On Friday, the rabbis met the pope.
The pope, of course, was Francis, whose first trip to the United States sparked huge and largely ecstatic crowds, fears of apocalyptic traffic jams that led many people to work from home, and hundreds of op eds, analyses, think pieces, blog posts, and other writings on the significance of the Catholic church’s new style and renewed focus on abolishing the death penalty, ministering to the poor, and protecting the fragile earth.
The rabbis were Noam Marans of Teaneck, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, and David-Seth Kirshner of Closter, who leads Temple Emanu-El of Closter but was there in his capacity as president of the New York Board of Rabbis. They joined about 50 other rabbis and Jewish lay leaders as part of a larger group of approximately 500 clerical and lay leaders representing a wide range of religious groups.
They were there for an hour-long service at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan, which stands in part of the footprint once occupied by the Twin Towers.
“It was a deeply emotional and powerful event,” Rabbi Marans said. “It brought together the confluence of Pope Francis’s presence with a mosaic of interreligious fellowship emblematic of New York’s diversity at this very sensitive place, a place that for many is not a theoretical abstraction but a personal pain.
“It was even more emotional because many of us from New York and New Jersey — including me — knew people who were murdered there. My family knew five people who died there.
“There were representatives of religions including Judaism, Islam, Christianity — of course Catholics, but also Protestants and Orthodox and Eastern Rite Christians — Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs,” he said. “And the Jewish community had a central role, as would be expected in New York, with the rabbi and chazzan from Park Avenue Synagogue,” the big, wealthy Conservative shul on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“In perhaps the most powerful moment of the ceremony, the chazzan,” Azi Schwartz, “chanted the El Moleh prayer,” which is sung at funerals, using the name of the dead person. “A smattering of the congregation — or the audience — joined him in singing ‘Oseh Shalom,’” a plea for peace. “He used inclusive universal language while leading those specifically Jewish prayers. The El Moleh was edited to reference the 9/11 victims and the first responders, and the Oseh Shalom included the liberal Jewish expression ‘kol yoshvei tevel.’” The phrase, which means “everyone who lives in the world,” follows a request for peace for all of Israel.
“Pope Francis wisely decided to have this interreligious meeting, which is a normal part of papal visits, at this sacred space,” Rabbi Marans continued. “This is a place where religion was perverted through a horrific act of terrorism that was meant to divide people, and instead it brought people together. This event was reflective of that spirit.
“Francis has a unique ability to bring together people of diverse backgrounds — particularly at the periphery of society — that resonates well beyond Catholicism and Christianity. I can’t think of a more appropriate place than New York for that to happen.”
The meeting was itself a bonding experience for the participants, many of whom already knew each other, Rabbi Marans said.
The trip itself was easy. “Ironically, there was no one on the road,” he said. “It was the least challenging traffic day in anyone’s memory. Everyone was completely scared off, and there were no problems. I traveled downtown with some lay leaders from AJC, and we got downtown with plenty of time.
“It was all very well run and well thought out. There were no bottlenecks. But you had to get through a circuitous route to get there, and security was very high. Much stronger than anything we’ve experienced at the Vatican!
“There were many intermediate steps with security and access to the area, so it turned into a conference-like gathering of interreligious leaders, because we had so many hours to be together, waiting on a long and winding initial clearance line, and then when we finally went through TSA-like security, we had about an hour in one of the museum’s grand lobbies. The museum is a must-see,” he added parenthetically. “I went to see it about three weeks ago, so that this time wouldn’t be my first time.
“Then being there was a kind of celebration of the longstanding relationships that many of us have with each other. It’s what I do, day in and day out, so I have a lot of relationships.
“It was a historic moment. Pope Francis’s presence in the greater New York area will be remembered as a highlight of New York’s religious history. Papal visits have a big impact on people, and this pope especially has a personality and charisma that draws people in, in a way that is similar to John Paul II but with a message of humility and approachability that is unique for the papacy.
“Time will tell whether Pope Francis’s approach is one more of style change than of substance change, but style often sends a message of inclusiveness that can be very powerful. There are specific issues that he has begun to address that have given him the label of reformer, and I believe that is justified.
“The Jewish community has specific issues upon which we are focused — mainly the historic transformation of Christian-Jewish relations, which has been lifesaving for the Jewish people. We have to acknowledge that Jews were killed or demonized over two millennia in the name of the Christian religion, but in the 50 years since Nostra Aetate and the parallel change in other Christian religions, the aircraft carrier has been turned around, and historic expressions of hatred have been reversed. That does not end the history of two millennia, but we need to recognize the good that has been done in recent decades.”
“It was really quite surreal,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “When we first passed through security, there were people in all sorts of religious garb — rabbis in kippot, some with tallitot, Sikhs in turbans, Hindus in tunics, imams in robes, priests in black and white, with Roman collars, and there was something holy about all of us in this place. Here, the terrorists tried to use religion as a weapon to divide us but actually it united us.
“Religion was a big part of that glue.”
“His homily was really powerful,” he said. “He talked about how the walls that were behind us,” the walls that once had kept the Hudson from the Twin Towers, “were a barrier to the river, and they held strong. Had they not, they would have flooded all of Manhattan, and many thousands more people would have died.
“But they were not a strong enough barrier to hold back our tears.
“Francis’s grace and his kindness have changed the flavor of the entire church,” Rabbi Kirshner continued. “It is powerful. It is so quick. It is a reminder for Jews that if one man can do that for the church, then strong communities can do that for the Jewish people and our Jewish future.”
Rabbi Kirshner perhaps was predisposed to be moved by the pope, given his experience the day before. As he tried to drive to the East Side of Manhattan that Thursday, he found traffic growing worse and worse, until finally it stopped altogether. Although he had a medallion that allows him behind police lines, this time it did not work. The pope was on his way into the city from the airport. “He comes up the street in his car, and I saw a grandmother, her daughter, and her grandchild, three generations of a family, and they are all holding the crosses on their chests,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “And the pope goes by, and he waves to everyone, and I look at them, and all three of them are crying and hugging each other.
“That one person can have such a powerful effect on their lives — that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”