This is an article from the April 14, 1986 edition of the Israeli newspaper Maariv, reporting on Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome. The article describes Pope John Paul II’s warm welcome as he entered the synagogue dressed in his papal robes with a large gold cross around his neck. Representatives of the Italian Jewish community, including the head of the Roman Jewish community, the president of the United Jewish Communities of Italy, the chief rabbi of Rome and four other rabbis attended the meeting. Among the people assembled was a group of Holocaust survivors whom the Pope addressed in his speech by expressing the “shock and horror” of the Holocaust and mentioning his 1979 trip to Auschwitz. He also stood for a moment of silence on his way out of the synagogue in front of a plaque in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The meeting between the Pope and Chief Rabbi Toaff was carefully orchestrated to exhibit equality between the two religious leaders. Unlike the usual custom of the Pope sitting on a higher chair than everyone else, in the synagogue Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Toaff sat on identical chairs. Rabbi Toaff wore a white tallit to match the Pope’s white robes. Before they left the synagogue sanctuary, the two religious leaders embraced in a symbolic gesture that moved the audience. The article ends with a description of the gifts that were exchanged. The Pope gave the Chief Rabbi an ancient chumash from the Vatican collections and the Rabbi gave the Pope:
an ancient menorah with seven branches, a gift signifying the connection between the Jewish religion and the State of Israel, since the menorah is also the emblem of the State.
The photograph accompanying the article shows Pope John Paul II and Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Toaff smiling and looking up at the ceiling of the synagogue.
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Pope John Paul II – Born in Poland in 1920 as Karol Józef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 400 years. Pope John Paul II was the head of the Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005 and was a vocal advocate for human rights using his influence to effect political change. Pope John Paul II’s relations with Jews began in Poland where he had Jewish friends and rescued a young Jewish girl on a train during the Holocaust. Later, he participated in the Second Vatican Council that was responsible for changing the nature of the Church’s relationship with Judaism by publicly stating that the Jews did not kill Jesus, renouncing the idea that the Jews had been rejected by God, condemning anti-Semitism, and calling for mutual respect and understanding between Jews and Catholics. Pope John Paul II met with Jewish leaders, visited Auschwitz, and established diplomatic relations with Israel. He was, nonetheless, critical of Israel’s actions at times and issued a joint statement with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO chairman, calling for the internationalization of Jerusalem, and canonized and beatified Edith Stein and Pius IX against the wishes of the Jewish community. Overall, though, John Paul II had a favourable relationship with the Jewish community and with Rabbi Eliyahu Toaff, chief rabbi of Rome, in particular. Rabbi Toaff was, in fact, one of only two living people mentioned in John Paul II’s will.
Great Synagogue of Rome – The Great Synagogue of Rome was built in 1904 on the banks of the Tiber River overlooking the Jewish ghetto. The building’s large size and grand architecture reflect the hope and optimism the hope and optimism that the community had felt since the dismantling of the Jewish ghetto and the granting of full citizenship to Jews in 1870. The synagogue is topped with an unusual square dome that makes the building easily identifiable. It is Rome’s largest synagogue and houses the office of the chief rabbi of Rome and the Jewish Museum of Rome.