Special to the JTA in the Beginning There Was a Meeting
Menu JTA Search

Special to the JTA in the Beginning There Was a Meeting

Download PDF for this date

Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, said he was originally assumed to be a participant at the conclave between the Pope and Jewish representatives being held next week, in his capacity as chairman of the American Section of the World Jewish Congress.

However, because of a certain lack of organization, or possibly too much organization, by Jewish groups intent on joining the entourage, the makeup of the group has been so transformed from its original simple conception that Kelman will not be going. He explained the reason for his decision, as well as the background to the original decision to hold the meeting, to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Wednesday.

Kelman said that when the original controversy arose over the meeting in June between the Pope and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, he appeared on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” with John Cardinal O’Connor of New York to discuss the issue.

In response to a question from host Ted Koppel whether Jewish representatives should still go to Miami to meet with the Pope — a meeting which Kelman described as “ceremonial” — Kelman responded that “most Jewish organizations would find it difficult to go to Miami for a ceremonial meeting, but would find a ‘substantive’ meeting with the Pope beneficial.”

Kelman told the JTA the venue was never mentioned. It could have been “anywhere that would be convenient for both parties,” he said. Rome was not mentioned then.

A few days after his “Nightline” appearance, he continued, when Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, Vatican Secretary of State, was in New York, he met with four rabbis. This meeting, Kelman said, was arranged by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which suggested that it would be “helpful” if Casaroli would meet them.


Kelman was present at that meeting at the Apostolic Mission to the United Nations in his capacity as chairman of the American Section of the WJC. Present along with him were Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, now president of the Synagogue Council of American and at the time president of the Rabbinical Council of American, Rabbi Mare Tanenbaum, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee; and Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, chairperson of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).

At that meeting, four subjects were discussed: the meeting between Waldheim and the Pope; the issue of Vatican recognition of Israel; the Church’s role during the Holocaust; and the current tendency to minimize the uniqueness of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. Kelman said the bulk of the discussion centered on the issues of Waldheim and Vatican recognition of Israel. Kelman described the meeting as “very candid, friendly but straightforward,” with “no rhetoric, no minced worlds.”

He said he proposed at that meeting that, “What I would like to see emerge from such a meeting with the Pope would be a process leading to the issuance of a Papal encyclical dealing with these questions. It would have tremendous impact as a formal Church teaching.” Kelman said that Casaroli’s response was that “It takes time” to prepare an encyclical.

Shortly thereafter, Kelman said, a message was received from Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, saying that the Pope would be willing to meet with Jewish representatives, but that there should be two meetings, a preliminary one between Willebrands and his associates and the Jewish representatives in which the agenda and participating parties would be outlined, and a meeting with the Pope the following day.


Kelman said it “was never made clear who would meet with Willebrands and the Pope. There was a kind of assumption that the four who had met with Casaroli — and perhaps some others–would meet with the Pope.”

It was then decided, Kelman said, to send a preliminary working task force to Rome to prepare for the meetings with Vatican officials and the Pope. This would be Tanenbaum and Michael Wischograd, an expert on Christian-Jewish relations for the AJCongress.

“Because most of the Vatican staff was on vacation,” Kelman said, “that meeting never took place. So a lot of these discussions have taken place by telephone informally. In the course of the discussions that followed, a number of Jewish groups thought they should be included.”

It was agreed that an Israeli and a European Jewish representative be included, Kelman said, and “everyone agreed.” Geoffrey Wigoder of Jerusalem, chairman of the Israeli Interfaith Committee, would represent the Israeli component of IJCIC, the organization of Jewish groups which received the Vatican invitation. It was also agreed that Gerhart Riegner, cochairman of the WJC governing board, should be invited. “Then,” said Kelman, “the question arose of who else.”

Kelman said he has decided not to go, because “there are more than enough people to adequately represent the Jewish community.”

The delegation going to Rome includes Waxman, Klaperman, Tanenbaum, Riegner, Wigoder; Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International; Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress; Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation; and Gunther Lawrence, who will accompany them as delegation spokesman.

Kelman said of the group, “I wish them well, and pray that the meetings will be a further milestone in improving Catholic-Jewish relations.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund