Jewish leaders see substance in improved Vatican relations. Moderate Jews respond to papal efforts to smooth rifts.

To Jewish moderates, full acceptance by the Christian world is closer now than any time in the past 1,900 years. The meeting here last week between American Jewish leaders and Pope John Paul II was a triumph of moderates among Jews.

One conservative rabbi, Simcha Freedman of North Miami Beach, Fla., declined to attend the papal meeting as a mild protest against continued Vatican slights but said he was impressed by the Pope's statements.

``I was uplifted by it all, to be honest,'' he says.

Reform Rabbi Leonard Schoolman is enthusiastic about a suggestion from the local Roman Catholic archdiocese that Jewish and Catholic day-school students exchange classes.

``We've had good relations all this time,'' says Rabbi Schoolman. ``And we think it's going to get even better in the next year.'' 2 Many Jews, however, believe that a fundamental anti-Judaism still permeates Catholic theology. Orthodox Rabbi Avraham Weiss of New York, who led a protest of the papal meeting, saw no Vatican concessions here. ``What we saw was theater. It was ceremony. It wasn't substantive. It covered over the hard issues,'' he says.

At the summer's low ebb of Vatican-Jewish relations, William Gralnick, Southeast director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), recalls that trying to revive prospects for the papal meeting brought hate mail and verbal attacks by ``every third Jew on the street.''

What do Jews want from the Vatican?

``What Jews have yearned for for an eternity, and that is acceptance,'' Mr. Gralnick says. ``It's nice to have the spiritual leader of 8 million people say you're legitimate.''

The modern breakthrough in Roman Catholic-Jewish relations came with the Vatican II council 20 years ago, when Pope John XXIII established that the holocaust demanded that Catholics develop better human contact with Jews.

Since then, Catholics and Jews have joined in regular discussion groups and joint social projects in virtually every major American city. Relations improved steadily.

Then Pope John Paul II, who once welcomed Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to the Vatican, embraced Austrian President Kurt Waldheim this June. Despite strong allegations that Mr. Waldheim helped a German Army unit deport Jews during World War II, the Pope publicly praised him as a man of peace.

Many Jews were outraged. Some, such as the AJC's Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who has been dealing with sympathetic Vatican officials for years, saw the Waldheim incident as out of character, a faux pas the Vatican could correct. Others saw it as a sign of underlying Vatican ambivalence over Jewish concerns.

Last week, moderates like Rabbi Tanenbaum carried the day. They had won a meeting with the Pope in Rome in August, where he warmly endorsed a proposed Vatican study of the holocaust. More than that, the Pope offered no apologies but impressed the Jews with his understanding of their concerns.

In Miami, 500 Jews held a dinner last Thursday for Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, who heads the Vatican's Secretariat for Christian Unity and has been sympathetic to Jewish concerns for decades. They gave him a standing ovation.

Cardinal Willebrands asked forgiveness for the bumps along the long road from Vatican II and for the ``faux pas,'' a reference Jews took to be the Waldheim incident.

At the meeting with the Pope last Friday, John Paul II affirmed his commitment to some basic principles of Jewish acceptance:

That Judaism for Jews is a valid path to salvation.

That anti-Semitism is non-Christian.

That the holocaust must never happen again.

That bishops should actively teach the Nostra Aetate of Vatican II to encourage dialogue with Jews in every parish.

The Pope also confirmed that the Vatican does not officially recognize Israel for political, not theological, reasons. Overall, says Mr. Gralnick, ``we got the very strong sense that Catholic-Jewish relations are going to be on everyone's agenda.''

But the Pope also mentioned the Palestinians' need for a homeland, which some Jews fear is an implied endorsement of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Many Jews are also waiting for Vatican acknowledgment of its silence in the face of the holocaust as a sin of omission.

``You can't begin afresh without laying to rest all the ghosts of the past,'' says Rabbi Freedman. He suspects that Catholics still don't see Jews as religious equals but sees recent developments a ``great steps.''

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