As a rabbi and Jewish leader, Rabbi Alvin Berkun felt some relief Wednesday as he learned that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was now Pope Francis I.
He felt that way because he once met the future pope during an interfaith conference in Buenos Aires — the Argentine capital — so he already knew Francis enjoyed warm relations with Argentina’s Jews.
And he felt that way because he knew the College of Cardinals, who selected Francis during its historic conclave this week at the Vatican, could have chosen someone far more distant from the Jewish world.
“Frankly, I believe if they had chosen a cardinal from Africa the Jewish community would have problems because they would have had no exposure to the Jewish world,” Berkun told the Chronicle.
Francis I, a man who erected a menora in his Buenos Aires cathedral to the 6 million Jews slain in the Holocaust, who reached out to Argentina’s Jews following the AMIA Jewish center bombing in 1994, which killed 85 people, and who gave the keynote address at the 2004 interfaith conference in his capital city sponsored by the Vatican and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) won’t have that problem, Berkun said. “He has walked the walk.”
The IJCIC seeks to maintain and develop relations with the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations, the Orthodox Christian Church, the World Council of Churches and other international religious bodies.
Berkun, a longtime active IJCIC participant, a former president of Rabbinical Assembly — the umbrella organization of the Conservative rabbinate — and rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Squirrel Hill, came to learn about Francis during the IJCIC’s conference in Buenos Aires. Noting that the Conservative movement operates a seminary in Argentina, he said, “I also saw the relationship he had with my Conservative colleagues in Buenos Aires. Clearly, this was a man who was known to them and with whom they were quite warm.”
Berkun was at the conference during a time of “severe economic crisis” in Argentina. He recalled how the Catholic and Jewish communities came together to address the plight of the poor.
“We visited a factory formerly owned by The Gillette Corporation, which had been donated for this purpose,” Berkun recalled. “The Jewish community helped create a soup kitchen as well as a career development center, to secure jobs, and a homeless shelter, all of this in that building, and all in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Diocese.
He also recalled two presenters at the conference — “a priest whose hair descended to his shoulders, together with a rabbi, whose hair also descended to his shoulders” — discuss how they came together as colleagues and friends, walking through the barrios of Buenos Aires, reaching out to the poor.
“All of this under the new pope,” Berkun added. “To the Church’s credit, 2,000 years of a sordid relationship with the Jewish community has totally changed,” he said.
Berkun leaves for Italy this weekend where he will catch a passenger cruise ship, but he held out the possibility that he might be privileged to attend Francis’ installation.
“I’ll be at the right place at the right time,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)