Rome’s Chief Rabbi In The Spotlight


Rome — Ground zero for Catholic-Jewish relations is Rome, and the man at the center of it all is the city’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni.

On the week before Passover, Rabbi Di Segni was busier than ever. A new pope had been elected and members of the news media flocked to the historic Great Synagogue to interview the 63-year-old religious leader.

One of Pope Francis’ first official acts was to write a letter to Rabbi Di Segni inviting him to his installation and expressing the hope of renewed collaboration with the Jewish community.

With the clock ticking on the arrival of Passover, the rabbi attended the installation and shared some words with the new pope. “I blessed him for success and told him that we are interested to meet, the Jewish community and him, in a way that would be useful.”

The two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both visited Rome’s Great Synagogue. Pope Francis is expected to do the same, but the rabbi wanted to be sure that the visit came with adequate preparation and meaning and was more than just symbolic.

“Our relation is very complicated, full of problems, many of them can’t be solved,” Rabbi Di Segni told me in an interview a few hours after he met the new pope. “What is important is the good disposition, and this pope shows a good disposition.”

Catholic-Jewish relations is a bumpy road. Even though, as one Israeli leader put it, the relationship is better now than it’s been in 2,000 years, problems persist. One major sticking point is the Vatican effort, currently underway, to declare the wartime leader of the church, Pope Pius XII, a saint. Many feel that he didn’t do all he could to save Jews from the Nazis and have called for the Vatican to open its archives from that dark period.

One of the reasons that Jews are hopeful about Pope Francis is that, as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, he had a strong record on Catholic-Jewish relations. As The Jewish Week reported last week, the cardinal had publicly called for the opening of the archives to learn the true role of Pius during World War II.

The paper quoted Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a friend of the cardinal’s from Buenos Aires who co-authored a book with him called “On Heaven and Earth.” Rabbi Skorka told The Jewish Week that the two devoted a chapter in the book in which they “analyzed the attitude of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. His answer was, in essence, that we have to wait to open all the archives and analyze all the details regarding this issue.”

Asked if he believes that with his new authority Pope Francis will order the opening of the archives, Rabbi Skorka replied: “I believe yes, that his attitude will be to search for all of the details and to open all the archives. He will use this opportunity to learn the truth.”

Other reports from Buenos Aires told of the cardinal’s close relationship with the Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, that stretches back decades. He visited synagogues, lit a Chanukah menorah, attended Holocaust memorial events and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism. He was widely praised for reaching out to the Jewish community after the 1994 bombing that took the lives of 85 people.

The pope’s supporters expect that this attitude will carry on in his new role as pope. In fact, at the beginning of his homily at the installation mass on Tuesday, Jews were the only non-Christians he singled out by name. He thanked “representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence.”

Meanwhile in Rome’s Jewish ghetto right behind the Great Synagogue, Rome’s observant Jews were busy shopping for Passover. The kosher markets were selling boxes of matzah and wines from Israel, and the butcher, certified kosher for Passover, was setting out special cooked lamb dishes, a customary dish of Roman Jews.

Rome’s Jewish community, the oldest in Europe, stretches back to the destruction of the temple, when Jews were brought to Rome in chains. Today there are an estimated 15,000 Jews in Rome out of a total of 28,000 in the whole country.

Rabbi Di Segni, who was trained as a medical doctor, is descended from three generations of rabbis. He has been chief rabbi of Rome since 2001. He said he’s been reflecting in recent days about the confluence of events on the eve of Passover. “You see how busy I am,” he said between interviews with journalists and visiting Israel dignitaries who were in Rome for the installation. “But everything about the Exodus story was done in a rush. That is why the bread didn’t have a time to rise. The story condemns us to be very busy on erev Pesach.”