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(ran PC edition of PASCO TIMES)

The Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University has selected a St. Petersburg man to become its first executive director.

James "Jim" M. Barrens, known locally for his involvement in social justice and interfaith issues, was chosen after a national search. Barrens' task will be to increase the center's visibility and share its vision of understanding and respect throughout the Tampa Bay area.

The hiring of its first executive director marks a milestone for the center, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, who helped found the organization in 1998.

"The center has matured now, where it is no longer a startup institution. Now we want to move to town meetings. We want to now service the Southwest Florida community. Yes, we're located on the campus, but we now want to go into parishes, into synagogues," said Rudin, who is a syndicated writer and distinguished visiting professor at Saint Leo's.

"We're going to go into a high-visibility program," Rudin said. "We have an exploding Jewish and Catholic population here in Florida."

The center, a collaboration of Saint Leo University and the American Jewish Committee, aims to promote interfaith dialogue and build mutual respect and understanding between Catholics and Jews. It does so by addressing historical conflicts and educating the public about the philosophical and theological understandings of the two groups and their impact on modern society.

Barrens, 48, is the right person to lead the organization, Rudin said.

"Number one, he knows the Jewish and Catholic community extremely well," he said. "Equally well, he knows the civic community of the Tampa Bay community. He knows the corporate communities."

Tom Draude, chairman of the center's board of directors, said Barrens has a passion for the institution's ideals.

"It is obvious that he believes in what we want and are trying to do. Of course, he brings a tremendous background and those credentials are important as well," said Draude, a retired brigadier general with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Barrens is Roman Catholic. His wife, Ruth, is Jewish and their children, Jacob Patrick, 14, and Hannah Maureen, 12, are being brought up in the Jewish faith. He has been a member of the board of trustees at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, where he and his wife started an interfaith families group. He now serves on the parish council at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, which he attends.

Barrens also was executive director and lead organizer of Congregations United for Community Action, a coalition that works for social justice in the St. Petersburg area. In addition, he served on the district monitoring and advisory committee charged with monitoring Pinellas County schools' desegregation efforts. Most recently he was employed as manager of training programs and senior instructor with Tech Data Education in Clearwater.

Barrens, who was brought up in a devout Catholic family, traces his passion for equality and fairness to an early age.

"As I grew older, my heroes in life became Martin Luther King and Atticus Finch and folks who were involved in bigger things beyond the realm of the individual," he said.

Being named executive director of the Catholic-Jewish center is a dream come true, he said.

"It's an opportunity of a lifetime and so I'm hoping that I am up to the task. . . . I realize that I have a great responsibility as an individual, as a Catholic with so much love for the Jewish people, to do the work that needs to be done. At least what I can do," he said.

There are about 25 similar centers around the country. Most are based at universities, he said, adding that the Saint Leo center is the only one south of Baltimore.

"There's an enormous population of people between Baltimore and here who are interested in these issues. The work at this center will primarily serve the Tampa Bay region. My job really is going to be to grow the center," Barrens said.

"We've got to get it into the pews," he added, and get the issues "in front of the people. We want to promote congregational dialogues, engage people in parishes, in congregations, in synagogues. We want to engage youth."

With religious strife so prevalent, the work of the Saint Leo center is needed more than ever, said Rudin, who is the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser.

"Religion in the world is like radioactive material," he said. "It can be used for good and it can be used for ill."

Since its founding, the center has held annual conferences to address Catholic-Jewish issues. This year's, "Coping with Adversity and Loss: Jewish & Catholic Responses," will take place Nov. 9 and 10 at Saint Leo.