HomeApril 2013The Jew and the Pontiff

The Jew and the Pontiff

As the white smoke rose over the Vatican and the social media ran amok, my first response was to wonder what, if anything, the selection of a new pope meant to the Jews.
Yes, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Francis I, elected by his fellow Cardinals as the new Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, is the spiritual leader to 1.2 billion Catholics.  While that is a large number of people to be influencing, what real impact does it have over how those people, scattered all over the world, treat the Jews with whom they share this planet?
While the history of the new pope is just beginning, the reactions of Jewish organizations to his election were swift and positive.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center was one of the first to weigh in, with Rabbi Marvin Hier, SWC dean and founder, saying, “We have every reason to be confident Pope Francis I will be a staunch defender of the historic Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council, which forever changed the relationship of the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.”
According to Hier, Cardinal Bergoglio was outspoken in the attack against the Jewish Community Center by agents of Iran in 1994.  He also attended services on Rosh Hashanah in the B’nei Tikva synagogue in 2007 and again in the Emanu-El Synagogue on Chanukah in 2012.  In November 2012 he presided over a Kristallnacht commemoration at his own cathedral in Buenos Aires with Rabbi Alejandro Avruj from the NCI-Emanuel World Masorti congregation.
Rabbi David Rosen, the director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, called the new pope a “warm and sweet and modest man” known in Buenos Aires for doing his own cooking and personally answering his phone and who “showed solidarity with the Jewish community” after the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.  In 2005, Bergoglio was the first public personality to sign a petition for justice in the AMIA bombing case.  He also was one of the signatories on a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures” as part of the bombing’s 11th anniversary.  In June 2010, he visited the rebuilt AMIA building to talk with Jewish leaders.
Rosen added, “Those who said Benedict was the last pope who would be a pope that lived through the Shoah, or that said there would not be another pope who had a personal connection to the Jewish people, they were wrong.”
Israel Singer, the former head of the World Jewish Congress, said he spent time working with Bergoglio when the two were distributing aid to the poor in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s.  They went “to the barrios where Jews and Catholics were suffering together,” Singer said.
The new pope wrote the foreword of a book by Rabbi Sergio Bergman and referred to him as “one of my teachers.”  He has worked with the Latin American Jewish Congress and held meetings with Jewish youth who participate in its New Generations program.  “The Latin American Jewish Congress has had a close relationship with Jorge Bergoglio for several years,” Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, said.  “We know his values and strengths. We have no doubt he will do a great job leading the Catholic Church.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) applauded the pope’s close relationship with the Jewish community and his “important strides in maintaining positive Catholic-Jewish relations following the transformational papacies of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI – pontiffs who launched historic reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,” according to Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director.
Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, offered Italian Jewry’s congratulations to the new pope with the “most fervent wishes” that his pontificate could bring “peace and brotherhood to all humanity.”
We hope so too.

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