(USA Today) - Continuing his efforts at conciliation with those of other faiths, Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit to a synagogue in the United states on Friday, accepting gifts and proclaiming his "respect and esteem" for the New York Jewish community.
On the eve of Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Jewish exodus out of Egypt and enslavement, Pope Benedict uttered "shalom" to several dozen Jewish community leaders and congregants gathered at the Park East Synagogue.
"I find it moving to recall that Jesus as a young boy heard the words of Scripture and prayed in a place such as this," he said.
"I know that the Jewish community makes a valuable contribution to the life of the city and I encourage all of you to continue building bridges of friendship with all the many different ethnic and religious groups present in your neighborhood."
The visit reflected the pope's efforts, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, to build bridges with other religions, and was only the third time any pontiff ever visited a synagogue. He was invited by Arthur Schneier, the synagogue's senior rabbi.
Pope Benedict also met with 220 leaders of other faiths on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
The meeting may also sooth tensions that have arisen over remarks or actions that some have deemed impolitic or insensitive to Islam, other Christian religions and Judaism.
He upset some Jewish religious leaders when in July, 2007, he allowed broader use of the centuries-old Latin Mass, which includes a prayer and a Good Friday Liturgy that calls for the conversion of Jews.
In February, the prayer's language was altered but not its meaning, some Jewish religious leaders have said.
Schneier did not mention the controversy, however, but emphasized instead that Pope Benedict's visit reaffirmed his commitment to positive relations between the Jewish and Catholic communities.
"Your visit today is a historic occasion to be recorded in history forever ...Your presence here gives us hope and courage for the road we still have to travel together," said Schneier, a Holocaust survivor whose grandfather died in Auschwitz. "At a time when religion is misused and abused by some, we must intensify together our commitment to repair our fractured world ... our presence together, your Holiness, is a message that inter-religious dialogue is viable and vital to the resolution of conflict."
Though the pope did not address the controversy over the prayer or the history of anti-Semitism, Schneier later said, "The image of the leader of the Catholic church standing in a synagogue with the rabbi, you don't have to say a word. It tells you what the statement is."
The pope was serenaded by the synagogue's children's choir and students from a day school affiliated with the sanctuary. He was presented with a Seder plate by Schneier and two youths in the congregation gave him a Passover Haggadah (story of the holiday) and a box of matzoh. "I'll eat it tomorrow," he said when he received it, and the visitors laughed. The pope also gave a replica of Hebrew manuscripts as a gift to Schneier.
Sharone Karten, 9, one of the children who sang for the pope and got to shake his hand, said, "I was just amazed. I almost fainted. To actually see the pope in person is a once-in- a-lifetime chance."