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When Pope Francis Makes His Visit to Israel, This Rabbi Will Be His Guide

Abraham Skorka, an unassuming scientist and rabbi in Buenos Aires, is the pontiff’s friend and interlocutor

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images, Franco Origlia/Getty Images, and Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The day before her wedding, Florence Ofer, a blonde 27-year-old accountant, strolled out of the Shabbat service at Benei Tikva, a synagogue in Buenos Aires, praising the shul’s rabbi, Abraham Skorka, who was going to conduct her wedding. Though she isn’t a member of the congregation, Ofer is among Jews from across the Argentine capital drawn to celebrate weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other special occasions at Benei Tikva. “We chose to get married here because of him,” she told me. “He speaks from the heart.” Her father Leti, a local doctor, piped up to add that the rabbi was known for letting the celebrants take center stage: “He keeps a low profile.”

Which is not what most people would say about Skorka these days. It’s been a year since his close friend and fellow porteño Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis I—leader of the Catholic Church, and indisputably the world’s biggest religious rock star.

Francis’ new fame has rubbed off on his old Buenos Aires comrade. Skorka has been the object of a flood of media attention: a jaunt to New York to be interviewed by 60 Minutes, a photo shoot by a French magazine hugging a cardboard cutout of Francis at the shul. Skorka is still young, just 63—nearly 15 years younger than the grandfatherly Francis—with a full head of hair that is still mostly dark and a handsome face made for television. Along with his duties at Benei Tikva, he is also the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. His congregants and staff draw a protective circle around him, but the man himself, while still falling comfortably into his pastoral role at home leading services and Seders, recognizes the possibilities his newfound visibility offers.

Later this month, Skorka will serve as a tour guide and fixer for the pope on his first official visit to Israel, a trip Skorka says is designed to promote interfaith tolerance. “We have to ingrain in the human consciousness a message of peace and spirituality that is so deeply needed in our society,” Skorka tells me in his office, a tiny box upstairs from the Benei Tikva sanctuary. “Man is too much related to his own being in the occidental world, he’s very selfish and looks only to himself. We must fight in order to help people to look around them because it’s the only way.”

***

As a boy, Skorka spoke Yiddish at home with his parents and grandparents, immigrants from Poland who arrived in Argentina in the 1920s. The family lived in the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Paternal and Villa Crespo, where Skorka attended Jewish religious school in the morning and public school in the afternoon. “My idea wasn’t to be a rabbi,” he told me. “It was just to study, to know for knowledge’s sake.” Always, he says, the Jewish questions he was examining seemed to him to be fundamentally universal. “I did it to know what a human being is, how I am to behave,” he went on. “I knew of course I was a Jew, but what does it mean to be a Jew?”

As Skorka deepened his religious studies, he also pursued his academic ambitions, studying chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires with the goal of working in science research—but after getting his degree he was ordained as a rabbi as well. As he embarked on graduate studies in chemistry, he began working at Lamroth Hakol, a congregation and community center in downtown Buenos Aires, whose rabbi was best friends with a priest—at a time when bonds between Jews and Catholics were rare, despite the church’s efforts to liberalize after the Second Vatican Council.

“The priest spoke to the Lamroth Hakol congregation and said the only way to uproot anti-Semitism is dialogue, because to love the other you must know the other,” Skorka recalled. “All hate is based on transforming someone into the devil and you do that when you don’t know the other, but when you know the other it’s more difficult to build that demonic image of him.”

From that moment on, Skorka pursued dialogue as a third career. He says he always felt an “anti-Semitic shadow” in Buenos Aires, particularly during Argentina’s brutal dictatorship of the 1970s. The terrorist attacks of the early 1990s left their mark in the form of bars and round-the-clock security guards at Benei Tikva, whose simple sanctuary sits tucked by a supermarket on a quiet side street in the mellow Belgrano neighborhood. But Skorka firmly believes that security requires more than just locked doors, and he began engaging with priests and local Muslim leaders.

Skorka struck up his friendship with Francis over a joke about soccer. In 1995, Francis, then archbishop of Buenos Aires, hosted the city’s religious leaders for an Independence Day celebration and asked each one his soccer preferences—and Skorka answered with the team River Plate, whose sympathizers are called “chickens.” “He said I guess this year we’re going to eat chicken soup,” Skorka laughed off Francis’ light response. “I understood there was another message in that—that we can work together.”

Francis, Skorka says, has long been a willing partner in building the relationships that underpin his quest for common understanding. In 2010, the pair published a book together, Heaven and Earth, structured as a series of fraternal dialogues between leaders of different religions. “Dialogue, in its most profound sense, is to draw the soul of one close to the soul of another, with the result revealing and illuminating one’s interior,” Skorka writes in his introduction, in which he testifies of the profound connections he shared with Francis in conversation. “The moment that you achieve a certain dimension of dialogue you realize the similarities you share with the other.”

The itinerary he plans to follow with Francis in Israel reflects that brand of ecumenical thinking—something in short supply there of late. The papal entourage is scheduled to arrive in Jordan on May 24 and then proceed into the West Bank, where Francis will meet with Palestinian Authority leaders and visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He will proceed to Jerusalem—where he spent his last visit, the week of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, confined to his hotel—and stop at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, and the Western Wall before proceeding to Yad Vashem and a reception with Shimon Peres. “We want to leave a message of peace and understanding between Christians and Jews,” Skorka tells me, “and all people living there.”

At the wooden desk in his cozy office, Skorka nods to a framed speech mounted above his head. It’s a Yom Kippur prayer of penitence—a selichot—that Pope Francis gave a few years ago to Benei Tikva congregants. “He came here and spoke and gave a special salutation,” recalls Skorka, who in April publicly acted as Francis’ interlocutor on American television, in his 60 Minutes appearance. “One of the great sins of leaders throughout the world has been that they’d appear perfect,” Skorka told Scott Pelley. Skorka also wrote in Argentina’s national newspaper that Francis is the same unassuming, devoted man he was before his elevation. “Behind his white robe you can find the same man, who knows the right equilibrium between power and decision and who mandates with humility and sincerity,” Skorka explained.

It’s hard not to feel that Skorka is also, to some degree, describing himself and what has happened since his life accelerated in his friend’s shadow. When Skorka stands at the bima on Shabbat, as he does most weeks, he recites meticulously woven aphorisms interspersed with unabashed moments of humor and affection. He squeezes the 13-year-old boy beside him celebrating his bar mitzvah, or breaks from his somber homily to address the audience.

“Holiness is the ability to dominate one’s instincts in service of a higher power,” Skorka pronounced at a recent Friday-night service. From the fifth row of the packed wooden pews, a baby began to wail. Skorka stopped and scanned the crowd for the child. “What is wrong, why are you bothered? What happened?” he asked, turning his stance to address the infant, and then the parents. “Mother, do you know what he needs? Did his brother bother him? Oh! He’s probably hungry,” Skorka grinned from the pulpit, and then found his place again. “Anyway, where were we?” he asked the audience, a master of practiced casualness. “Oh that’s right, holiness.” The congregation chuckled and hung even more closely on his next words.

Skorka completed his Ph.D. in chemistry during his first years as a pulpit rabbi, but while he champions a dialogue between reason and science in religion as much as between Christians and Jews—“Religion is a matter of faith but we can’t say there are answers. Science must speak with religion,” he told me—his true home is his shul, not the academy. He moved to Benei Tikva from Lamroth Hakol in the mid-1970s at a time when the synagogue’s president was set on reviving the congregation. “I felt this person was renewing the synagogue in order to give me something,” Skorka tells me, “in order for me to work more and to gather more and more things and people here.”

Skorka shrugged when I asked him about the impact of his new international profile. “In my daily life l have much more work to do now,” he replied. “But in my spiritual life I feel like God has given me a good opportunity to do something relevant in life.” He paused, then added, “A rabbi must be a teacher, a master. He has to be a master in all fields.”

In April, Skorka presided over a Seder attended by 150 congregants. Before the ceremony, guests bustled in the social hall hugging each other and filling the room with chatter in Spanish. Elegant older women with bobbed hair and sleek all-black outfits dashed with sequins pecked each other on the cheeks. Tiny boys in yarmulkes looked longingly at matzo stacks still forbidden to taste. The cantor, wearing a suit, stood with a swanlike woman in white stilettos, poised to sing next to the keyboard player, who tapped his foot. Waiters scurried out with a final few red wine bottles from the kitchen; as the ceremony began, a flock of freshly lipsticked teen girls sauntered in to take their seats.

Wearing a humble smile and a suit accented with a blue tie, Skorka peered out over his glasses, gathering in the darting energy of the crowd. Then, in a low, meditative tone, he began to speak. The room hushed, listening. Bright Haggadahs were opened, and the Passover story began. “The word Seder means ‘order,’” he said in Spanish. “Just as the universe has order, so must a human being, to move with purpose.”

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When Pope Francis Makes His Visit to Israel, This Rabbi Will Be His Guide

Abraham Skorka, an unassuming scientist and rabbi in Buenos Aires, is the pontiff’s friend and interlocutor

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