Jessica White | Staff Writer
Though Rabbi Jack Bemporad was barely old enough to go to school, he still remembers the day he was no longer allowed because he was Jewish.
Bemporad, a Holocaust refugee, was living in Italy when Nazi Germans occupied the country. He escaped to the United States when he was 6 years old and has since become one of the world’s most influential rabbis and interfaith leaders.
“I remember a lot,” Bemporad said, referring to his childhood in Italy. “It led me to think about why these things happen and what I could do to prevent them.”
He has addressed religious leaders throughout the world, including Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, on the importance of interfaith relationships. Bemporad will discuss honor and integrity in the digital age at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Some people claim that modern technology has brought on a cheating epidemic — especially because people can access free information on the Internet and hide behind user avatars. But Bemporad said there has been cheating throughout history. He will discuss whether cheating in today’s society is different, as well as other social integrity issues that have been influenced by the technological revolution.
“If there is some sort of epidemic, then we have to ask: What role does religion play in all of this?” he said. “There could be some really fundamental, ethical problems that are bigger than just cheating.”
Through avatars and user profiles, people say and do things they might not do in “real life” when they are offline, Bemporad said. When someone has an online personality and an offline personality, it becomes difficult to say where the integrity lies.
“In other words, which kind of self is yourself?” he said.
That is where concrete religious institutions become helpful. Bemporad said it is one thing to talk about values in the abstract and another to create places where values are taught and practiced — something he has worked on throughout his career.
Bemporad has worked closely with the Vatican and Pope John Paul II on Christian-Jewish relations, and he was the primary writer of the 1990 Prague Accord — the first time the Vatican asked for forgiveness from the Jewish people for anti-Semitic acts throughout history. In 1992, he helped secure a permanent diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel.
Now, Bemporad also works on relations with worldwide Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities. Two years ago, he led eight imams and other Muslim leaders in the U.S. to concentration camps in Germany and Poland to combat Holocaust denial by Islamic leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammed Mahdi Akef. The mission was filled with learning and compassion, Bemporad said, and the eight leaders were shaken and moved by what they saw. This November, he will repeat the mission with imams from the Middle East, which he said will be much more complicated but hopefully just as rewarding.
The last time Bemporad spoke at Chautauqua was more than 50 years ago, and he said he looks forward to returning.