Jewish Community Loses a Friend and Ally

Dave Schechter
4 min readFeb 20, 2024

The Jewish community lost a friend and ally when the Reverend Henry Gracz died Feb. 5 of cancer.

“He was such a righteous, gentle soul. That’s the only way to describe him,” said Sherry Frank, whose appreciation of the Catholic priest dated back four decades to her tenure as director of the American Jewish Committee regional office in Atlanta.

Gracz “was very much committed to being a Catholic ally to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Bet Haverim, said.

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Gracz, who was 84 years old, had served since 2001 at The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, after pastoring several area congregations. The Buffalo, N.Y., native was ordained on May 8, 1965, by Archbishop Paul Hallinan in a ceremony at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta.

The affable priest was given the honorary title of Monsignor in 1995 but preferred the less formal “Father Henry.”

Over the years, Gracz worked with the American Jewish Committee to plan events that brought the Jewish and Catholic communities together in recognition of the Vatican document known as “Nostra aetate” (Latin for “in our time”). Issued on Oct. 28, 1965, by Pope Paul VI, the statement acknowledged that truths could be found in other religions, absolved the Jewish people of blame for the death of Christ, and held that church doctrine did not support antisemitism.

Gracz was involved in numerous interfaith efforts, including as a founding member of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta (now known as Interfaith Atlanta).

When the programming committee of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival met to consider speakers for films dealing with Catholicism and the Catholic Church, Gracz’s often was the first name suggested.

You had to admire his willingness to address primarily Jewish AJFF audiences, especially when the films often were not flattering to the church.

Kenny Blank, AJFF’s Executive and Artistic Director, said: “Monsignor Gracz was not only a luminary of interfaith understanding but also a dear friend of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, where his profound insights and passionate introductions to films dealing with Catholicism and interfaith themes left an indelible mark. His legacy of fostering dialogue and understanding across communities continues to inspire our mission, reminding us of cinema’s unique power to unite diverse cultures and faiths.”

Lesser worked with Gracz on interfaith projects, and on such issues as the death penalty, homelessness, and immigration. Gracz and The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception also were known as being welcoming to the LGBT community.

Gracz was “a gentle bear of a man” with a presence that filled a room, Lesser said. “He was warm and welcoming and deeply committed to creating a sense of acceptance and welcoming of folks, regardless of who you were or what your circumstances were.”

Judy Marx, another former director of the AJC’s regional office, recalled sitting with Gracz and Soumaya Khalifa, founder and executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, at an interfaith event where, “Henry talked about the only way to fight fear and hatred is with connection and faith. Henry innately understood, and always expressed, that a better world would only come from people of all religious traditions working together and honoring each other.”

Marx added: “The second image I have of Henry is bumping into him at a Bette Midler concert many years ago. He was happily singing and dancing along with everyone, enjoying life to its fullest.”

Henry talked about the only way to fight fear and hatred is with connection and faith. Henry innately understood, and always expressed, that a better world would only come from people of all religious traditions working together and honoring each other.

Although Gracz had pastored a church near where Rabbi Steve Lebow, now Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Kol Emeth, once lived in Marietta, they only met after Gracz moved to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“I have known Monsignor Gracz for close to 20 years. When I worked [on interfaith weddings] with a Jewish and Catholic couple who needed wise council, in addition to whatever I could provide, I would send them to him,” Lebow said. “He had a deep heart for the Jewish religion and Jews themselves. In fact, Monsignor Gracz had a big heart for everyone he met. He will be greatly missed in the Roman Catholic community, and likewise in the Jewish world, here in Atlanta.”

Another sign of these ties is that on behalf of the AJC (and by extension, the Atlanta Jewish community), Rabbi Scott Colbert, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, will read a passage from the Book of Ruth, in the Hebrew Bible, at Gracz’s funeral Mass on Feb. 24 at The Shrine.

Gracz informed congregants at The Shrine on Feb. 1 that the kidney cancer he had battled for more than a decade had spread and that his prognosis was terminal. “I ask our loving G-d to lead me and guide me as I enter palliative care. It’s a new journey — one I have never been on, but one we must all take at some point in our earthly lives. I love you all and trust that you are holding me close. As Jesus taught us, death is never the ending — only the beginning,” he wrote.

His memory will be a blessing.

Originally published at on February 20, 2024.