NEW YORK — It was September, not an easy time for a religious Jew to be traveling. The Jewish month of Tishrei was ending with its marathon of holy days. Kosher wine would be needed. There were Sabbath blessings to recite. Fortunately, Rabbi Abraham Skorka had a friend with the run of a hotel who arranged for kosher meals and said “amen” to the rabbi’s prayers.
Skorka has been talking about this trip ever since, in interviews and meetings with Jewish groups, for two reasons: the hotel was inside the Vatican, and the friend was Pope Francis.
“He invited me to share his table for the three daily meals. He told me, ‘You have to sit here’ — to sit on his right,” Skorka said in a recent interview in New York. “I said, ‘Look, I have to say Kiddush.’ I had to say the special blessing for the holiday, for Shabbat, before the meal is served. He told me, ‘Do what you have to do.’”
Skorka — rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, which has ties to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York — finds himself in the unlikely position of being close friends with a pope. When Francis was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, he and Skorka co-wrote a book of dialogues on Judaism and Roman Catholicism titled, “On Heaven and Earth,” had a similarly themed TV show called “Bible, A Dialogue for Today,” and offered prayers from each other’s pulpits.
Bergoglio kept a framed photo of the two of them in his study. At Skorka’s synagogue, the rabbi displayed a greeting the cardinal made to the congregation on one of his Rosh Hashana visits.
“There is overall a very deep respect for the other,” Skorka said. “His commitment with the Jewish people is total.”
Each of the men feels a duty to reach out beyond their own communities.
Bergoglio, 76, grew up with Jewish friends. Jews fled to Argentina in significant numbers into the early 20th century to escape persecution in Russia, Germany and the Mideast. Skorka said Bergoglio was unwavering in combatting anti-Semitism, calling it a violation of Christian teaching. One of the events the cardinal considered most important on his annual calendar was a service at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires that promoted religious harmony on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led mob violence in 1938 considered the start of the Holocaust.
Skorka said the pope is so comfortable with Jewish culture that as he vetted meals at the Vatican hotel to make sure the rabbi was given only kosher food, Francis joked he was the rabbi’s personal “mashgiach,” the Hebrew word for a supervisor in a restaurant or other business who oversees compliance with Jewish dietary laws.
As a child, Skorka said his father talked about how Jews had been persecuted over the centuries, including at times by the Catholic Church, but also emphasized the links between Judaism and Christianity. “‘You must know that Jesus was a Jew,’” Skorka said his father told him.
Skorka later looked to Abraham Joshua Heschel as a hero. Heschel, one of the most important 20th century Jewish thinkers, was a pioneer in Jewish-Christian cooperation. He negotiated with cardinals and Pope Paul VI over “Nostra Aetate,” the transformative Second Vatican Council statement of the 1960s that repudiated centuries of Christian teaching that Jews bore collective guilt for Christ’s death. When Skorka, now 63, began serving as a rabbi in the Conservative Jewish movement, a priest invited him to a Christian-Jewish dialogue, and his own interfaith work began in earnest.
Skorka doesn’t remember exactly how his conversations with Bergoglio began, but the two had come to know each other through the city’s religious events. Skorka wrote articles on interfaith issues for a newspaper the cardinal read. In person, they would needle each other about whose soccer team was winning. But more than that, Skorka said they were united in trying to reach people who had fallen away from their own religions and, instead, worshipped what the rabbi calls the “idols” of money, power and sex. Growing secularism has hit both the Catholic church and Jewish communities in Latin America. The church has also lost many parishioners to popular Pentecostal movements.
“When he speaks about evangelization, the idea is to evangelize Christians or Catholics,” to reach “higher dimensions of faith” and a deepened commitment to social justice, Skorka said. “This is the idea of evangelization that Bergoglio is stressing — not to evangelize Jews. This he told me, on several opportunities.”
Last February, when Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by resigning, Skorka said he told his wife, “Jorge Mario will be pope.” Skorka had read accounts of the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict reporting that Bergoglio had been a close runner-up.
“When I saw him entering the balcony, with his white dress … the emotion was very great,” Skorka said. The rabbi wondered what would become of their friendship. Days passed without any word from Francis, although the pope had already started making the informal telephone calls from the Vatican that drew so much attention.
But just before the new pontiff’s March inauguration, Skorka’s cellphone rang. It was the pope. “He told me, apologizing, ‘Look, I came here to Rome and they let me no more go back to Buenos Aires,’” Skorka said. “I spoke with him, and suddenly, I told to myself, ‘but he is the pope.’ It was incredible for me.”
Francis gave the rabbi an email address to use so they could stay in touch, and they exchange emails every week or 10 days.
That’s how Skorka ended up as a guest for several days last September in the Casa Santa Marta, the hotel Francis chose as his home so he wouldn’t be isolated in the Apostolic Palace.
Skorka said the pope’s study was filled with papers on chairs and books on the floor. One of the books had been sent and inscribed by the dissident theologian Hans Kung. “Both of us stood one very close to the other trying to read the German dedication,” Skorka said. “Something like, ‘You already did a lot, but the world expects from you to continue doing very important things.’”
The rabbi said the pope is aware some religious conservatives, inside and outside the church, are unsettled by his approach. Francis has said Catholic leaders have been driving people away by talking too much about divisive social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The pope has dropped some of the more regal trappings of the papacy. He uses a Ford Focus instead of fancier cars in the Vatican fleet and wears only the most basic clothes.
“He is receiving very, very harsh criticism from people who don’t like a pope without red shoes, and a pope who speaks to people in a very simple and direct language, and a pope who will transmit to people that he is close to them, that he in some way hugs them through jokes and through simple words and through simple expressions,” Skorka said. “The criticism he is suffering from is not new for him. He already had this kind of pressures and other kind of pressures during his serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, so he knows exactly how to handle these pressures. He’s a very strong man and he will go ahead.”
Jewish leaders, meanwhile, are ecstatic about the rabbi-pope friendship. Pope John Paul II earned enormous gratitude from Jewish groups for his leadership on Jewish-Catholic relations. Benedict also made outreach to Jews a priority. But, Jewish leaders say, this is the first pope so personally involved with Jews before he was elected.
“For Pope Francis, this is just part of his life. He was a regular in shul (synagogue),” said Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee, a policy and advocacy group based in New York. “It’s an intimacy based on experience.”
The relationship also stands out for many Jews because of where it began. Jeffrey Lesser, an Emory University historian who specializes in South America, said Jews, especially from the U.S., have traditionally viewed Argentina “as a particularly anti-Semitic place,” even though Argentine Jews, who number about 200,000, have been able to establish themselves in the country as leaders in education, government and other areas.
Skorka said the two men plan to see each other again in January, when Francis is scheduled to meet in Rome with Argentine Jewish leaders. And the rabbi hopes to accompany the pontiff if he travels to Israel and the Palestinian territories next year, a trip that is under consideration.
Skorka said he hopes to pray with the pope before Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and in Bethlehem, “to show the world it is possible.”