations between Jews and other faiths, Dr. Eugene Korn, who has been making national headlines criticizing Mel Gibson's controversial Jesus movie, is no longer director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
It is the second departure of a national Jewish interfaith specialist in two years, leading some veterans in the field to warn of a shortage at a time when religion is more important than ever in world and domestic policymaking.
Korn's departure comes as the newly named Union of Reform Judaism announced a new national interfaith project calling for synagogues and churches to launch joint study programs to study sacred texts and Israel.
Officially, the ADL says Korn resigned after 28 months with the agency "to pursue other interests."
But knowledgeable observers say Korn was forced out by ADL national director Abraham Foxman after a series of conflicts over the handling of interfaith affairs.
Foxman denies the contention.
"I did not fire him, he resigned," Foxman insisted Monday. "The employees stay as long as they want. He decided he wanted to do something else with his life."
Korn, an adjunct professor of Jewish thought at Seton Hall University and a recently ordained Orthodox rabbi, declined to comment.
The New Jersey resident suddenly cleaned out his desk at the ADL last Friday after sending out an e-mail to colleagues that he was resigning.
Since last spring, Korn has been co-leader with Eugene Fisher of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of an interfaith team of scholars warning the public about anti-Semitic consequences from Gibson's upcoming film "The Passion of Christ."
He also launched a Jewish-evangelical dialogue group called Faith and Freedom: The International Christian-Jewish Association on the Middle East to promote Israel advocacy.
"I thought he was working out very well," Fisher, his organization's associate director of ecumenical affairs, said Monday. "I was looking forward to years of working with him. It's a loss to the Jewish community."
Indeed, Korn's departure marks the second time in two years that a major American Jewish organization will be changing its interfaith director at a time when developing and maintaining strong ties with leaders of other faiths is vital to the Jewish community.
But some concerned observers say Korn's departure sheds light on the dearth of qualified Jewish interfaith experts, as well as the low priority the issue seems to have in a Jewish community beset by other pressing financial and political issues.
"I'm seeing all the work done over the last 30 years going up in smoke," said one expert, who like most sources in the small interfaith community declined to speak for attribution.
"We are less prepared now than ever," said another veteran of dialogues with the Vatican, and leaders of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations around the world.
This expert said that with the retirements of such interfaith veterans as Rabbis James Rudin of the AJCommittee and Leon Klenicki of ADL, there is no one to mentor those with little background in these issues.
And with younger people not entering the field, "few have the experience or the knowledge to maintain an ongoing dialogue, which is crucial," a source said.
Rabbi Rudin, who remains a consultant for AJCommittee after serving as its interreligious head, noted that in the 1980s his New York office had four interfaith professionals, compared to one today. He noted that the ADL had two full-time people and now has one, and the Reform movement used to employ a full-time interfaith specialist but none today.
"All this is happening when religion is playing an increasingly major role in world events and domestic public policy," he said, noting the national debates on abortion, stem cell research and the Ten Commandments.
"We need now more than ever full-time, committed, activist interreligious specialists in the Jewish community."
"It's not just crisis management," said Fisher, of the Bishops Conference. "From my point of view, we need people working at this ongoing and building things constructively."
Acknowledging the problem, Reform movement president Rabbi Eric Yoffie this week announced a major new interfaith initiative that he hopes will help combat anti-Semitism and advance Mideast peace.