An American Jew at the Pope's visit to the Rome Synagogue

Catholic-Jewish relations are far from perfect, but it is clear this Pope seeks to build relations between our two faiths. 

Elie Hirschfeld


When the leader of the Park East Synagogue Rabbi Arthur Schneier asked me come to see him, I was enthusiastic about sitting with the man who, I feel, has done so much good for Jewish people, but I had no idea what he wanted.  With a little trepidation, I went to see him and was humbled by his request.  He asked if my wife Sarah and I would go to Rome and represent him and Park East at the Great Synagogue of Rome for the visit of Pope Francis.  This was only the third time in recent history that a pope visited the synagogue in Rome, after John Paul II in 1986 and Benedict XVI in 2010. 

Sarah naturally said yes, and a few days later, we were on our way to Rome.   Sarah had never been to Rome and my last visit was 45 years ago.  So, this trip was not only a wonderful vacation, but an opportunity of a lifetime.  Once we arrived, we were immediately overwhelmed by the beauty and architecture of this ancient city.  We passed the Great Coliseum and our hotel was adjacent to the Pantheon, truly another magnificent wonder.

Greeting us at the hotel as old friends was Dr. Giacomo Mocati, Vice President of the Rome Jewish Community. As a representative of Rabbi Schneier, we were taken in as family by this wonderful Jewish Community of Rome. We took a tour through Ghetto area, the Great Synagogue and through The Jewish Museum and immediately became overwhelmed to learn that this warm and welcoming family dates back some 2,200 years to when the Roman Empire had an alliance with Judea under the leadership of Judah Maccabee

For a real estate developer, this fact did not go unnoticed.  The Great Synagogue is said to be the tallest synagogue in the world and I was impressed with its grandeur.  Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief Rabbi of Rome, who, like Maimonides is also a physician, greeted us before the afternoon Mincha service.  We then went to dinner in the Ghetto area. 

Of course, this is no ghetto anymore, it is more of a chic stylish neighborhood like Soho, Tribeca and even what the Lower East Side has now become and has a considerable number of kosher restaurants. 

Shabbat came and I discovered through a unique and beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service that these Jews prayed neither in Ashkanazic or Sephardic, because the customs of Rome date back further than both of these ethnicities.  We enjoyed a Shabbat dinner at the home of Vito Arbib, the brother of deputy chief Rabbi JosephArbib.   Joining us were Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow (the father of Park East’s Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt), Professor Daniel Sperber and other Rabbis from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and Ruth Dureghello, the president of Rome’s Jewish community.  Needless to say, it was a meaningful Shabbat.

Sunday came and we awoke to begin our day preparing for the much anticipated Papal visit.  Despite being only one mile from Vatican, these visits are as meaningful as they are infrequent, and the audience was in reverence.  Now, I have been to so many “special” events and visits by dignitaries, and we all began to settle in for a great procession to precede the Pope’s entry as we have come to expect, yet that is not what followed.

Instead, the doors opened and there stood only the Pope and Chief Rabbi di Segni – walking shoulder to shoulder.  The warmth between these two men was demonstrable, and Pope Francis started walking through the synagogue, aisle by aisle, shaking almost everyone’s hand and hugging some. This was something special, and nothing I had expected.  The Pope stopped and talked with so many, as if he felt like one of the people.  His humbleness was refreshing, his affability enviable.  People are drawn to him and he, in return, draws himself right into their hearts.  We were so close that we felt his charm, and right after being near Sarah and me, Pope Francis and Rabbi Segni walked up to the bima (stage).

As the only Americans in the synagogue, we were seated right by the side of the bima (stage).  Rabbi di Segni explained that the Pope wanted this event to be specifically for his Jewish neighbors in Rome and not for world Jewry.  We were invited because Park East is the sister synagogue of the
I reflected on how honored I am to be in the presence of this man, but Rabbi Goldschmidt suggested the opposite - how honored is the Pope to be in the presence of the Jewish community.
Rome synagogue, and Rabbi Schneier is a close friend to di Segni. 

A handful of Italian survivors of concentration camps sat in the front row, and when they were introduced, the Pope rose with the congregation in a standing ovation. “Their tears should never be forgotten," Pope Francis said.  He continued: "The Shoah teaches us that we need the maximum vigilance in order to intervene quickly in defense of human dignity and peace. Jews and Christians must, therefore, feel like brothers united by the same God and by a rich common spiritual heritage,"

Catholic-Jewish relations are far from perfect, but it is clear this Pope seeks to build relations between our two faiths. 

While in Rome I reflected on how honored I am to be in the presence of this man, but Rabbi Goldschmidt suggested the opposite - how honored is the Pope to be in the presence of the Jewish community.

Think about that. Jews are on earth in large measure to inspire, and as G-d said in Isaiah 42: 6-7, to be L’or Goyim, a light unto other nations.  We did that well that Sunday, both in the way the Pope was welcomed as a friend, and in the words that President Dureghello spoke, forcefully urging the Pope to lead the fights against anti-Semitism and against indiscriminate, largely Muslim, terror; to which everyone, even the Pope, stood and applauded.

Sarah and I traveled to Rome honored to be in the presence of Pope Francis, a warm and good man. But we left Rome honored to meet the Rome Jewish Community and to have become an even closer part of their family.  Most of all, it made me more proud to be a Jew.

Elie Hirschfeld serves as president of Hirschfeld Properties LLC, a New York-based real estate development firm.