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SHOULD COUPLE IGNORE NEEDY NEIGHBOR?

Q: I'm Jewish and my boyfriend is Catholic. He's wonderful in every way to me and we love each other very much. (We are senior citizens). We have a neighbor in her 80s. Her husband passed away and she lives alone. My boyfriend checks on her and waters her plants, etc. He also visited her in the hospital when she was sick.

My boyfriend told me this woman was anti-Semitic and my heart just dropped. I've been living here for two years and she's never said so much as "hello." How should I feel about my boyfriend being concerned about this neighbor if she doesn't like Jews?

On one hand, I say to myself that she's a frail old woman and I should overlook her prejudiced views. On the other hand, I wonder how my boyfriend could tell me this woman is anti-Semitic and still run over there, when I, the woman he loves and lives with, am Jewish?

-- N., Tampa, Fla.
A: First, we loved receiving a letter in which a senior citizen calls her companion a "boyfriend." God bless your youthful passion!

We agree that there are disturbing issues raised by your boyfriend's helping an anti-Semitic, home-bound elderly woman. There are two competing ethical issues here: Your neighbor is in need, and helping a person in need is always a good thing. However, she's also a bigot, and helping bigots is always a bad thing. So what is the right thing to do?

It's clear to us in this difficult ethical conflict that your boyfriend should not stop helping this woman just because it aggravates you. If he stops helping her, it must be because he's come to that decision on his own. Of course, you can and must speak to him about your discomfort and about his insensitivity toward you.

What the heck was he thinking when he even mentioned to you that he was helping an anti-Semite? Didn't he realize you are Jewish and that this would be hard for you to accept and might even cause a rift in your relationship?

What we suspect is that he considers this woman's bigotry less important than her need. You could cut him some slack by remembering that he is doing a good deed, even if it's for a less-than-worthy person. The truth is, all of us, except living saints, have broken parts in our souls. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and just general crotchety-ness are moral cancers that infect many souls but they do not vitiate our need, our vulnerability and our suffering.

Perhaps your boyfriend could use the trust he's engendered with this woman to help her see that she has wrongly judged the Jewish people. Our friendship would not have been possible even 30 years ago, but the world has changed and so has the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the legacy of prejudice in previous generations lives on among many people.

Meantime, we will send you a list of perfectly righteous needy people whom you can help when your boyfriend is away watering the neighbor's plants.

Q: My four adult siblings and I are desperate for advice regarding our elderly parents. Our mother has always been an abusive person, both to us as children and to our father. Our parents now live in Florida and the situation has become critical.

Our father is now ill with cancer, heart problems and recently, loss of memory. He's no longer able to protect himself against our mother's verbal, emotional and physical abuse. He is truly afraid of her and allows her to dictate his every move.

Do I dare leave my dad there to live the rest of his life in misery? Should I enlist the help of his priest? I've asked God to help me make the right decision. Can you help?

-- R., from California

A: At the heart of this sad tale is a question you raise but do not answer: Would taking your father away from your mother really be your decision to make? The answer is no, despite your agony over his treatment. The only exception would be if the abuse were so evident and the physical danger to your father so clear that he needed to be removed to save his life.

In cases of elder-abuse, the key element in assessing the situation is input from social workers from the state. They could visit your father and make an independent judgment about his condition. Absent their findings, what we have is just a family dispute colored by your possibly prejudiced and subjective dislike of your mother.

You can do everything possible to protect your dad, but you can't become the parent of your parent.

Monsignor Tom Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman are happy to try to answer your religious, personal or ethical questions. Contact the God Squad, c/o Telecare, 1200 Glenn Curtiss Blvd., Uniondale, NY 11553 or e-mail godsquad@telecaretv.org.

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