Everything Jews need to know about Pope Francis’ U.S. visit


On his first-ever trip to the United States, Pope Francis will arrive at the beginning of Yom Kippur and will not visit any synagogues.

Nevertheless, many American Jews will welcome his arrival (though they are probably less ecstatic about the traffic his presence will bring to the Northeast). After all, Francis has made clear that he is a friend of the Jews.

“Christians, all Christians, have Jewish roots,” he said in an address in June. “We are strangers no more, but friends, and brothers and sisters.”

The pope has a history of Jewish connections to back up such talk.

Further, his progressive stances on issues such as climate change, immigration, criminal justice reform and same-sex marriage have won liberal hearts — Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

Francis’ trip falls during the 50th anniversary of the “Nostra Aetate,” a landmark document issued by the Catholic Church in 1965 that decried anti-Semitism and declared that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus.

There is no indication whether the pope will mention the “Nostra Aetate” or the state of Catholic-Jewish relations during any of his visits to churches, government institutions and other organizations. But according to the Anti-Defamation League, he will “symbolically advance strides he has made in strengthening relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people.”

The best chance for Jews to greet Francis will be during a multi-faith service on Friday at the Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero in downtown Manhattan. Here is a Jewish overview of the pontiff’s first foray into North America (from Tuesday, September 22, through Sunday, September 27).

Wednesday, September 23

After arriving in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, and before leading a papal parade along the National Mall on Wednesday, the pope will meet with President Barack Obama on Wednesday morning. The meeting underscores the close bond between the two that has blossomed over agreement on a host of political issues. Francis has supported Obama’s efforts to curb climate change, lent moral weight to Obama’s attempts at immigration reform and personally helped the president rekindle diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

President Obama talking with Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 27, 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Obama talking with Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 27, 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

Francis has also called for a two-state solution in the Middle East and a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which Obama also supports). The Vatican signed an official treaty with the “State of Palestine” in June, implicitly recognizing an autonomous state. The move prompted harsh reaction from Jews in Israel and around the world.

“This hasty step damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement,” Israel’s foreign ministry said at the time.

Thursday, September 24

On Thursday, Francis will become the first pope to address a joint session of Congress.

As The New York Times pointed out, the pope’s address will come at a high-water mark for Catholics in American politics: Six of the nine Supreme Court justices and 31 percent of Congress members are Catholic. Joe Biden is also the first Catholic Vice President. (Catholics are the largest religious denomination in the U.S., making up 22% of the population; Jews make up somewhere between 1.8 and 2.2 percent of the population.)

Thursday night, Reform Jewish leaders will join an interfaith rally and prayer service in midtown Manhattan calling for action on climate change. Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism will address the crowd at the event, which is planned as a precursor to the pope’s Friday morning address at the nearby U.N. General Assembly.

Friday, September 25

After his General Assembly speech, during which he is expected to talk about climate change, Francis will head an interfaith service at the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum. He will offer inclusive prayers and meet with family members of Sept. 11 victims. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Avenue synagogue was invited by the pontiff to attend. (Jews are welcome at the event, which begins at 11:30 a.m. Friday.)

Sunday, September 27

The pope will travel to Philadelphia over the weekend. On Sunday, he will visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility and meet with prisoners from across Philadelphia’s prison system. Francis has railed against the United States’ high incarceration rates in the past.

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