ROME – Elio Toaff, the long-time chief rabbi of Rome who helped guide the recovery of the city’s Jewish community in the wake of World War II and who was key in ushering in a period of closer ties with Roman Catholics, died Sunday in Rome 11 days short of his 100th birthday.
After five years as a rabbi in Venice, Toaff became chief rabbi in Rome in 1951, a post he held until retiring in 2002. When he took over in Rome, Europe’s oldest Jewish community, it had been ravaged and splintered by an estimated 3,000 deportations during World War II and Benito Mussolini’s Manifesto of Race.
But Toaff is best known for his 1986 invitation to Pope John Paul II to pray together in Rome’s Great Synagogue. John Paul accepted and became the first pontiff to enter a synagogue. The high-profile event was the start of a long and close relationship between the two religious leaders: eight years later, Toaff joined John Paul to co-officiate the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah, and Toaff also played a role organizing John Paul’s visit to Israel in 2000.
In 2005, when John Paul died, Toaff was one of only two people specifically referred to in the pontiff’s last will and testament: “How can I fail to remember the rabbi of Rome?” he asked in the document. Stanislaw Dziwicz, John Paul’s long-time personal secretary and now a cardinal, was the other person specifically referred to.
In an interview days after John Paul’s death, Toaff said his mention in the deceased pontiff’s will showed that, “John Paul thought of me at least in part as much as I thought of him.”
Since John Paul’s death, successors Benedict XVI and Francis have continued to work toward building closer relations between the two faiths.
In his last interview, published five years ago in Moked, a web portal for Judaism in Italy, Toaff spoke at length about his upbringing in an Italy increasingly hostile toward Jews and about his hopes for the ageing Jewish community in the country. Asked why his family did not flee Italy during World War II when so many other Jewish families left, Toaff, then 95, recalled that his father, Rabbi Alfredo Sabato Toaff, said, “A rabbi does not have the same freedom on choice others have; he can never abandon his community.”
Among Toaff’s survivors is his son, Ariel Toaff, a professor specializing in the history of Italian Jews during Medieval times and the Renaissance, at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
Toaff was remembered fondly in the Italian press, which carried homages from religious, social, and political leaders including Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who called himself “a leader in mourning” following news of Toaff’s death.