Jewish leaders, groups welcome Pope Francis

Jewish leaders around the world welcomed Wednesday’s selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio, 76, who took the name Francis upon his selection, has been the archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998 and is the first from the Americas to lead the Catholic Church.

“In the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, the widely shared impression is that he’s very friendly, that the cardinal was determined to have a cordial relationship with the Jewish community,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said.

Bergoglio has twice attended services at synagogues in Buenos Aires, Hier said, and he led a commemoration of the anniversary of Kristallnacht in his cathedral this past December.

Hier and other Jewish leaders were particularly encouraged by Bergoglio’s reaction to the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed more than 80 people.

“We are heartened by his profound statement of solidarity with the Jewish people and his identity with the pain that was caused by the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires,” Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Larry Gold said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who is the senior rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in Buenos Aires and has been a member of Buenos Aires’ city legislature since 2011, heralded Bergoglio’s selection on Twitter.

“Argentines and men and women of good will, as brothers, we celebrate the unity in diversity convened together for Francisco I,” Bergman tweeted in Spanish after hearing news of the selection.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, who met Bergoglio in 2008, expressed optimism that Francis would continue the work of building relationships between the Catholic Church and world Jewry.

“He always had an open ear for our concerns,” Lauder said in a statement. “I am sure that Francis I will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”

Bergoglio’s reputation in Argentina is not that of a reformer. He is known to be socially conservative, upholding the church’s traditionally held positions on gay rights and abortion. He has not said much publicly about Israel in the past, but Hier said he is hopeful that Francis will emerge as a supporter of the Jewish state.

“We very much see him as a pope in the tradition of John Paul II and John XXIII,” Hier said. John Paul II established formal relations between the Vatican and Israel; John XXIII is believed to have influenced the drafting of “Nostra Aetate,” the 1965 declaration that stated Jews could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus.