Catholic News Service photo
Pope Francis
Catholic News Service photo
Pope Francis
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina's Jewish leaders said they were not surprised that, in the first year of his papacy, Pope Francis has remained true to himself and his ideals of social consciousness, humility, coexistence and tolerance.

He has exhibited the same warmth, intelligence and open-mindedness in the Vatican as he did in Buenos Aires, enabling him to overcome certain prejudices, said Rabbi Daniel Goldman of Bet El Synagogue, the largest conservative synagogue in Buenos Aires.

Rabbi Goldman co-founded the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue with Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic and Father Guillermo Marco, who served as Pope Francis's spokesman when he was the cardinal of Buenos Aires.

Rabbi Goldman recalled that he and Abboud grew up in the same diverse working neighborhood as Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. All three were children of immigrant parents, which has played an important role in the pope's outlook and formation.

"His first gestures have been for a more humble life and more spirituality and more support for the people in lower social conditions," Rabbi Goldman told Catholic News Service. "There are also the declarations he made with the aim to overcome the prejudices regarding homosexuals, his statements and actions regarding the situation in Syria -- these are all very strong social gestures which form a part of a cultural language and are a demonstration of a different dynamic."

Pope Francis has remained in good contact with his friends in Argentina. On his first Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, away from Buenos Aires, Pope Francis called Alberto Zimmerman, director of interreligious relations at the Argentine Jewish community umbrella organization DAIA, to wish the community a good new year. The pope asked his friends to go to the synagogue and pray for him, recalled Jorge Knoblovits, DAIA secretary-general, who was at a holiday reception when Zimmerman  received the call.

Knoblovits said Pope Francis has remained a Jesuit pastor who is deepening the line of dialogue and respect with the Jews that was started with Blessed John Paul II.

"He will continue with the teachings of John Paul II, with Jews as the 'elder brothers,' and that we can share and coexist in our encounters with God," agreed Rabbi Arieh Sztokman, who first began working with the pope in September 2001 when they participated in an interreligious prayer service in the wake of the attacks on New York's twin towers.

"Through his actions he will achieve an encounter ... on the level of the people to be able to meet heart to heart, to realize that we are able to share this gift from God, which is our life."

Pope Francis has demonstrated that what is and continues to be important for him is to live life with joy and values of respect, care and love for one another, said Rabbi Sztokman.

"He is a pastor who goes to seek his faithful," he added. "He is the pope of the people, for that reason he puts so much emphasis on education. He would walk through the streets of Buenos Aires, and (he) saw the people and their problems. He lived with a lot of humility, and he continues to do so as pope."

Shortly after his election, the pope invited Rabbi Goldman and Abboud to a lunch at the Vatican, like the ones they used to share in Buenos Aires, the rabbi said.

"I told him how moving it was to be sitting at the table, the son of a Muslim intellectual, the son of a Holocaust survivor and a priest from the Flores neighborhood -- all three sitting in the Vatican, and we three just shared that moment," recalled Rabbi Goldman. "Maybe that is a symbol of the times. It would not have been imaginable 50 years ago."

Rabbi Alejandro Avruj of NCI-Emanuel Masorati Congregation, who has worked in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires, where he met then-Cardinal Bergoglio, said it has been a "celebration" having Pope Francis as an international spiritual leader.

"In his simplicity, the world is discovering his continuing commitment to what he was before" becoming pope, said Rabbi Avruj.