Elio Toaff, who served as Rome’s chief rabbi for over 51 years (1951-2002) and coveted interfaith communication and understanding, has died. He was 99.
Born in 1915 in Livorno, Italy, Toaff followed in the footsteps of his father, the port city’s Chief Rabbi, who “befriended the local Catholic prelate,” reported The Washington Post.
“By the age of 26 he was leader of the Jewish community in Ancona, a port city on the Adriatic,” The New York Times reported. “A fighter in the Italian resistance during World War II, he helped hide Jews after the Germans occupied northern and central Italy in 1943 and began mass deportations to concentration camps.”
Rabbi Toaff will perhaps be best remembered for welcoming Pope John Paul II into Rome’s central synagogue on April 13, 1986, in what the Times reported was “the first such visit on record.”
“The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion,” the Pope said then to a crowd of around 1,000. “With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.