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.
Rabbi Yoffie said the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and the Catholic Bishops conference have agreed to join a project to develop interfaith awareness and understanding.
He announced the project, called "Open Doors, Open Minds: Synagogues & Churches Studying Together," before 4,500 synagogue leaders at the Reform movement's biennial convention in Minneapolis.
The seven-session adult education guide, according to a brochure, calls for Christians and Jews "to learn about common aspects of our history and about critical distinctions," including the joint study of sacred texts. Topics include stereotypes, the Ten Commandments and the meaning of Israel.
Rabbi Yoffie called on synagogue leaders to invite a neighborhood church to join in to study and discuss that curriculum.
He said Reform Jews were at the forefront of interreligious dialogue in North America in the 1950s and '60s, but "in recent decades interfaith dialogue has declined precipitously."
"In many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model seders," he said.
The Reform initiative was welcomed by Christian leaders.
"Your call for more--and better--discussion between our communities is a powerful one," wrote Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. "This is especially true on issues concerning the Middle East, where we have much to learn from one another."
The NCC has been sharply critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
The Presbyterian Church USA also welcomed Rabbi Yoffie's project.
"As our 'Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews' makes clear, the church's identity is intimately related to the continuing identity of the Jewish people," wrote Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a church leader, referring to the 1987 guide.
The PCUSA is currently involved in an ongoing controversy about funding projects to missionize Jews.
Meanwhile, one of the most noted Jewish interfaith leaders said it would be wrong to interpret Korn's departure as reflecting anything about Jewish organizational priorities.
"The only thing one could conclude from the brief sojournings of [Resnicoff and Korn] is that in both organizations there was a hiatus before their appointments, which reflects the fact that there are not many appropriate people around suited for this work," explained Rabbi Rosen. "So it is more a reflection of the 'market' rather than Jewish organizational priorities."
He said the new team of Rosen-Elcott "is actually a sign of increased commitment of the AJCommittee to interreligious affairs."
Foxman said he would be looking for a new interfaith director as soon as possible.
"Interfaith is done by and large by the regional directors," he said. "We will have to have somebody to focus on the national scene, and I'm sure word will get out after people read your story."