“It wasn’t the words that matter,” said a rabbi who met with Pope Benedict last night. “It was the signal. Like all formal events, not much happens in the words.”

Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu communities met with Pope Benedict XVI April 17 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center during the papal visit to the United States.

The Holy Father set aside a moment to speak just to the Jewish community at that event, and then the next day visited the Park East Synagogue in New York on the next leg of his journey.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg gave a blessing for Pope Benedict’s trip at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on April 18. He is the president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.

Greenberg was impressed with Benedict’s words, all the same.

“He’s genuinely on the frontier,” Greenberg said of the Pope. “He’s genuinely struggling with the question of how to have pluralism without relativism. We’re all struggling with that.”

He attended Benedict’s Greeting to the Jewish Community on the Feast of Pesach, where the Holy Father said: “In addressing myself to you I wish to re-affirm the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on Catholic-Jewish relations and reiterate the Church’s commitment to the dialogue that in the past 40 years has fundamentally changed our relationship for the better.

“Because of that growth in trust and friendship, Christians and Jews can rejoice together in the deep spiritual ethos of the Passover.”

The April 17 meeting included a papal address, greetings from inter-faith leaders and the presentation of symbolic gifts by young members of each community. The gifts the Holy Father gave were:

• A silver menorah with seven lights for the Jewish community.
A small, finely crafted edition of the Quran in green leather and gold leaf edging for the Muslim community.

• A metallic cube representing the Jain principles of non-violence and dialogue.

• The sacred syllable Om on a brass incense burner for the Hindu community.

• A bronze bell cast in Korea for the Buddhist community.

The next day, a Friday, Pope Benedict became the first Pope to visit a U.S. synagogue, making a brief visit to the Park East Synagogue in New York. He was welcomed by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor. Children from the Park East Day School sang three Hebrew songs.

Pope Benedict gave the Jewish community there a gift: a copy of a page taken from an illuminated 15th-century manuscript from the Vatican Library. The page shows a traditional Jewish wedding.

The synagogue’s gifts to Pope Benedict included a bouquet of flowers and a large seder plate illustrating the journey “from slavery to freedom.”

I aked Rabbi Greenberg how Jews on the ground view Pope Benedict. “There is suspicion,” he said, “but he has made an effort. More than that. He has made a disproportionate effort to communicate to Jews. I think there’s good will and concern simultaneously.”

That effort wasn’t lost on Wayne Simons of Tuckahoe, N.Y. He described the difficult process of leaving his family and former way of life behind to become a Catholic.

“The Pope is the Vicar of Christ. Christ is hope and love,” he said. “That’s all I see.”