Grapevine: The pope’s rabbi is realizing a dream

Something that Jews and Latin Americans have in common is “Mañana syndrome,” meaning that seldom does anything start on time.

RABBI ABRAHAM SKORKA (left) speaks with journalist Henrique Cymerman at the Jerusalem Press Club. (photo credit: COURTESY RAFAEL ANIBAL-FUNETELATINA)
RABBI ABRAHAM SKORKA (left) speaks with journalist Henrique Cymerman at the Jerusalem Press Club.
Minor miracles still exist.
Something that Jews and Latin Americans have in common is “Mañana syndrome,” meaning that seldom does anything start on time. But to the surprise of many at the Jerusalem Press Club event in which Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a close friend and colleague of Pope Francis for more than 20 years, was interviewed by journalist Henrique Cymerman, started exactly on time – causing JPC executive director Uri Dromi to comment in wonder that the Spanish-speakers had arrived before the Israelis.
Cymerman had accompanied Skorka, often referred to as “the pope’s rabbi,” to a meeting with the pope last Succot. He was reasonably aware of what Skorka would say during this hour-long interview – in which Skorka said it was important for the pope to bring a message of peace to Jerusalem, “where the prophets vibrated and inspired us.”
Quoting Isaiah 2, with its message that if there is peace in Jerusalem, there will be peace in the whole world, Skorka said he and the pope had long dreamt of coming to Jerusalem together.
He will pray with Pope Francis at the Western Wall and will accompany him to the President’s Residence, but not to the Temple Mount, unless the pope expressly asks him to do so. Skorka quoted halachic restrictions on Jews going to the Temple Mount, unless it was for some very special reason.
He continued that it had been important for the pope, who greatly admires Shimon Peres, to come to Israel before the latter’s presidential mandate ended.
Skorka further described the pope as a courageous person who understands that in life, changes have to be made to rectify all that needs to be corrected.
Skorka characterized the visit as a clear indication that a new chapter will be written in relations between Israel and the Vatican, and in the dialogue between Jews and Catholics.
Nonetheless, he emphasized, the visit will be extremely balanced, with the pope showing equal consideration for the sensitivities of Jews and Muslims, and Israelis and Palestinians.
■ WHILE JERUSALEM in general is gearing up for the visit of Pope Francis, the capital’s King David Hotel, which has had a number of top-level diplomatic visitors from various countries over the past two or three weeks, is gearing up for a major ecumenical luncheon on Sunday in honor of Patriarch Batholomew I of Constantinople, who will later have an historic meeting with the pope in Jerusalem.
Some of the most influential leaders of different faiths will be in the Holy City next week, to lend emphasis to the pope’s message of peace and reconciliation.
It is interesting that all of these visits are taking place on the same week the country is celebrating the 47th anniversary of the reunification of the capital, for which the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem is hosting a reception on Monday.
■ JERUSALEM’S GREAT Synagogue is likely to be as crowded on the last Saturday of the month as it is on Kol Nidre night, when it is packed like a sardine can. The reason such a huge crowd is anticipated is that Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, will be speaking in English before the Mussaf service.
Unlike some speakers whose voices do not carry through the large recesses of the synagogue – often to the frustration of congregants in the women’s gallery – Sacks knows how to project his voice, and can be heard without a microphone at his disposal.
Some of the rabbi’s other appearances while in Israel will be this coming Sunday, when he addresses the Tel Aviv International Salon at the Einav Center, and on June 2 when he receives the Guardian of Zion Award at the King David Hotel.
■ DURING HER first year of national service, Yonina Weinberg worked at the Feuerstein Institute, where she met a special boy named Elchi Glaser. Though developmentally delayed, Elchi had the most captivating smile and was always willing to lend a hand.
Elchi had been to the elementary division of Sadnat Shiluv, Rashit, which he rejoined at age 18. Sadnat Shiluv is a group home in Gvaot Gush Etzion, which combines outdoor activities such as agriculture and taking care of animals while providing a range of employment opportunities. Although Sadnat Shiluv receives state funding, there’s never enough. So with an eye towards Elchi’s future as well as gratitude towards the Sadna (workshop), Elchi’s mother, Vivienne, searched for ways to help it thrive.
This need spawned many concepts, including an annual all-women’s swimathon across Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), which combined Vivienne’s love for swimming with raising funds for Sadnat Shiluv.
Each participant must commit to raise at least NIS 2,000 and last year, more than 300 women and girls participated. From the NIS 600,000 that was raised, the Sadna was able to build an animal therapy center, which allowed more people to join.
This year, the goal is to build a visitors center that will include a cafeteria and a shop, in which some of the vegetables grown and milk products produced from the goats will be sold. Vivienne and her crew of helpers are all volunteers; every shekel raised goes directly toward the Sadna. Needless to say, Yonina Weinberg and her mother, Bonnie, will be among the swimmers.
The fifth annual swimathon will take place on Friday, May 30, which happens to be Rosh Hodesh Sivan.
Donations can be made online at For more information: 1-800-353-935 or [email protected]
■ CAMEROON’S AMBASSADOR Henri Etoundi Essomba, who has been serving as his country’s envoy to Israel for almost 16 years and is dean of the diplomatic corps, was not quite as happy as he might have been at the reception he hosted at his Kfar Shmaryahu residence to mark the 42nd anniversary of the reunification of Cameroon. Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who had been scheduled to represent the government at the event, had bowed out at the last minute.
“We deplore the fact that the minister who was supposed to be here couldn’t make it,” said Essomba, who was not entirely mollified when the Foreign Ministry’s Chief of Protocol Talia Lador-Fresher explained that no minister could have come, because all were attending an emergency meeting of the government convened by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Essomba explained that Reunification Day marked the consolidation of the English-speaking western area of Cameroon with its French-speaking eastern area. The two had decided to merge instead of staying separate entities; both communities will have a common legal status in all areas of the republic, he said.
Essomba made no effort to evade mention of the fact that in recent weeks, Cameroon, like some other African states, has been subjected to troubles created by the extremist Islamist movement Boko Haram, which has sown havoc by kidnapping tourists in the northern part of the country. Nonetheless, Essomba assured his guests, Cameroon remains politically stable and is collaborating with neighboring states to find ways in which to confront the threat of destabilization.
Cameroon’s economy is doing well, he said; the growth rate was 5.5 percent in 2013 and the forecast for 2014 is 6.9% to 7%. The country is open to external investors, he emphasized, urging Israel’s business community not to hesitate to invest.
■ SIMILARLY, ALTHOUGH the whole country may have been proud of the triumph of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team in winning the European championship in Milan, not everyone was in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to cheer the champions upon their return home, or watched the outpouring of joy on television. Quite a large number opted instead to attend the Israel Museum opening of “Hidden Power in African Art,” which was not an exact translation of the Hebrew title, whose literal translation was “Bewitched by African Art.”
Africa’s diplomatic community in Israel was well-represented by ambassadors and consuls-general as well as a number of representatives from the Foreign Ministry, including Deputy Director-General Avi Granot, who heads the Africa department. There were also ministry veterans who had served in one or more African countries, among them Yoel Sher, Shlomo Avital, Arye Oded, Asher Naim, Zvi Mazel and even Ruth Avilea and Vera Aran, spouses of former Israeli representatives in Africa. They spent more time reminiscing about the good old days than absorbing the details of the exhibition – which included 65 exhibits from 12 African countries. Several of the owners of these exhibits were present.
Curator Dorit Shafir had more than an academic interest in putting the exhibition together. Her father had been an Israel ambassador to Malawi, where she had celebrated her bat mitzva.
■ ISRAEL’S SCIENTIFIC and technological innovation is legendary, and this week brought delegations from many countries including China, India, Brazil, Canada, Korea, Mexico, Germany and Australia to the Jewish state for the Israel Innovation Conference (MIXiii).
Binational chambers of commerce in Israel and abroad also organized separate events for their specific delegations.
For instance, a trade delegation from Australia under the auspices of the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and its sister organization, the Israel-Australia, New Zealand and Oceania Chamber of Commerce, organized an intensive itinerary for a trade delegation led by Chris Cuffe, chairman of UniSuper. This included attendance at the conference and visits to hi-tech R&D facilities in different parts of Israel, as well as meetings with researchers, representatives of various start-ups and local entrepreneurs.
At a reception at the Google campus in Tel Aviv this week, the delegation was able to network with a large number of Israelis from academia and hi-tech companies, as well as to celebrate the birthday of Paul Israel, the super-efficient but laid-back executive director of the IANZOCC. In just over a decade, he has put together more than 40 trade missions that have brought more than 1,200 Australians to Israel, and have contributed considerably to bilateral trade and investment.
Israel bemoaned the fact that Woodside Petroleum had bowed out of a deal with the Leviathan gas project, and said it was understood that although the door is closed, it is not locked. He called on the Israeli government to reconsider the taxation conditions it wanted to impose on Woodside.
Cuffe, the very personable, youthful- looking mission leader, has more than 25 years of experience in building successful wealth management services. He went from the business world to the social sector and back to business, and is a director of a number of companies in addition to chairing UniSuper, which is the fourth-largest superannuation and pension funds manager in Australia – with 450,000 member accounts and A$42 billion in net funds.
Cuffe said that before boarding the plane in Australia, he and other delegation members had been given copies of the bestselling book Start-Up Nation by the outgoing CEO of AICC’s New South Wales branch, David Schlessinger; Cuffe had read it with great interest while in-flight.
Every other delegation member had shared his enthusiasm and excitement about Israeli innovation and achievements, and were eager to see some for themselves after landing in Israel – but when they came out of Ben-Gurion Airport, the boom gate didn’t work.
So much for Israel’s hi-tech.
“Some things don’t change anywhere in the world,” said Cuffe.
■ RELATING TO the most recent breakdown of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians’ intention to unilaterally declare statehood at the UN, former Israel ambassador to the UN Michael Oren has commented on the possibility of unilateral Israeli action, whereby Israel would draw its own borders.
Speaking this week to Bar-Ilan University’s board of trustees and ambassadors’ forum, Oren said: “Plan B would constitute Israel’s proactive, Zionist response. Plan B is Israel’s way of taking its destiny in its hands, and ensuring its security and integrity as a Jewish and democratic state.”
During the peace process, there was no consensus on what a final agreement would look like – and that was before talks regarding the status of Jerusalem even began. “So where can we possibly go from here?” asked Oren.
“The answer, surprisingly, is many places – and with possibly, potentially, many positive results.”
In contrast to the moribund peace process, a de facto Palestinian sovereignty is emerging in such areas as Ramallah and Nablus, where one can see very impressive economic development – and not a single Israeli soldier. “There is an opportunity to build and strengthen these trends and, perhaps, to ground them in a new diplomatic reality,” he said.
“Plan B may be thought of as an initiative to preserve Israel’s demographic and democratic identity and integrity, while enabling us to defend ourselves,” said Oren. “If and when the Palestinians declare their state at the UN – that’s their Plan B – and they will define that state according to the [pre-]1967 lines, Israel will declare its own borders.
“These borders will not conform to the separation [security] barrier or even to the areas A, B and C as delineated by the Oslo Accords.
Rather, the borders will seek to incorporate the maximum number of Israelis, but the minimum number of Palestinians. They will ensure a unified Jerusalem and include the Jewish holy places. And, most vitally, they will maintain our military deployment in the Jordan Valley and other strategic sites.
“Borders such as these can be drawn while maintaining contiguous Palestinian control over those areas where the vast majority of West Bank Palestinians live. In short, Plan B effectively ends what the Palestinians, and most of the world, call the occupation,” said Oren.
Regarding settlements, Oren said that unlike the Gaza disengagement, in which Israel uprooted all 21 settlements, in Plan B the borders would be drawn in such a way as to encompass nearly all of the settlements, and enable the relocation of a select few.
Oren went on to emphasize that Plan B would not be acceptable to the Palestinians, but it would give them an incentive to come back to the negotiating table without preconditions, and negotiate permanent borders which may be more to their liking.
While a negotiated two-state solution (Plan A) is unequivocally the best solution for Israel, stressed Oren, Plan B is the alternative in the event that Plan A cannot be achieved. Plan B does not negate Plan A, and even if it is implemented, the door remains open for the advancing of Plan A.
Such a move would show that Israel is not relying upon Palestinian decision-making to determine the nature of the Israeli state, he said.
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