Jewish Journal


April 7, 2005

L.A. Rabbis Voice Praise for John Paul II


Pope John Paul II lays a wreath for the victims of the Holocaust, at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, in March 2000. Photo GPO/BP Images/JTA

Pope John Paul II lays a wreath for the victims of the Holocaust, at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, in March 2000. Photo GPO/BP Images/JTA

Pope John Paul II died at 9:37 p.m. in Rome, which was 11:37 a.m. Saturday in Los Angeles -- in the middle of Shabbat -- at the same time that Rabbi David Wolpe talked to his Sinai Temple congregation about a pope who deserved the gratitude of the Jewish people.

"Although we are not without grievance, we are surely with thanks," Wolpe said before the assembled at the Conservative temple in Westwood. "Considering the world from which he came, the church in which he was raised, the teachings that he heard -- as did every Catholic in Europe for a thousand years, day after day, year after year -- that he grew up to be the person who apologized to the Jewish people, who traveled to Israel, who visited Yad Vashem [the Holocaust museum in Israel], who went to the synagogue, who embraced rabbis, who spoke the truth, is an extraordinary feat. For that, he deserves our tribute and our thanks."

Similar praise of John Paul II's papacy and of his historic outreach to Jews echoed from bimahs throughout Los Angeles. Despite their disapproval of some Vatican decisions, Jewish leadership generally echoed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's CNN comment that John Paul II "will have a very important place in Jewish history -- never have the relations between Catholics and Jews been as good."

Praise also emanated from the pulpit at B'nai David-Judea, an Orthodox shul in the Pico-Robertson district.

"Everyone recognizes that no one is perfect, that there is no perfect record, but on the whole, there is a feeling of appreciation for what he accomplished, specifically for the Jewish people," Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky said.

The pope met with many Southern California religious leaders during his 1987 visit to the Los Angeles Archdiocese, including Rabbi Emeritus Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf.

"It was a very thoughtful and constructive meeting; it must have gone on for about an hour and a half," Fields said. "The pope listened very carefully. He was most gracious."

Fields, a Reform rabbi, added that the pope was most interested in hearing about the interreligious tenor of the town, and how religious groups worked together on behalf of the city.

"'No matter what their religion, they are serving the same God,' -- those were almost his exact words," Fields recalled.

"I thanked him for coming to Los Angeles. He shook his head and said, 'We're all brothers and sisters.'" The passing of a leader like the pope, Fields continued, "is a real loss."

Rabbi Harold Schulweis had a private audience with the pope in Egypt in 1979. "All we did was basically greet each other, but I recognized in him one of the deepest friends of the Jewish people and a man of tremendous heroism," said Schulweis, a longtime leader at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation.

Schulweis added that Jews should not be disappointed at Pope John Paul II's interfaith missteps, "any more than I was disappointed that it took 2,000 years for the Bishop of Rome to pray in a synagogue. Jews have to learn patience and gradualism. It's important for Jews to know that Mel Gibson does not speak for the Catholic Church."

Among the clergy attending a Tuesday interfaith memorial at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was Reform Rabbi Steven Jacobs, from Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. The longtime liberal activist saw a kindred soul in John Paul II, despite the pope's opposition to abortion, the ordination of women priests and gay marriage. Because John Paul II just as fervently supported human rights, labor unions and global debt relief.

As the spry, athletic pope -- who used to climb staircases two steps at a time -- became stooped with Parkinson's disease, Jacobs' admiration deepened.

"He triggered a deep spiritual reflection on the meaning of my own life," Jacobs said. "We rabbis are in the public all the time. He let the whole world see him struggle physically, and he maintained his dignity and his passion. That's a great gift. Millions of people who suffer relate to him. He just empowered me as a human being and as a rabbi."

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said he drew strength from the blemish-free personal life of the pope, who began his papacy as an almost macho pontiff, excelling at kayaking, mountain climbing and skiing. He could take center stage and charm millions with the ease of a rock star, yet without rock star excesses.

"We live in a time that chews up heroes and spits them out," said Adlerstein, adjunct professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. "Here's a fellow who lasted in the public limelight for 26 years, and no one could attach a hint of scandal to him. No one could come up with a way of diminishing his integrity and his goodness. There are very few people in the world today who can restore the notion of the modern hero."

Jews have a particular connection to John Paul II, because of his deep, personal remembrance of the Holocaust and because he saw to it that the Vatican officially recognized the State of Israel. But some criticized his private Vatican meetings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who served with Nazis units during World War II.

There also was discomfort with the Vatican's continuing refusal to make public the baptism certificates of Jewish children who were raised as Catholics to save them from the Holocaust. Many of these children, now elderly Catholics, don't know they were born Jewish.

"But it would be churlish, foolish, narrow and ungrateful," Wolpe said, "not to realize that this pope's position [regarding Jews] was different from that of his church and that of his predecessors." In describing the pope, Wolpe alternated between the verb "is" and the verb "was," even as the pope was passing from one state of being to the other.

Outside the Sinai sanctuary, a 90-year-old man wrapped in a prayer shawl stood among an overflow crowd. He listened as Wolpe's tribute emanated from a loudspeaker mounted on a table.

In Yiddish, the elderly man said he came to the United States in 1939 from the Polish city of Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla served as archbishop before becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978. When asked after the sermon how he felt about his fellow Pole, the man gently waived away the question, pointed to his eyes and said, in English, "Cry."

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