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NEW YORK, Feb. 26 (JTA)--For Maria Gaffney of Ramsey, N.J., watching The Passion of the Christ was witnessing "the truth."
"I felt like I was walking with Christ," Gaffney said after attending the movie's debut in her hometown theater, one of 3,006 cinemas nationwide where Hollywood star Mel Gibson's $30 million epic premiered Wednesday.
After a yearlong furor over the movie's historical veracity and charges that it falsely accuses the Jews of spearheading the crucifixion, The Passion finally hit the silver screen. Millions of faithful--and the curious streamed into theaters for an opening day that reportedly recouped $20 million for the director.
The faithful, many still bearing Ash Wednesday markings, filled quiet suburban movie houses in towns like Ramsey, some weeping or hiding their faces as they watched sadistic Roman guards whip Jesus.
Meanwhile, in noisy urban scenes in Manhattan, Jewish protesters faced defiant moviegoers.
And even as the movie premiered, the storm over The Passion raged unabated.
While some Jewish groups continued to criticize the movie as anti-Semitic, others pledged to turn the furor into a path for new interfaith dialogue and said criticism had only aroused emotions around the film.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a chief critic of the movie, called a news conference after seeing it to blast Gibson for distilling the New Testament into the toxic message that "the Jews killed Jesus" and for setting back Christian-Jewish ties half a century.
"How sad," Foxman said, that Gibson resurrected a debate "we thought we had resolved 50 years ago."
Groups from B'nai Brith Canada to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to the tiny Jewish Defense Group in New York continued to swamp media outlets with news releases and commentaries.
Media coverage of the film had been building for weeks, leading many to declare Gibson a marketing wizard.
Newsweek , The New York Times and USA Today ran front-page features; the New York Post blared it was running "shocking" movie photos.
Network and cable TV programs also led with the movie, producing a rare cottage industry for talking-head rabbis, ministers and priests.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, spoke on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," while Rabbi James Rudin went on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes."
Emotions over the movie spilled into a public spectacle in New York. Outside a theater in the heavily Jewish Upper West Side, Jewish activists clad in concentration-camp uniforms protested.
The Passion "casts Jews as being Jesus-killers," said Rabbi Avi Weiss, veteran activist and president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns. "This lie planted the seeds of the Holocaust."
The demonstration drew CNN and several local TV news stations--and clashes with passersby. `
"He died for our sins! Open your heart! See the movie!" shouted Floren Cabrera as he emerged from the theater. He said the movie simply showed that "Jews were instruments as much as the Romans were."
Cabrera also said the movie "opened my mind to Jesus," a reaction that Raymond Joseph "R.J." Runowski said he hoped he'd see repeated.
"The movie is a witnessing tool," he said. "It's hitting the secular world in ways that the Christian world never could penetrate."
Danetter Seman, of Brooklyn, said that stirring antagonism over who killed Jesus misses the movie's message.
"It's a love story about the most important love of my life," she said.
Some Jews who saw the movie said they could not quarrel with the movie's origins.
"If people say that this film was anti-Semitic, then basically what they're saying is the Gospels were anti-Semitic," said Aryeh Leifert, an Orthodox rabbinical student.
The ADL's Foxman said he faulted Gibson not for his faith in the Gospels, but for having "cherry-picked" the New Testament and then "filled in" his own interpretations.
After seeing the film, Frank Purcell of Mahwah, N.J., agreed. He said some details from the Gospels were "projected backward" by authors generations after the fact. "We have all this ballyhoo about the crucifixion and forget the message" of Jesus's life, he said.
Darren Kleinberg, 27, another Orthodox rabbinical student in New York, said the movie made him feel passionate toward Christians for their having to wrestle with the painful story.
"I wanted to hug everyone in the room," Kleinberg said. "In Judaism, we don't have that kind of weight."
As the passion and debate continues, Jewish organizations vowed to make the movie a focus in interfaith ties.
Jonathan Levine, the director of community services for the American Jewish Committee, said the group's 33 chapters nationwide were organizing screenings and discussions with Christian leaders.
The World Jewish Congress, meanwhile, which was leading a group of French Catholic bishops on a tour of Jewish sites in New York this week, issued a joint statement with Jean Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, saying "we will not be deterred" in pursuing interfaith ties.
Grass-roots interfaith moves cropped up as well.
In Barrington, R.I., Rabbi James Rosenberg of the Reform synagogue Temple Habonim said he will meet with a Catholic priest and several Protestant ministers to watch the movie and discuss it afterward.
The movie has "without a doubt" come to dominate interfaith dialogue in recent months, Levine said.
Others said Jewish groups that campaigned against the movie had waged an ill-conceived--and losing--battle.
"We have fought this and lost," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who argued that Jews overreacted to the film. "The hysteria of the Jewish response was uncalled for."
Eckstein pointed out that calls went unheeded for Gibson to cut a scene with the so-called "blood libel," in which the Roman governor Pontius Pilate washes his hands of Jesus's blood and the Jewish priests say it remains on their hands. The scene remained but, unlike the rest of the movie, was not translated into the English subtitles from Aramaic.
Eckstein said he now is going to start dialogue groups with evangelical Christians about the movie.
He said he remained hopeful in part because of a letter from Pastor Jim Tomberlin, of the Willow Creek Community Church on Chicago's North Shore, the largest Protestant church in America.
Given that Jesus and his early followers were all Jews, the pastor wrote, "how can I not love the people that brought me the God I follow and the Scriptures that guide me?"
Other Christians seemed less inclined to agree.
The Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Denver drew protests after unveiling a sign Wednesday that said, "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus." The sign added, "Settled""
Remarked one Jewish public relations professional: "And so it begins."