Reprinted with permission of The [Pittsburgh] Jewish Chronicle. Visit www.pittchron.com.
PITTSBURGH--Several weeks ago, Rabbi Walter Jacob had a private meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, never suspecting that he was seated in the presence of the next pope.
When Ratzinger was declared Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, Jacob was happy to hear the announcement.
"It's very welcome news," he said. "He struck me as the kind of person who will be open and friendly to us.''
Jacob, rabbi emeritus of Pittsburgh's Rodef Shalom Congregation and the president of the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, Germany, was accompanied in the March 11 meeting at the Vatican by Rabbi Walter Homolka, the college's director. The two rabbis, along with other faculty and students from the rabbinical school, spent a week at the Vatican meeting with several cardinals, to discuss matters of religious law and its comparative aspects and to explore new areas of working with the Catholic Church.
Jacob said the private meeting with Ratzinger was arranged in part because Jacob was recently named a member of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory by Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh. The honor is one that is only rarely granted to non-Catholics, and was given to Jacob in recognition of his efforts to work with Catholics.
Jacob and Homolka spent about an hour alone with Ratzinger.
"It was just a very personal audience," Jacob said. "It was a very friendly and open meeting. He showed a great deal of knowledge not only about Judaism, but about modern Jewish life and scholarship."
Jacob said he believes that Ratzinger will follow in Pope John Paul I's footsteps in continuing the Catholic church's positive relationship with the Jewish people.
A statement released Tuesday by Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, called Ratzinger "the architect of the policy that John Paul II fulfilled with regard to relations with the Jews. He is the architect of the ideological policy to recognize, to have full relations with Israel."
In 2002, Ratzinger authorized the publication of a report that stated that "the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain." That document also expressed regret that certain passages in the Christian Bible condemning individual Jews have been used to justify anti-Semitism.
However, Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation, also in Pittsburgh, said that Ratzinger also published a document a few years ago, which appeared to endorse the belief that the only way to salvation is through the church--a position that was changed by Vatican II to say that other faiths also provide paths to salvation.
"I have some concerns," said Berkun, who also is a Conservative movement representative to the International Jewish Committee on Interfaith Consultation, which has dialogue with the Catholic Church. "He is clearly right of center. My fear is that we may regress."
On the other hand, Berkun said that Ratzinger's closeness to John Paul II is an indication that he will uphold the late pop's policies.
"On balance, I think we're going to be okay," he said. Ratzinger's selection came as a surprise to Berkun, who thought the German cardinal was out of the running after not being elected by the first ballot of the conclave.
"I was surprised, but not shocked," said Berkun.
(The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.)