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New Jersey interfaith leaders praise pope’s outreach to Jews
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New Jersey interfaith leaders praise pope’s outreach to Jews

An exchange of “warm greetings” between Pope Francis I and the chief rabbi of Rome was echoed by Jewish leaders in New Jersey who are active in interfaith relations.

“The election of Pope Francis offers special promise to the strengthening of Catholic-Jewish relations and to interfaith dialogue,” wrote Harriet Sepinwall, professor of Holocaust studies at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, in an e-mail to NJ Jewish News.

“The American Jewish Committee has confirmed through the Argentine Jewish community that the new pope is a friend with strong ties to the Jewish community,” said John Rosen, director of the AJC’s New Jersey Area. “We anticipate that he will be very good for Catholic-Jewish ties.”

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, succeeding Pope Benedict XVI. Although speculation about the transition tended to focus on internal church issues like engaging disaffected Catholics and quelling disputes among the Vatican bureaucracy, Francis signaled his interest in interfaith dialogue on the very first day, sending a letter of “warm greetings” to Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome.

“I eagerly hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration, and in service of a world that might be more and more in harmony with the Creator’s will,” wrote the pontiff.

The rabbi’s reply included a hope that the Catholic Church’s relations with Rome’s Jewish community will continue on a path “marked by continuity and good relations.”

Rabbi Alan Brill, Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, said the pope has been a consistent fighter for Jewish causes.

“He has spoken in favor of Holocaust remembrance and fighting anti-Semitism. He has visited and spoken in synagogues. He has been to Israel. I think he is going to keep up good relations,” Brill told NJJN in a March 14 phone interview. “Not only has he reached out to Jews, but he has reached out to Evangelicals, to Protestants, and even to the local Santeria religion in Argentina. He is ecumenical, and his relationship with the Jewish community is quite strong.”

Brill cowrote an appreciation of Francis for the Forward, saying that as a cardinal he agreed “wholeheartedly with the need to open up the church’s archives of the wartime years and unequivocally stresses the importance of clarifying the historical record.

“If Pope Francis follows up on his clearly stated desire, it may help Jewish organizations push for a speedy opening of the Vatican archives, which some have resisted up to now.”

Jewish and interfaith leaders cite other examples of his record of support for their interests.

Sepinwall, a Jew who codirects the Holocaust Education Resource Center at the Catholic CSE, praised the pope for ensuring that a Holocaust memorial was erected in the main Roman Catholic Church in Argentina. He has had “unprecedented engagement with the Jewish community,” she wrote, included participation in Kristallnacht commemorations and signing a petition calling for justice in the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Argentine prosecutors accused Hizbullah and the Iranian government of orchestrating the July 1994 attack, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds of others.

Israel Singer, the former head of the World Jewish Congress, said he spent time with Bergoglio when the two were distributing aid to the poor in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s as part of a joint Jewish-Catholic program called Tzedaka.

“We went out to the barrios where Jews and Catholics were suffering together,” Singer told JTA. “If everyone sat in chairs with handles, he would sit in the one without. He was always looking to be more modest.

“He’s going to find it hard to wear all those uniforms.”

Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, told the Forward his organization “had a close relationship with Jorge Bergoglio for several years. We have no doubt he will do a great job leading the Catholic Church.”

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told Ynet the pope was “no stranger” to his organization.

“In recent years he attended many interfaith events co-organized by the WJC and our regional affiliate,” said Lauder, praising the pontiff as “a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”

Israeli leaders also spoke about the new pope in positive terms.

President Shimon Peres called Francis “a man of inspiration who can add to the attempt to bring peace in a stormy area.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is sure the “excellent relations” between Jews and Christians as well as between Israel and the Vatican will continue.

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