Rabbi Sergio Bergman with Pope Francis.

How a rabbi and a pope forged a bond in Argentina



How a rabbi and a pope forged a bond in Argentina

Rabbi Sergio Bergman with Pope Francis.

CHESTNUT HILL – Rabbi Sergio Bergman remembers the first time he saw his old friend and fellow Argentine, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the new Pope Francis. It was early 2013 in Rome, shortly after Francis’s election.

“It was really moving for me,” Bergman recalled.

Earlier in life, the duo had forged an interfaith friendship when each held leadership positions in Buenos Aires – Bergman at the historic Templo Libertad and Bergoglio as the archbishop of the Argentine capital.

On Jan. 26, Bergman reflected on life lessons from his friend in a hybrid talk at Boston College, “Jews, Christians & Civil Society: Bergoglio in Argentina,” co-sponsored by the Center for Ignatian Spirituality and the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

Bergman is currently the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a nearly century-old organization founded in London before relocating to the United States. It is now headquartered in Jerusalem. He also remains a rabbi at Templo Libertad.

Reflecting on an Argentine rabbi becoming head of a global umbrella organization with an estimated 1.8 million members from 50-plus countries, Bergman said, “nothing could be more important for me in my rabbinic career.”

As attendees enjoyed a lunch of soup, salad, focaccia, and cookies, Bergman shared insights not only about Francis, but about their South American homeland, a Southern Cone country with diverse religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic majority and a sizable, historic Jewish population. In an interview with the Jewish Journal afterward, he even reflected on the soccer-loving country’s 2022 World Cup championship, its third overall.

“We won, because we believe in miracles,” Bergman said. “This is a miracle.”

In Buenos Aires, the rabbi and then-Cardinal Bergoglio worked on interfaith relations.

“I learned from him,” Bergman told the Journal. “He all the time opened his heart.”

He said that Cardinal Bergoglio launched multiple outreach efforts in Argentina, including extending Jewish-Christian dialogue to the country’s Muslim community, and holding Holocaust memorial services in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires.

Bergman also discussed feedback from his friend regarding the rabbi’s groundbreaking decision to enter Argentine politics. In 2011, Bergman was elected to public office – a first for a rabbi in Argentina. More political success followed, culminating in 2015 when the new president, Mauricio Macri, named Bergman the country’s minister of the environment and sustainable development. A noted environmental advocate, Bergman remained in that post for the duration of Macri’s term, which ended in 2019.

Working in the Macri administration, Bergman drew inspiration from the pope’s 2015 encyclical, “Laudato si.” The encyclical – a pastoral letter addressed to the whole Church – takes its title from a canticle by Saint Francis of Assisi, the namesake of the current pope.

Widely considered an environmental or ecological text, “Laudato si’” also has an important call for social justice, Bergman said, “To care about poor people, women and children, people we exclude from the system. This is, for me, ‘Laudato si’’, the impact of the new economy.”

Although most of the BC event focused on Bergman and Bergoglio, one attendee asked the rabbi about two deadly terrorist bombings in Buenos Aires that targeted the Jewish community – against the Israeli embassy in 1992, in which 29 people died; and against the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, in which 85 people were killed – Argentina’s worst-ever terrorist attack.

Bergman called the bombings “The start of a new era of international terror,” adding that this period also included attacks in Europe and on 9/11.

Regarding the attacks in Argentina, he said that while there were “some antisemitic components” in the Argentine army and police, “they did not have the idea. The idea came from Tehran.”

However, last year the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, announced an investigation of its own that attributed responsibility for the AMIA attack to a Hezbollah squad operating in Argentina, according to a New York Times article by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman. The Mossad report denied involvement by individual Argentines and also found Iran had not made the attack or assisted in it.

In his recent talk, Rabbi Bergman referenced a national investigation into the AMIA attack by prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who died under disputed circumstances in 2015.

“[Nisman’s] final conclusions were very clear about what happened,” Bergman said, an apparent reference to the prosecutor’s allegation that then-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner participated in a coverup to benefit Iran. Fernandez is currently the vice president of Argentina, who has appealed a 2022 jail sentence for fraud.

Moving forward, the rabbi expressed concern about several trending international topics when he spoke with the Jewish Journal. He cited big problems with both global warming and the new right-wing government in Israel.

“I really believe we need to respect everything,” he said about Israel. “Respect, not to impose … not to have the State of Israel become a theocracy.” Θ

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