Prominent New York Rabbis Relish Pope’s Yom Kippur Visit
Pope Francis’s landing in the United States on Tuesday marks a date just a few weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s adoption of the Nostra Aetate, a document that absolved the Jewish people of culpability for the death of Jesus Christ and, officially at least, ended thousands of years of hostility between the Holy See and Jews. Indeed, the five decades since the opening of Vatican II has seen something of a golden age of Jewish-Catholic relations, underscored by symbolic papal visits to Israel, Nazi concentration camps in Europe and even a U.S. synagogue.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York’s Park East Synagogue received the papal knighthood last April, and met the pope just a month later during Francis’s inaugural and somewhat controversial visit to the Holy Land: Pope Francis raised a few eyebrows in Israel after he took an unannounced break at a section of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, near Bethlehem, to offer a prayer for peace.
But all political controversy aside — in a region perennially plagued by it — Pope Francis’s visit to Israel last year underlined the process of normalization between the Vatican and Jews that has been underway for decades, with the pope visiting the Memorial for Victims of Terror, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the Western Wall, where Schneier greeted him.
“I said to him, life is a charity, and through outreach I want to give you the tefilat haderekh, the traveler’s prayer, so that you may be guided in your mission,” Schneier recalled for The Algemeiner on Sunday.
As for the pope’s current visit to the U.S., Francis is actually landing on Yom Kippur and will be visiting New York, home to the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel.
“The fact that he’s here on Yom Kippur is significant,” said Schneier, who is also the president of the interfaith outreach group, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. “Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, to be at one with God, and also with each other.”
Schneier commended Francis for making Israel one of the first trips of his papacy, saying it reaffirmed his commitment to “wide outreach” in Jewish-Catholic relations.
“He reinforces the foundation that has been laid 50 years ago,” with the adoption of the Nostra Aetate, said Schneier, adding that the process is ongoing. “The Nostra Aetate has to filter down to the local Catholic communities across the world, and you do have some conservative forces that still have not embraced it.”
Pope Francis will have a chance to meet with Jewish leaders at the “Witness for Peace: A Multireligious Gathering” at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, set to take place on Friday. Among those leaders will be Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, the director of Interfaith Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, who welcomed Francis to the U.S. and hoped “that he brings his message of reconciliation and peace.”
Sandmel noted that Francis’s outreach to the Jewish community predates his papacy, including his close relationship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina: the two Argentine religious leaders held a series of interfaith dialogues on several topics, ranging from homosexuality and atheism to death, the Holocaust and capitalism.
Additionally, Sandmel noted the pope’s strong stance against antisemitism, especially in a Europe today that is witness to a rising trend, as well as his commitment to Israel as a Jewish state; earlier this year, Francis sent around a letter alleging that the delegitimization of Israel is essentially antisemitism.
But, given the complexity of Jewish-Catholic relations, and of both religious institutions themselves, relations are not entirely free of tension. The pope drew the ire of Israeli officials and the pro-Israel community when he upgraded relations with the Palestinian Authority earlier this year, recognizing the State of Palestine on an official document.
Additionally, Sandmel explains, there remains the issue of the archives of Pope Pius XII, whose papacy during the Holocaust has led some Jewish groups to oppose his beatification until the Vatican’s role in those dark years is fully exposed.
“Opening the archives would be a significant moment for Catholic-Jewish relations,” Sandmel told The Algemeiner on Monday. “Anything that gets this information out into the light of day is going to be helpful [to Jewish-Catholic relations].”
Sandmel will join other Jewish representatives, as well as representatives of several other faiths, at the 9/11 memorial on Friday.