Jewish Ecumenical Affairs Leaders Optimistic About Pope John Paul Ii
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Jewish Ecumenical Affairs Leaders Optimistic About Pope John Paul Ii

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Pope John Paul II, the farmer Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, Poland, is an unknown quantity among Jews as he was for most Christians when he was elected Monday. Jewish spokesmen involved with ecumenical affairs were trying today to pinpoint his position on various issues concerning Jews.

But they saw reason for optimism in that the 58-year-old Pontiff took the name of his predecessor, John Paul I, who, although he had served only 34 days before he died Sept. 28, had made a strong favorable impression among Jews. The Jewish spokesmen also pointed to his anti-Nazi activities during World War II and to a belief that he may seek to press for more religious freedom in the Soviet Union and other East European countries.

Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said that the AJCommittee was sending its European director from Paris to Rome to try to learn the new Pope’s views on Jews, Judaism and Israel the status of Jerusalem. All Jewish spokesmen interviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted that Pope John Paul II had never taken a position on Israel as far as it is known, although Tanenbaum noted that the Polish Catholic hierarchy maintains a Catholic Polish House of Studies in Jerusalem.

Tanenbaum said it is hoped by taking the name John Paul II, the new Pope will be as understanding of Jews in religious affairs and on Israel as was his predecessor. He also stressed the importance seen in that the Pontiff had been strongly anti-Nazi as a young man.

Born in the village of Wadowica, near Cracow on May 18, 1920, the son of a factory worker, John Paul himself worked in a factory while going to school. During the German occupation of Poland, he did forced labor in a quarry and later in a chemical plant. It was during this time he studied for the priesthood in an underground seminary in Cracow. After his ordination, he went to Rome for two years but returned to Cracow in 1948 just as the Communists were taking control of Poland.

Known as an intellectual, he became Archbishop in 1964 and a Cardinal in 1967. Along with Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Patriarch of Warsaw, he has become a leader in the Roman Catholic Church’s position in Poland as the political opposition to the Communist government. At the same time, John Paul has been more conciliatory than Wyszynski and has actively promoted better church-state relations.


Tanenbaum noted that the Pope’s defense of liberty and human rights, as well as social justice, could be a key factor. He said if John Paul pushes for greater religious freedom for Christians in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc it will also have an impact on religious freedom for Soviet Jews.

Jews recently from Poland noted that John Paul II, like Wyszynski, has spoken up in support of Jews in Poland following the 1968 upheaval in which the majority of Jews living in Poland left the country. But they said they see this as part of his anti-government stand.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation which seeks to promote religious freedom in East Europe, said most of his dealings have been with Wyszynski, who overshadowed the Cracow Cardinal in Poland. But he noted that Auschwitz was part of John Paul’s diocese, only some 50 kilometers from Cracow. The new Pope experienced the Holocaust and had in his own diocese a constant reminder of the destruction of the Holocaust, Schneier noted.

He said that both Wyszynski and John Paul II had written pastoral letters urging that young Polish Catholics help clean up the Jewish cemeteries which had been neglected and some youth groups did take up this project.

Schneier, who is also rabbi of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, stressed that the new Pope knows how religious groups can suffer under Communism and also how they can survive. He said this could “rekindle hope” for religious freedom. In a speech to the College of Cardinals today, Pope John Paul II pointed out that people were still being imprisoned for their Christian belief.


Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Federation of Polish Jews, said that although he had never met the new Pope he attended a service in his church and was amazed by the large turnout in what was basically a country that stressed atheism. Schindler, who is also president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he hoped that a man who experienced persecution under the Nazis will show understanding and sympathy for the suffering and aspirations of the Jewish people.

Tanenbaum said he was told by a Polish Catholic authority that he believed that the new Pope had been the most friendly of all contemporary Polish bishops toward the Jewish people. His chancery sponsored an official publication which included articles commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Holocaust and a series of articles and book reviews on Jewish history, religion and culture.

American Jewish organizations, meanwhile, expressed their congratulations to the new Pope. Richard Maass, president of the AJCommittee, said it was hoped that by taking the name of his predecessor, the new Pope will continue “Pope John Paul’s contagious spirit of love and respect for all human beings, including respect for the integrity of the Jewish people and Judaism, for Israel and for Jerusalem as a united city.”

B’nai B’rith president Jack J. Spitzer expressed the hope that Pope John Paul II will “continue to eliminate unsympathetic treatment of Jews in church teachings and liturgy.”He also said B’nai B’rith hoped that the new Pope would recognize the State of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital.

Howard M. Squadron, president of the American Jewish Congress, said that in view of the new Pope’s personal history, “we believe he will understand and appreciate the struggle of the three million Jews of the Soviet Union, who have faced even greater oppression because of their efforts to live as Jews and to become reunited with their families outside the USSR. And we believe that he will understand and support the efforts of Jews from around the world to make a new life for themselves in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, the State of Israel.”

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