Area Jews dissect popes talk

Sunday's papal plea for forgiveness was called everything from inspiring to insipid by members of the Bay Area Jewish community.

And a few things in between.

"Blaaah," opined Rabbi Jacob Traub.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce countered that the speech was "an incredibly positive step forward by the Vatican."

The two San Francisco rabbis and other local leaders offered myriad reasons for giving the pope's speech a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

"The Jewish community shouldn't be in the habit of swatting away an extended hand," Traub said, "but the speech still missed its mark."

Noting that the sins Pope John Paul II addressed included transgressions against Jews, women, indigenous peoples and other groups, the leader of the Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel said the pontiff's message had been stripped of its impact.

"I'm a feminist at heart," Traub said, "but lumping the mistreatment of women together with the injustices perpetrated against 6 million Jews hardly seems analogous.

"It seemed like everything was stuck together in a tidy, satisfactory package for the millennium."

However, the metaphor of a new start at the millennium seemed appropriate to Pearce, spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

"It really came across as a heartfelt apology," he said, "and it showed a willingness to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and rectify them."

Adding that it was easy to be a "Monday morning quarterback" and criticize the apology in retrospect, Pearce said the pronouncement strengthened the bonds forged between the Catholic and Jewish communities.

"This pope has done more for relationships between Catholics and Jews in the last 20 years than anyone else has in the past 2,000 years," Pearce said. "Pope John Paul II is responsible for establishing full diplomatic relations toward Israel," he added, "whereas the last pope to visit [Paul VI in 1964] wouldn't even mention the country's name."

Pearce also cited the "extremely warm" relationship between Bay Area Catholic and Jewish leaders.

"The pope may not have said all the words the Jewish community wanted to hear, especially concerning the Holocaust," he added. "But that shouldn't negate all the years of working closely together."

For longtime Jewish activist Rita Semel, the former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, those years of working closely with the Catholic community total more than three decades.

"The proof of the speech is in the pudding," said Semel, who is now the executive vice chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. "The Vatican is really a top-down organization, so if you really want to know what's happening in Rome, study what's happening locally."

What's happening locally, according to Semel, is a reciprocal relationship with deep roots.

Semel cited the Rev. Eugene Boyle, the president of the Committee on Social Justice for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, as an example. Boyle, she said, was heavily involved in removing anti-Semitic passages in the Gospel of St. John from the textbooks of Catholic schools.

Semel also praised the Rev. Gerard O'Rourke, the ecumenical and interfaith relations officer of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

"Whenever something happens that negatively impacts the Jewish community, Gerard O'Rourke's voice is always among the first to condemn it," Semel said.

None of the overtures to the Jewish community would have been made without the consent of the Vatican, she added.

"It would've been nice if [Pope John Paul II] specifically mentioned the Holocaust — although he's certainly mentioned it before," Semel said. "But I think the years of great friendship between the two communities speak louder than what he did or didn't say in his speech."

Semel's opinions are shared by Rosanne Levitt, director of the Interfaith Connection at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

"I see any kind of acknowledgment [of past transgressions] as a forward motion that we haven't seen very often in the recent hierarchy of the church," said Levitt. "Frequently young Catholics don't have a sense of the church's anti-Semitism, so the speech can really start a dialogue."

Levitt also placed the speech in a historical context, saying there's a whole generation of Jews who "didn't grow up being chased down the street being called 'Christ-killers.'

"I really think ever since the Second Vatican Council voted in 1965 to absolve Jews of deicide [the blame for the death of Jesus], which was a major step, we have made great strides in improving Catholic-Jewish relationships."

Still, some local Jewish leaders said the speech was threadbare, especially when dealing with the Holocaust and Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for remaining silent during the Nazi atrocities.

"I think on the matter of the pope's comments, we have a right not to be negative, but to be candid," said John Rothmann, a San Francisco political commentator and local historian.

Rothmann, who discussed the issue during his radio talk-show on KGO over the weekend, said it was deeds that mattered, and not words.

"The pope didn't really apologize for the church. He apologized for individual Catholics. And the record of the church regarding Jews has been terrible," said Rothmann, who has been involved in interfaith efforts.

"Furthermore," he continued, "in light of the beatification [the preliminary step before sainthood] of Pius XII, the papal comments fell far short of adequate.

"They didn't call Pius XII 'Hitler's Pope' for nothing."

Taking Rothmann's comments a step further, Lillian Hyatt, the co-founder of the Flannery-Hyatt Institute for Interfaith Understanding, said that "the whole discussion about the canonization of Pius XII completely negates all the apologies."

Pius XII had a "direct pipeline to Hitler," said Hyatt, whose institute is under the auspices of the Swig Judaic studies program of the University of San Francisco.

"Pius was really rooting for Hitler to win the war," she added. "He thought that a Nazi victory would be a bulwark against communism. Essentially, Pius would have done anything to preserve the church.

"Jews were carted off to concentration camps right under the Vatican's window, and it didn't seem to bother anybody," said Hyatt. "It's really hard to accept a papal apology until that matter is addressed."