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When Pope Francis Brought — and Broke Down — Barriers for Philadelphia’s Jews

Sitting in synagogue on Yom Kippur, three days before Pope Francis’s arrival in Philadelphia, I couldn’t help but think about the scene unfolding outside my house. Already, metal crowd-control fences were lining my property right across the street from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where the pope would be sleeping.

My little suburban block was in a small uproar. A Secret Service checkpoint was slated for the corner. Actually, my corner.

Some 10,000 to 25,000 to 50,000 spectators (each official had a different guess) might crowd the area around the seminary, hoping for a glimpse of the pope during his breaks from events in Philadelphia. I felt a bit like a killjoy, joining my Lower Merion neighbors at meetings with township officials, asking them to protect our property and demanding to know how much money it would cost taxpayers in overtime.

Pope Francis blesses family during Mass in Philadelphia. Image by Getty Images

Where did our material concerns end and our fellowship with the Catholic and curious begin? How did I feel about the pope creating months of turmoil in my city, and now in my backyard? Why did I, a Jew, decide to stick around to experience the visit of Pope Francis when so many of my friends — both Jewish and not — raced out of town? Was it his liberal social agenda that seemed so appealing? Or perhaps the reason was my daughter’s recent marriage to a Catholic and the efforts the two of them made to negotiate the faiths of both families?

As I tried to sort through these thoughts at Beth Hillel-Beth El, a short walk from both my house and the seminary, the often humorous Rabbi Neil Cooper went to the bimah to give a sermon reflecting on the death of Aaron’ s sons.

Standing there in his flowing white kittel, he announced: “And now I’ll put on my pope costume!” And he whipped his yarmulke from his head and replaced it with a bright red one.

(Okay, the pope always wears white and it’s only cardinals who wear a red zucchetto, but the congregation cracked up.)

The moment of levity focused my attention. Then the rabbi said something that struck me.

Boundaries, he said, are important. Aaron’s sons, he suggested, had gotten too close to God. “Fences,” he said, citing Robert Frost, “make good neighbors.”

As the week of my backyard pope progressed, the notion of boundaries kept coming up. But, in many ways, so did bridges.

On Friday, September 25, the day before the pope’s arrival in Philadelphia, the pendulum swung toward connection when I attended an event sponsored by the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican declaration that confirmed the covenant between the Jewish people and God, and lifted blame from Jews today for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The institute, made up of both Jewish and Catholic groups, has worked for nearly all the 50 years since the end of the Second Vatican Council to build interfaith bridges. For this papal visit it was dedicating a sculpture designed to counter an anti-Semitic motif common in medieval churches. Unlike the archetype, which portrays as Christianity triumphant over Judaism, the new sculpture shows the figures of “Church” and “Synagogue” seated next to each other as equals, looking at each other’s sacred texts in mutual respect.

That evening, with the pope’s arrival just hours away, my street was now blocked off by cement barricades. Security of every stripe was everywhere — local police, state police, border guards, National Guards, ambulances, fire trucks. I was glad to be able to walk to our Kabbalat Shabbat, held each week in a different neighbor’s living room.

To the delight of our little group, in attendance was Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the pope’s good friend from Argentina who had been the keynote speaker at the sculpture dedication. A member of our group had opened his home to Skorka so that the rabbi could keep kosher, celebrate the Sabbath and Sukkot, and still be just a block from Francis. The pope and Skorka have debated the similarities and differences between Judaism and Catholicism for years and have even written a book together. In so many ways, their thinking coincided.

After our service, Skorka told us about the talk he had just given at a panel on “love,” held as part of the World Meeting of Families, a festival that coincided with the pope’s visit. First, he said, there’s the love of parents, which can often be a difficult relationship. “There’s a reason that one of the Ten Commandments is ‘Honor your mother and father,’” Skorka quipped.

Going through several different kinds of love, he concluded by saying that the greatest love is that of a man and wife, both physical and spiritual. That total yearning for another is most like the love of God.

The next day, my husband and I decided to get on our bikes and brave the barricades, hoping to find open roadways to reach downtown Philadelphia. We expected checkpoints and detours, but found ourselves flying through empty streets lined by cheerful police and guards who waved to us. A friend’s apartment offered a glorious bird’s eye view of the evening’s mammoth outdoor concert, featuring Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin and Mark Wahlberg, and headlined, of course, by the pope.

But before the music, families from different parts of the world spoke of their efforts to cope with great difficulties — persecution, illness, immigration, death. Their speeches were long. Long enough to become painful to listen to. I found myself making snide comments about how their talks should have been edited.

But Francis looked deeply and embracingly into the speakers’ eyes. And I realized that these are his people — the people of poverty and pain whose experience he has carried with him to the Vatican.

And I also realized that here was another boundary for me. That while I valued tzedakah, charity, it was one thing to give generously to a cause and yet another to intimately and publicly embrace those needing one’s help.

Then came the music. And then there was Francis, who threw away his prepared speech and talked passionately to the throng about the importance of family — and, as had Skorka, about the importance of love. He ended with some insights that spoke directly to this wife, mother of three daughters and grandmother of five.

“Families quarrel. Sometimes plates can fly and children can give you headaches. And I won’t speak about mothers-in law,” Francis said jokingly. But it is the families, he said, who are the “factory” of the future, if only they care for the children and the grandparents: “Children are the future; we put our hope in them. Grandparents are the living memory of the family; they pass on the faith.”

And then Francis ended by channeling my Jewish grandmother, who said, after my wedding, “Never go to bed angry at your husband.”

Francis paraphrased her perfectly: “Husbands and wives quarrel…. Never let the day end without making peace.”

The next day, after the pope made a surprise detour with Skorka to bless the new statue, he was gone. That night, as I was falling asleep, I heard the whining and scraping of forklift trucks as they removed cement blocks and barricades from my street. It felt like a continuation of the pontiff’s work, as peace fell over my neighborhood.

Dotty Brown is an occasional contributor to the Forward. She blogs at

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