A Montreal rabbi has been granted a private audience with Pope Francis, whom he wishes to thank for his outreach to the Jewish community and to appeal to him for support of Arab-Jewish dialogue in Israel.
Rabbi Boruch Perton of Beth Zion Congregation is scheduled to meet the pontiff at the Vatican on Feb. 24.
Rabbi Perton is an advocate for Hand in Hand, a network of fully integrated public schools for Arab and Jewish students that promote equality between the two peoples.
“I believe they hold the key to creating a shared society that can bring peace to the region,” said Rabbi Perton. “I am going to see the Pope because I want to make a difference in the world and need the support of leaders of all faiths to do that.”
He’s encouraged that this rare opportunity indicates Pope Francis is open to hearing more about the schools, which now number six, and hopes to expand. The schools are located in Jerusalem (where the first one opened in 1998), Jaffa, Galilee, Haifa, Wadi Ara in northern Israel and, the newest, in Kfar Saba.
Enrolment and administration are equally divided among Jews and Arabs, and instruction is bilingual. There are more than 1,300 students and some 3,000 adults involved in the running of the schools.
Rabbi Perton said demand is high for more schools. “There are 10 additional communities begging for such schools to be built. There are over 1,000 children on the waiting list.”
Rabbi Perton, an Orthodox rabbi, has made a personal effort to reach out to Muslim leaders in Israel and Montreal. His experience in Catholic-Jewish rapprochement, however, is limited.
Nevertheless, he did not hesitate to write to the Holy See’s diplomatic envoy in Canada for a meeting. That was in September. Within a couple of months, he was in the office of Apostolic Nuncio Luigi Bonazzi in Ottawa.
Rabbi Perton was accompanied by Father John Walsh, a Montreal priest who has long been active in interfaith dialogue, particularly with Jews, “who established my credibility.” The two have worked on humanitarian projects together.
“THE POPE IS TRYING TO BUILD BRIDGES, AND THAT IS WHAT HAND IN HAND IS ALSO DOING”
Bonazzi was enthused by Hand in Hand’s mission and understanding of the rabbi’s desire to express his appreciation for the Pope’s respectful relations with Jews, especially the December statement issued by the Vatican against proselytizing, Rabbi Perton said.
“The Pope is trying to build bridges, and that is what Hand in Hand is also doing… Even if there are two states, there will still be 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel,” he added.
“My goal is to raise the profile of the grassroots work of Hand in Hand in order that it can continue to move forward.”
An official endorsement from the Pope would go a long way to giving the organization the “exposure” and “credibility” it needs to do that, he said.
It’s not pie-in-the-sky, he added. The organization’s approach “is working, it is making inroads, it’s able to show results.”
Hand in Hand has established an interfaith council of world religious leaders who believe in its goals.
“The Pope is a world leader and his support would impress a lot of people, inside and outside Israel, just as when [U.S] President [Barack] Obama had a Hand in Hand student light the menorah at the White House during Chanukah [of 2014],” Rabbi Perton said.
He estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of the Arab students at Hand in Hand schools are Christian. The Haifa one also has Baha’i children.
But before discussing the schools, the rabbi plans to say yasher koach to the Pope for his “bold and brave” statements against anti-Semitism and the Church’s historic attempt to convert Jews.
He said he’s also grateful for the Pope’s visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue on Jan. 17 and for his earlier convivial relations with Jews in his native Argentina, particularly, Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
While some in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were critical of Francis’ praying at the security barrier during his 2014 visit to the Jewish state, Rabbi Perton is sympathetic to the Pontiff’s gesture. “Every time I pass the security wall when driving in Israel, I also feel pain… Even though I view the wall as a necessary reality… It represents an inability to live in peace with our neighbours. It represents two sides that have not been able to build a lasting trust of one another.”
While in Rome, he also hopes to meet with the Jewish community and possibly its chief rabbi, as well as Israeli embassy officials. And, of course, Rabbi Perton will invite Pope Francis to visit Beth Zion, a modern Orthodox congregation in Côte St. Luc of about 500 families, if he ever comes to Montreal.