Altar crafted by rabbi is donated to Seattle synagogue

  • Written by Dan Morris-Young
  • Published in Local
For 50 years, Father William Treacy used this altar handcrafted by his longtime friend, the late Rabbi Raphael Levine. Laid on top are wood cameos of the two men. In memory of the rabbi, Father Treacy has donated the altar and cameos to Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, where they are displayed in the main foyer. Photo: Courtesy Temple De Hirsch Sinai For 50 years, Father William Treacy used this altar handcrafted by his longtime friend, the late Rabbi Raphael Levine. Laid on top are wood cameos of the two men. In memory of the rabbi, Father Treacy has donated the altar and cameos to Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, where they are displayed in the main foyer. Photo: Courtesy Temple De Hirsch Sinai

SEATTLE – More than a half-century ago, a Jewish rabbi created an altar for a Catholic priest as an expression of respect, affection and interreligious witness.

Now that priest, Father William Treacy, has donated the altar to the late Rabbi Raphael Levine’s Seattle synagogue, Temple De Hirsch Sinai. 

“The altar is probably the only one in the world made for a Catholic priest by a rabbi,” said Father Treacy, 97, a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle. “Driving to the synagogue to unload the altar for display was one of the most moving events of my life.”

In a thank-you letter to Father Treacy, Temple De Hirsch Senior Rabbi Daniel Weiner called the altar — handcrafted of birch, mahogany and walnut — “a powerful symbol of the loving and inspiring partnership between you and Rabbi Levine. It will be an enduring reminder of his legacy and your ministry.”

Father Treacy holding chalice
Father William Treacy holds an olive-wood chalice purchased for him in Jerusalem by the late Rabbi Raphael Levine. The chalice is among items Father Treacy is donating to Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the longtime synagogue of his good friend. Photo: Dan Morris-Young

Turning toward the people

The altar’s genesis can be traced to the friendship between Father Treacy and Rabbi Levine, and the changes that came with Vatican II

In 1960, Rabbi Levine (Temple De Hirsch’s senior rabbi from 1942-70) and a Seattle TV station approached the Archdiocese of Seattle with the idea of a collaborating on a program that would deal with religious and social issues through the lens of interfaith dialogue. 

Father Treacy (who was director of the Catholic Information Center) recalls being tapped by Archbishop Thomas Connolly to participate. The resulting half-hour program, “Challenge,” aired on Sunday prime time for 14 seasons. Father Treacy and Rabbi Levine became close friends.

The broadcast often dealt with topics being debated at the Second Vatican Council in Rome from 1962-65. One change resulting from the council was that priests began saying Mass facing the congregation, “to reveal a family-type celebration of the Eucharist,” Father Treacy recently wrote in an essay, “Touched by God.”

As churches started changing their altars in 1966, “I asked my friend Rabbi Levine, a woodworker, to make an altar for me,” Father Treacy wrote. 

The request left him “flabbergasted,” Rabbi Levine wrote in his book, “To Love Is to Live.” “I knew that the altar was the focal point of Catholic worship … and that he should ask me, a Jew and a rabbi, to make an altar for him touched me deeply,” wrote the rabbi, who died in 1985.

Rabbi Levine leaned heavily on the artistic talents of his wife Reeva in the altar’s design and incorporation of Christian symbols. The pair worked “day and night,” he wrote, to finish the altar in time for its debut — the first celebration of Mass in the revised rite at Seattle’s St. Patrick Church, where Father Treacy served from 1964-71. Rabbi Levine was present at St. Patrick’s that day, and a Seattle Times story about the altar went global. Letters and commentaries poured in.

“The response to our simple act of mutual respect and love as a priest and rabbi was encouraging and heart-warming, a vindication of our faith in the good will deep in people’s hearts,” Rabbi Levine wrote in his book.

Treacy altarFather William Treacy's altar made by his longtime friend, the late Rabbi Raphael Levine. Laid on top are wood cameos of the two men. In memory of the rabbi, Father Treacy has donated the altar and cameos to Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, where they are displayed in the main foyer. Photo: Courtesy Temple De Hirsch Sinai

Bonded despite different beliefs

The altar story “illustrates the bonds that can develop between persons of good faith, regardless of their disparate beliefs,” Rabbi Levine wrote. 

Father Treacy used the altar for 50 years, taking it with him to his various assignments around the archdiocese. “Now in retirement I searched for a home for this precious gift from the rabbi and his wife,” Father Treacy wrote. “To my great joy, Temple De Hirsch Sinai welcomed it.”

On March 23, the anniversary of his 1945 arrival in Seattle from his native Ireland, Father Treacy helped deliver the altar to the synagogue. It is displayed in the main foyer while a more permanent home is being determined, according to Rabbi Weiner. A plaque will inform visitors about the altar’s history and significance. “May its power continue to guide us in these troubling, uncertain times,” the rabbi wrote to Father Treacy. 

Father Treacy said he also plans to donate an olive-wood chalice to Temple De Hirsch that Rabbi Levine purchased for him when they traveled to Jerusalem in 1973. Made by a Muslim carpenter, the chalice was first used by Father Treacy at an interfaith service there that was attended by “12 Catholics, 12 Jews and 12 Protestants.” It was such a moving experience, Father Treacy said, that a jeweler in the group borrowed the chalice, lined it in gold and inscribed the 36 attendees’ names in gold under its base before returning it to the priest.

Also on exhibit with the altar are carved cameos of Father Treacy and Rabbi Levine that for many years hung on the chapel walls at the Treacy Levine Center in Mount Vernon.

Founded by the men in 1966 as Camp Brotherhood, the center operated for a half-century as an internationally known site for ecumenical and interreligious gatherings, and promoting “unity in the human family,” Father Treacy said. (The property was sold last year to Camp Korey.) 

Father Treacy has often underscored the impact of his friendship with Rabbi Levine.

“This rabbi has changed my life more than anyone else I have met. I trust and honor him as a father,” Father Treacy wrote in “Wild Branch on the Olive Tree,” the 1974 book he co-authored with Rabbi Levine. (The pair collaborated on eight books.)

“We never wanted to change anyone’s religion,” Father Treacy said of their work. “We wanted to help our guests find peace and courage on their life journey by experiencing our vision for the human family.”