When Alberto Zeilocovich, now spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, met Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now spiritual leader of one billion Catholics around the world, Zeilocovich was a 34-year-old rabbinical student and Bergoglio, who last week was elected pope, was the 48-year-old bishop of Buenos Aires.
The year was 1984, and Zeilicovich, a native of Buenos Aires, was taking part in an interfaith program under the auspices of an institute founded by Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who also had founded the rabbinical school where Zeilicovich was studying.
“We talked about social action, because [Bergoglio] was huge in that, and how each one of our communities – the Catholic community, the Jewish community – could improve our participation in social action in the country,” Zeilicovich recalled this week.
For both the priest and the rabbi, the meeting was not of monumental significance; it was one of a number of interfaith encounters.
And that, say local experts in the Catholic-Jewish relationship, is one of many indications that the relationship will remain in good shape under the papacy of Pope Francis, as Bergoglio is now called.
“From the perspective of Catholic Jewish relations, Pope Francis appears to be an inspiring choice,” said Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, who is the director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee.
“He reached out to the local Jewish community in Buenos Ares in times of joy and sorrow and established remarkable friendships with Jewish leaders. Whatever concerns and trepidations Jews had for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations have been allayed. He will no doubt build upon the incredible foundation established by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI,” Marans said.
“The Jewish world will be warmed by the fact that among his first official duties was a visit to the chief rabbi of Rome,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, director of the New Jersey region of the Anti-Defamation League. “This augurs very well for the future of Jewish-Catholic relations.
“There is so much about this new pope that is new and refreshing. I have been moved by his humility, which is the ideal spiritual position of any religious leader,” Salkin said.
The modern Catholic-Jewish relationship dates back to the 1965 declaration from the Second Vatican Council, which rejected the theology that blamed the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus. The declaration, dubbed Nostra Aetate, was approved in the shadow of the Holocaust two decades earlier.
The next dramatic step in Catholic Jewish relations came under Pope John Paul II, who in 1986 became the first pope to visit a synagogue and in 2000 the first to visit Israel.
Both John Paul II and his successor were intimately familiar with the Holocaust. The former grew up in Poland and had Jewish friends who were killed; the latter grew up in Germany.
This raised the question, of whether the warming trend would continue as the church moved its center from Europe to the southern hemisphere, where most of its members now live, according to Rabbi Alan Brill of Teaneck.
“It was a conventional wisdom that the only ones who would be sensitive to Jewish needs are from the northern hemisphere,” said Brill, who holds the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall, the Catholic university in South Orange.
It turned out that the conventional wisdom was wrong, he said, since any “any cardinal in a major city has met the globalized Jewish community,” he said – and only such cardinals would be selected to lead the global church.
Not many cardinals, however, have co-authored a book with the head of a rabbinical seminary, as Bergoglio did. Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Meyer’s successor at the Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano, and Bergoglio wrote “Sobre El Cielo Y La Tierra (Regarding Heaven and Earth).” The only one of Francis’s books now in print, it is structured as a transcript of a conversation between them.
Brill said the “unscripted” tone of the book “couldn’t be further from the carefully crafted messages that usually emerge from the Vatican.
“The first word the world may read by him is a constructive conversation with a rabbi, in which both men encourage interfaith amity.”.
That would take the interfaith discussion far beyond its normal Jewish audience.
Among the wide range of topics discussed, Brill said, was one issue of particular Jewish communal concern: the question of unsealing the Vatican’s records from the Holocaust era.
“Opening the archives of the Shoah seems reasonable,” Brill quoted from Bergoglio’s book in an article he wrote for The Forward last week with Ronnie Pereles, a professor of Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University, who also lives in Teaneck.
“Let them be opened and let everything be cleared up. Let it be seen if they could have done something [to help] and until what point they could have helped. If they made a mistake in any aspect of this we would have to say, ‘We have erred.’ We don’t have to be scared of this – the truth has to be the goal,” the quote continued.
“I expect the ADL will hold him to that,” Brill said.
This history of interfaith activity puts Francis on a different level than his predecessors, Brill said.
“Where John Paul II was the first pope to visit a synagogue, to go to the State of Israel, and acknowledge the Holocaust, Francis has already been to Israel, spoke in synagogues twice, and wrote a whole chapter on the Holocaust. He showed up at assorted Kristallnacht and Yom Hashoah events. He was the first to speak out against the bombing of the Jewish community center in Argentina in 1994. He turned into a real friend.”
Twenty years after Zeilocovich’s meeting with Bergoglio, the churchman, then a cardinal, hosted a formal meeting between the Catholic Church and the alliance of global Jewish organizations known as the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations.
“The theme was tzedek” – justice – “and tzedakah” – charity – “and just as important as the meetings, the pope-to-be made everyone deliver food within the very poor barrios, the absolutely dirty disgusting slums,” Brill said.
“You have to imagine these very formal Jews doing this, and how uncomfortable they looked in the photographs,” he said.
The encounter was criticized by some non-participating Jewish organizations, which asked why the Jews were wasting their time talking about charity, rather than about fighting anti-Semitism.
“This is the answer,” Brill said. “Look how it paid off. There’s a whole contingent of world Jewish community people who know him, who worked with him, and were invited to the inauguration.
“Sometimes you have to take a long view of these things.”
The Buenos Aires interfaith institute’s origins, Zeilocovich said, were in Meyer’s efforts on behalf of victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” when the ruling junta killed about 30,000 of its citizens, at times by throwing them out of airplanes.
Many of the victims were from the Jewish community, and Meyer led the efforts for the families of those who had gone missing.
Pope Francis has come under criticism since his election for his role during the Dirty War. The leaders of the junta were conservative Catholics.
Brill said that Francis’s alliance with the Jewish community speaks to his innocence.
“If the community says he wasn’t a collaborator, he wasn’t a collaborator. If Francis had an