By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – While World Youth Day is known for bringing together young Catholics from around the globe, later this month it will also prove to be an interreligious affair when a local Jewish synagogue in Panama plays host to Catholic pilgrims during what is widely considered to be the Church’s most important event for young people.
Kol Shearith Israel synagogue, located in the city’s Costa Azul neighborhood close to the Pacific Ocean, volunteered to open their doors when they heard shelter was still needed for the more than 400,000 young people registered to descend on Panama beginning January 22nd – a number that is expected to swell to well over half a million by the week’s end.
Rabbi Gustavao Kraselnik, who leads Kol Shearith, told The Tablet that since the synagogue has a long history of working with the city’s Catholic population – including regular joint choir concerts with the neighborhood Catholic parish – it only made sense to offer their space.
Led by a volunteer team of about seven congregants, they will soon turn their classrooms into lodging space to host an expected 50 Catholic pilgrims. While they have yet to be assigned their specific pilgrims, Rabbi Kraselnik said his main priority is to offer hospitality – although he added he hopes to be able to introduce them to the synagogue and the local Jewish community, as well.
Panama is home to nearly 15,000 Jewish people, making it the largest Jewish population in Central America. Kol Shearith first opened its doors in 1876 as the first Jewish congregation in the country, and today, the synagogue serves as a place of worship for approximately 160 families.
World Youth Day, which dates back to 1985 and takes place in a different city around the globe approximately every three years, is a weeklong youth festival culminating with a visit by the pope. Since Pope John Paul II first started it, the event has regularly drawn massive crowds – with the 1995 event in the Philippines believed to be the largest single religious gathering in world history.
When Pope Francis arrives in Panama on the Wednesday evening of the week, his presence will likely mark the highlight of events for many of its participants. In fact, it’s part of what’s motivating Rabbi Kraselnik who has already had the occasion to meet the pontiff on two separate occasions in Rome.
In 2014, he traveled to Rome as part of a Jewish delegation that Pope Francis met on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and in 2016, he returned with an interreligious dialogue delegation arranged by the Organization of American States.
While Rabbi Kraselnik praised both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for their work in Jewish-Christian relations, he said Francis has been involved in the issue his entire life, dating back to the second generation of immigrants that grew up in Argentina following World War II and sought to “develop a life together,” irrespective of religious backgrounds.
“All of his career, he has maintained a commitment to this issue,” Rabbi Kraselnik told The Tablet. “He is able to go deep into this through simple, but profound gestures.”
Rabbi Kraselnik said he believes Francis will bring that same spirit and commitment to Panama through “a real encounter with the young generation.”
Panama will mark Pope Francis’s third World Youth Day, with previous trips to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013 and Krakow, Poland in 2016. The gathering in Panama will mark the first time a World Youth Day has been held in Central America.
As the final countdown is underway, he says the city is abuzz with energy and chaos. While there are logistical issues – including where his pilgrims will be from and when they will arrive – he says “everybody has questions, but more so, everybody is enthusiastic.”
“This will be a high impact experience,” he continued. “Panama will be in the spotlight of the world, and everyone of all faiths knows how important this moment will be.”