Chicago Rabbinic Action Committee Mission — 2014

Rome and Jerusalem

Last week I spoke about The Rabbinic Action Committee trip to Rome.  I showed slides of the Jewish Catacombs of Rome, the Fosse Ardeantine memorial, ancient Jewish manuscripts of the Vatican library, our visit to the Ostia-Antica synagogue – the oldest remains of a synagogue outside of the Land of Israel. I also showed some slides of Tempio Maggiore – Rome’s Great Synagogue – where we spoke with Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Ricardo de Segni.  As you remember from last Shabbat, we were also special guests of Pope Francis at his weekly audience at the Vatican. We also visited the Renzo Levi School, just across the street from the synagogue. This is a school of 1000 students for children from elementary through High School. Italian Jews enroll their children in this school because it provides a high quality of education, and provides a safe, Jewish environment in which to study. We visited two classrooms – the first a Hebrew language class, the second a class in Art Appreciation conducted in English. About 80% of the students studying there are on scholarships. Other highlights included our meeting with Zion Evrony, Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, our meeting with Naor Gilon, Israel’s ambassador to Italy, and our meeting with Cardinal Kurt Koch, who heads the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.  We broached a sensitive subject in our meeting with the Cardinal. We asked him about the opening of the Vatican archives to scholars wanting to examine the wartime record of Pope Pius XII. You might remember that Pope Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust have been a source of controversy. Consequently, the Vatican’s moves toward conferring  sainthood upon Pius XII has angered Jewish groups who claim that he did not do enough to intervene to save Jews during World War II.  Jewish groups also argue that the Vatican helped many former Nazis escape to South America after World War II, and they wonder about Pope Pius’ role in this. The only way to put to rest the serious questions about Pius’ behavior during the Shoah would be to open the archives to independent scholars. Cardinal Koch replied that he had no objection to opening the archives. In fact, some years ago the Vatican agreed to make the archives available to researchers. However, he said, the thousands upon thousands of documents that constitute the archives would need to be put in order so that they can be productively researched by scholars – and this has not yet happened!  After four full days in Rome, we flew to Israel. Friday morning we met with Akiva Tor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  He summarized for us the issues and challenges that Israel faces with her neighbors – Iran, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.  He also spoke of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Israel. Although it will last only 28 hours – Israeli leaders had hoped he would stay for three days – the Pope will visit Yad Vashem, The Western Wall and meet with Israeli political and religious leaders. Our speaker contrasted Pope Francis’ upcoming visit with Pope Paul VI’s visit to Israel in 1964. That visit lasted only 11 hours, and Pope Paul VI never once mentioned Israel by name. He went out of his way to avoid using the word “Jew”, avoided all sites of Jewish significance including Yad Vashem – Israel’s Holocaust memorial. He even took the occasion to praise Pope Pius XII and defend his silence during the Holocaust. Pope Paul VI dedicated his visit to “Christian Unity” rather than interfaith understanding. He refused to set foot in West Jerusalem – although he celebrated Mass in East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule.  Clearly the relationship between the Vatican and Israel has changed significantly for the better since that papal visit in 1964! On a personal note, a major highlight was meeting our niece, Esty, in Jerusalem for Shabbat. Esty is my sister Audrey’s daughter. She graduated from Dartmouth last June and is in Israel on a Fellowship for a year. She works at the Israeli National Wildlife Animal Hospital, which is nestled right in the heart of the Tel Aviv Zoo!  She charmed us and my colleagues with her tales of her experiences as a veterinary assistant treating injured exotic wild animals that are brought in to the hospital —  like ibex’s, eagle owls, fruit bats, flamingos, jackals, hyenas, hoopoe birds, and Egyptian mongoose – mongeese? — to name a few. She also has participated in editing and publishing scholarly articles on innovative forms of treatment for these animals that come out of the work at the hospital. Our 6th grade class and I were discussing the various categories of mitzvahs that one can perform, such as “Keeping Shabbat” and “Honoring your parents and teachers.” One category we discussed is called “Tzaar Ba-alei Chayim” – kindness to animals. I told them about Esty’s work at the animal hospital and next Tuesday I will show them slides of Esty with some of the animals that she treats. On Shabbat afternoon Esty took me on a walk through the Arab quarter to a place called the Austrian Hospice. The roof of the Austrian Hospice afforded us a unique view of the Old City and the Dome of the Rock. Middy stayed back at the hotel taking her Shabbas snooze. Sunday morning began with a study session with Professor Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University. We studied Rabbinic texts related to rabbinic attitudes toward Rome. Given that Rome burned down the Second Temple in 70 CE, plowed under the ruins of Jerusalem and built a Roman colony there in its stead called Aelia Capitolina, and destroyed the remainder of the country in the course of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE, you might guess that the attitude of the rabbis of the time was not all that positive toward Rome. Take this charming story, for example, related in the Talmud. “Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together. Rabbi Yehudah said, “How wonderful the Romans have been to us here in Israel! They’ve established marketplaces, they’ve constructed bridges, and they’ve built bath-houses.” Rabbi Yosi was quiet. Rabbi Shimon said, “Everything they have done here, they have done for their own benefit, not ours! They established marketplaces to sell their harlots, bath-houses to give themselves pleasure, and bridges to collect tolls from us.” Word of their conversation got back to the Roman authorities. The Roman authorities decreed – “Rabbi Judah – you who exalted Rome will yourself be exalted”, and they honored him. “Rabbi Yosi – you who were quiet are exiled. Rabbi Shimon – you who denigrated Rome will receive the death penalty.” Later that Sunday morning we visited the Joint Distribution Committee’s building in Jerusalem to learn about a program that is helping to integrate Israel’s ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli army and after the army, into the work force. The problem of ultra-Orthodox poverty and dependence is huge in Israel – the Yeshivah education that the men receive does not prepare them for the workforce, they have been exempt from military service, they have huge families, they study Torah all day and subsist on welfare. The program is called Shakhar Chadash – New Dawn.  We met with its director, Israel Hoffrichter. The program enlists Ultra-Orthodox volunteers into the Israel Defense Forces, and offers them training in the military that will lead to employment after their army service. The program also provides glatt kosher food, and time for one hour of Torah study a day. Starting with 30 men in 2007, the program has now grown to serve 3000 men.  The program aims allow Ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the army and at the same time maintain their traditional way of life. Part of that way of life, however, involves strict separation of men and women, as well as the maintaining of traditional gender roles. This elicited some discussion among our group after the meeting. Although the program is promoted as a way of making Israeli society more inclusive, does that inclusivity come at the expense of women? There was much more, including our meeting with Dr. Khalil Shikaki, Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, and Dr. Shlomo Avineri, Political Science Professor at Hebrew University and frequent contributor to the Israeli newspaper Ha-Aretz. Next week I will be away at our family retreat at Camp Shai in Wisconsin, but the following week I will continue with an account of our Mission to Rome and Jerusalem. Shabbat Shalom