Front row seat

Lakeside Congregation Rabbi Isaac Serotta got a front row seat to see Pope Francis "in action" as part of a JUF delegation of 19 Chicago-area rabbis. (Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism / February 23, 2014)

Should Isaac Serotta, rabbi at Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism in Highland Park, ever return to Rome, it will be hard to top his first trip there.

Traveling last month with 19 Chicago-area rabbis as part of the Jewish United Fund Rabbinic Action Committee Mission, he visited the region's ancient Jewish sites and attended the weekly papal assembly in St. Peter's Square. The delegation was seated in a special section next to the dais of Pope Francis, who welcomed them in his homily.

"Magisterial is the best word to describe the experience," he told members of his congregation during a recent buffet dinner (Italian, of course) and presentation in which he recapped his trip.

This was the 12th annual mission the JUF committee has organized to a European country and Israel, and the first time Serotta went along. When asked if one of the lures of the trip was traveling with the other rabbis, he joked, "Traveling with 18 people used to being the center of attention all on one bus? Absolutely not."

The main draw for him, he said, "was to meet this particular pope. What comes across in everything you hear about him is his humility and you see it in the look on his face when he talks to people, how he lights up."

Serotta was not one of the three rabbis in the group who actually met Pope Francis, but watching him "in action," was remarkable.

"Following the assembly, and in the pouring rain, he descended down a flight of marble steps to greet people with disabilities. He visited with each and every one of them. It's a very special moment to be in the presence of someone like that," Serotta said.

At one point, Pope Francis said he would bless any holy objects. Serotta joked that he was probably the only rabbi present to be carrying a rosary.

"There are many interfaith families who are members of the congregation," he said after his presentation. "A man asked if I would bring a rosary to the Vatican to be blessed. I took it on faith that something would happen, and sure enough, it was part of the ritual," he said.

Another highlight was a visit to the Vatican City library and an hour-long meeting with Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Serotta said. He credited Pope Francis for setting the tone that facilitated the meeting.

"The Pope is the catalyst for those things to happen," he said. "He has written that to be anti-Semitic is a contradiction for a Chrisitan and that anti-Semitism should be banished," he said.

A "powerful and indelible moment" in the delegation's encounter with the Pope, Serotta said, was when one of the rabbis presented Pope Francis with a letter from Cardinal George along with the book, "A Legacy of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue: The Joseph Cardinal Bernadin Jerusalem Lectures."

Another rabbi, Serotta related, offered the Pope a traditional blessing. When Pope Francis said in English, "Pray for me," the rabbi responded in Hebrew with a blessing that translates, "May God bless you and keep you."

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