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Pope Warmly Received in New York

Tuesday, 22 Apr 2008 08:43 AM

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Before he was murdered by Islamic terrorists, journalist Daniel Pearl said, “My father is Jewish; my mother is Jewish; I am Jewish.” After he spoke those words, his captors decapitated him.

I believe Pearl’s words should become part of the Jewish prayer book and recited every day by Jews. I am not an observant Jew. But I love God and I believe God loves me. I attend synagogue on special occasions and always on the high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

I have had Pearl’s last words carved into the tombstone which will adorn my grave upon my death, which I hope won't be for another eight to ten years.

My tombstone will also have etched upon it the most important prayer in the Jewish religion, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” For good measure, my tombstone will carry that brief prayer in Hebrew and in English, as well as in transliteration, so that those unable to read Hebrew will be able to chant along with those who do.

I have always believed that there is a special bond between Jews and Catholics, and have made it a personal and professional priority to strengthen that bond. In the modern era, the relationship between Jews and Catholics became solidified with Vatican II under Pope John XXIII.

More recently, the bond was further strengthened during the reign of Pope John Paul II who made clear his love and respect for the Jewish people by referring to us as the “elder brothers.”

Pope John Paul II extended Vatican diplomatic recognition to Israel, rejecting the threats of those who he called “Koranic” opponents. His closeness to the Jewish people was demonstrated by his recognition that the special bond that existed between God and the children of Israel is an enduring one.

I am not a religious scholar, nor observant in the rites of my religion, but I am moved by two practices that occur, one in the synagogue and the other in the Catholic Church.

I attend Park East Synagogue, which is led by Rabbi Arthur Schneier. I am most emotionally affected by that moment in the High Holiday service when the Rabbi with others — me among them — walk from the altar through the synagogue with two Torahs, the five books of Moses written on scrolls, carried on the shoulders of two congregants.

The other congregants move forward to touch those scrolls with their tallises (prayer shawls), which they first kiss. On many occasions, I have carried the Torah on my shoulders and feel my eyes well up with tears as the hands move out to touch the scrolls. The delight and emotions of the faithful who touch the Torah is palpable.

Catholics must feel similarly moved when they receive communion. Some receive the consecrated wafer from the priest into their own hands, while others receive it on their tongues. When that happens, the communicants generally make the sign of the cross, hold their hands together and walk off with an aura of purity and in a state of grace for those few moments of the Mass.

Their eyes convey the same rapture that I see in the eyes of Jews kissing the Torah.

I see that state of exaltation when I attend Christmas midnight Mass and St. Patrick’s Day Mass every year at the request of the presiding Cardinal.

My special relationship with Cardinal O’ Connor is well known in this city. I treasured his friendship and loved him as a brother. His funeral Mass Card bearing his picture has remained on my desk since his death, almost eight years ago.

I believe that he saved my life. During the corruption crisis I was contemplating suicide and his telephone call one Sunday morning to tell me not to despair, that he knew I was in a state of depression and that he wanted me to know that, as he put it, “Everybody knows you are an honest man,” and not involved with those who had engaged in corruption.

When I thanked him and told him how important his call was to me, he said, “No, not at all important,” and I replied, “Oh, yes, it is, Your Eminence, the lubavitcher rebbe did not call me — you did.”

This past week, at the invitation of my rabbi, Arthur Schneier, I attended the first event of its kind: the visit by the current Pope, Benedict XVI, a close friend and ally of John Paul II, to an American synagogue. Historically, only three papal visits to synagogues have ever occurred. John Paul II visited a synagogue in Rome. Benedict XVI visited one in Germany and made the visit on Friday to Park East Synagogue.

The Pope was warmly received by those in attendance, a small group of about 100 congregants and about 20 cardinals, archbishops and bishops who were part of the Pope’s contingent. The Pope wore his traditional white garments, including a white skull cap.

The Bishops wore their black cassocks and red skull caps. The rabbi wore his traditional black robes and black skull cap. The rabbi spoke lovingly and appreciatively of the Pope’s visit. The children’s choir sang.

The Pope responded eloquently, saying, “Shalom! It is with joy that I come here, just a few hours before the celebration of your Pesach, to express my respect and esteem for the Jewish community in New York City . . . I find it moving to recall that Jesus, as a young boy, heard the words of Scripture and prayed in a place such as this.” Pictures were taken with the Pope and gifts were exchanged by the rabbi and the Pope.

Earlier in the week, I was asked by a reporter how I felt about the Pope’s approving a prayer asking for the conversion of the Jewish people to Catholicism.

The reporter said that many Jews were upset with the prayer. I said I was not and considered the Catholic desire that we join them in conversion as a compliment. “They love us and they want us even closer” were my words. I also said, “I hope they convert to Judaism. Then, instead of there being only 13 million Jews worldwide, there would be 1 billion 13 million Jews, and that would be very comforting.”

There is little chance of either happening. Nevertheless, until the Messiah arrives and leads us all into heaven, we should unite, if not in liturgy and dogma, then in our common goals of love of God, charity and good deeds, as well as standing up to Islamic terrorists who make no bones about their desire to kill the Jews, whom they refer to as the sons of apes and pigs, and the Christians, whom they derisively call Crusaders.

Together we can defend ourselves and win in the war against the terrorists who threaten us daily.

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