Jewish leaders praised the new Pope Francis, Argentinean Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and expressed optimism for an improvement of Vatican-Jewish relations after he was elected Wednesday night to replace Pope Benedict XVI.
“We have every reason to be confident Pope Francis I will be a staunch defender of the historic Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council, which forever changed the relationship of the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Bergoglio, 76, a Jesuit, was the choice of the College of Cardinals following two days of voting in Vatican City. He is the first pope to come from outside Europe in more than a millennium; reflecting the changing demographics of Catholics, he comes from Latin America.
Rabbi David Rosen, the director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA that the new pope is a “warm and sweet and modest man” known in Buenos Aires for doing his own cooking and personally answering his phone.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio attended Rosh Hashanah services at the Bnei Tikva Slijot synagogue in September 2007. Bergoglio told the congregation that he was there to examine his heart “like a pilgrim, together with you, my elder brothers,” according to the Catholic Zenit news agency.
After the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, he “showed solidarity with the Jewish community,” Rosen said.
In 2005, Bergoglio was the first public personality to sign a petition for justice in the AMIA bombing and was one of the signatories on a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures” as part of the bombing’s 11th anniversary. In June 2010, he visited the rebuilt AMIA building to talk with Jewish leaders.
Israel Singer, former head of the World Jewish Congress, said he spent time working with Bergoglio when the two were distributing aid to the poor in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s, 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 these uniforms.”
Bergoglio also wrote the forward of a book by Rabbi Sergio Bergman and referred to him as “one of my teachers.”
Last November, Bergoglio hosted a Kristallnacht memorial event at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral with Rabbi Alejandro Avruj from the NCI-Emanuel World Masorti congregation.
He also has worked with the Latin American Jewish Congress and held meetings with Jewish youth who participate in its New Generations program.
“The Latin American Jewish Congress has had a close relationship with Jorge Bergoglio for several years,” Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, told JTA. “We know his values and strengths. We have no doubt he will do a great job leading the Catholic Church.”