Pope Benedict to Make Rare Synagogue Visit

Want to see history come alive? Two old men will shake hands at the door of a New York synagogue Friday afternoon, and for a few minutes the horrors of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust will become flesh and blood, seeking to heal unspeakable wounds and build new bridges in the hopes that it never happens again.

The meeting is between Pope Benedict, 81, who as a German teenager was required to join the Hitler Youth and Hitler's armed forces, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, 78, a Holocaust survivor, who as a teenager lost his family in the Nazis' Auschwitz and Terezin concentration camps.

"I think what the Jewish community is looking for is that wonderful brotherly relationship that says we can disagree on things — brothers disagree on things — but we respect each other enormously," Sir Gilbert Levine told ABC News as he reflected on what Benedict's visit to Manhattan's Park East Synagogue may mean.


Levine is a Jewish American conductor who for 20 years has worked closely with Vatican prelates on interfaith musical projects and has been honored with knighthoods by both Popes John Paul and Benedict.

He has reason to be hopeful, having participated in unprecedented events of interfaith healing that included his conducting the first Holocaust memorial concert inside the Vatican in collaboration with John Paul.

But Benedict's first efforts to reach out to other religions -- especially to Jews and Muslims -- have not been all sweetness and light.

'Foot-in-Mouth Pope'

Dubbed the "Foot-in-Mouth pope" by some members of the Vatican press corps, Benedict infuriated many Muslims with a speech in 2006, in which he cited a medieval Byzantine emperor who called the Muslims "evil and inhuman." It led to riots in Muslim countries and the murder of a nun.

"I think now we're on a very positive track," the Rev. Thomas Reese, of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told ABC News, referring to a planned meeting of Catholic and Muslim leaders. "Twenty-four Muslim scholars and 24 Catholic scholars are going to talk about God's commandment that we love one another. And they're going to talk about human dignity and the respect that we have for one another."

As for the previously fast improving relations between the Vatican and Jews, they have come to a distinct bump in the road, if not a washed-out bridge.

Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi in Rome, is now reported to be "suspending" -- though not canceling -- plans for any future meetings with Vatican authorities.

'A Pause for Reflection'

"We are asking for a 'pause for reflection,'" Di Segni has told reporters. This was triggered in part by a reintroduced Catholic Latin prayer that Di Segni says evokes "a sort of shadow, an anguish we Jews drag along behind us."

The Latin prayer, approved by Benedict two months ago, reads in part (unofficial translation): "Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men."

"The moment we recognized Jesus Christ, we would no longer be Jews," Di Segni has said. Di Segni and several American rabbis active in interfaith reconciliation efforts say this was a step back in relations, especially after the revolutionary 1965 Vatican document "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Time") in which the church rejected the ancient notion of any collective Jewish guilt for Christ's death.

They say that after the exuberant embrace of Pope John Paul, who as a young man was a witness to the Holocaust in southern Poland, Benedict's reintroduction of this old prayer without removing specific reference to Jews seems, by comparison, both retrograde and condescending.

The Vatican Secretariat of State has issued a statement insisting that the newly reissued prayer "in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church's regard for the Jews," but the chill remains for some.

Schneier Insists

Enter Arthur Schneier, one very exuberant American rabbi, who, since escaping the Holocaust, has been continually active in promoting interfaith dialogue and respect worldwide from his base at Manhattan's Park East Synagogue, which he has led since 1962.

Schneier, according to some of his friends, just wouldn't hear of Benedict visiting New York -- home to more Jews than anywhere outside of Israel -- without visiting the Jews, and after dogged diplomatic insistence with Vatican contacts, got Benedict to agree a few weeks ago to drop by his Manhattan synagogue Friday on the way to an ecumenical meeting with non-Catholic Christians.

Accentuating the positive -- and perhaps sensing that Benedict has a willing but slightly more awkward and "professorial" style than the ebullient John Paul -- the irrepressible Schneier says that "basically, Benedict's message is: 'I am continuing the outreach to the Jews.'"

Monsignor David Malloy, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, typifies the synagogue drop-in as "not part of his official program," but is aimed to "express the pope's goodwill toward the local Jewish community as they prepare for Passover."

However "unofficial" the visit, it is historic, as all parties are well aware. It will be only the third time on record a pope has entered a synagogue -- Benedict in Cologne, Germany, four months after his election, and John Paul in Rome in 1986 -- and the first time ever in the United States.

Special Gesture

In fact, before Benedict flies to New York he will make another special gesture to American Jews — appropriately enough at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington this evening.

After meeting with representatives of the major religions there, he will retire briefly and separately with the Jewish leaders to offer his special greetings and respects on the eve of Passover, which begins Saturday evening.

It would seem that, despite continuing misunderstandings, hands are reaching out from both sides.

The very last generation of witnesses -- and victims -- of the Nazi Holocaust, which ended 63 years ago, will soon be gone.

There isn't that much time left for them to reach out to each other in their efforts to deal with those tears beyond measure, and that shame beyond telling, and try to create a lasting understanding that may prevent it from happening again.