Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, North America, has been elected the first woman chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), the representative Jewish group that deals with other world religious bodies. (This week she is traveling to Madrid to take part in the biennial Catholic-Jewish summit). Ehrenberg took office July 1 for a two-year term.
She has an extensive background in Jewish education and since the 1980s has held many positions in Jewish communal organizations, including serving as executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union. This is an edited transcript.
Q.: I understand you were part of the delegation of ICJIC members who met Pope Francis at the Vatican.
A.: We saw the pope first during his inauguration in March and this past June over 20 representatives of ICJIC had a one-hour audience with him. Our message included our wish to deepen our dialogue with the Vatican, which has progressed steadily over the past 40 years. And we have been fortunate to witness important developments, including the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See in 1994. When we met with Pope Francis, we were heartened by his firm condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism and racism, notably his important declaration, “Due to our common roots, Christians cannot be anti-Semitic.”
What did he say to you in English?
He spoke about his friendship with the Jewish community in Argentina. He also mentioned the value of dialogue and his hopes that the younger generation will take part in it, assuring continuity.
Do you believe he will be good for Jewish-Catholic relations?
I think he will be very good. The fact that he has already accepted an invitation from Israeli President Shimon Peres to visit Israel next year is a most positive indication.
How would you like to see Catholic-Jewish relations improved?
We’d like to see the Vatican continue on the path that was started by Pope John Paul II regarding strengthening the bonds between Israel and the Vatican. And we applauded his  statement that he is in favor of the Vatican opening its [Holocaust era].
The pontiff and we are both concerned about religious extremism and violence in the name of religion, and we need to face these challenges together.
WJC President Ronald Lauder became the first international Jewish leader to have a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Sept. 1. What came out of that meeting?
The pontiff agreed to speak out against attacks on religious minorities, such as Coptic Christians in Egypt, and against trends to restrict well-established religious practices such as circumcision. The pope specifically expressed concern about the ban on kosher slaughter in Poland as a violation of religious freedom. He said he would try to help and said Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Relations with the Jews, would investigate the matter.
The pope said Jews and Christians shared the same roots and that dialogue was the key to building a common future. He said, “To be good a Christian it is necessary to understand Jewish history and traditions.” He added that the killings in Syria are unacceptable and said “world leaders must do everything to avoid war.”
Which other popes have you met, and how do they compare to Pope Francis?
I have met with Pope John Paul II and with Pope Benedict XVI. With each pope we have been fortunate to be able to deepen the dialogue. We have a good working relationship in the U.S. but not necessarily in some areas where there are not large Jewish communities. Residents there need to be educated about the principles of Nostra Aetate that were promulgated in 1965 under Pope John XXIII. It was a turning point in Catholic-Jewish relations because the church decried anti-Semitism and said that the blame for Jesus’ death cannot be laid at the door of the Jewish people. That message still needs to be part of the education of future Catholic leaders.