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But just before the new pontiff’s March inauguration, Skorka’s cellphone rang. It was the pope. “He told me, apologizing, ‘Look, I came here to Rome and they let me no more go back to Buenos Aires,’” Skorka said. “I spoke with him, and suddenly, I told to myself, ‘but he is the pope.’ It was incredible for me.”

Francis gave the rabbi an email address to use so they could stay in touch, and they exchange emails every week or 10 days.

That’s how Skorka ended up as a guest for several days last September in the Casa Santa Marta, the hotel Francis chose as his home so he wouldn’t be isolated in the Apostolic Palace.

Skorka said the pope’s study was filled with papers on chairs and books on the floor. (“Don’t imagine everything is ordered,” the rabbi said, laughing.) One of the books had been sent and inscribed by the dissident theologian Hans Kung. “Both of us stood one very close to the other trying to read the German dedication,” Skorka said. “Something like, ‘You already did a lot, but the world expects from you to continue doing very important things.’”

The rabbi said the pope is aware that some religious conservatives, inside and outside the church, are unsettled by his approach. Francis has said Catholic leaders have been driving people away by talking too much about divisive social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The pope has dropped some of the more regal trappings of the papacy. He uses a Ford Focus instead of fancier cars in the Vatican fleet and wears only the most basic clothes.

“He is receiving very, very harsh criticism from people who don’t like a pope without red shoes, and a pope who speaks to people in a very simple and direct language, and a pope who will transmit to people that he is close to them, that he in some way hugs them through jokes and through simple words and through simple expressions,” Skorka said. “The criticism he is suffering from is not new for him. He already had this kind of pressures and other kind of pressures during his serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, so he knows exactly how to handle these pressures. He’s a very strong man and he will go ahead.”

Jewish leaders, meanwhile, are ecstatic about the rabbi-pope friendship. Pope John Paul II earned enormous gratitude from Jewish groups for his leadership on Jewish-Catholic relations. Benedict also made outreach to Jews a priority. But, Jewish leaders say, this is the first pope so personally involved with Jews before he was elected.

“For Pope Francis, this is just part of his life. He was a regular in shul (synagogue),” said Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee, a policy and advocacy group based in New York. “It’s an intimacy based on experience.”

The relationship also stands out for many Jews because of where it began. Jeffrey Lesser, an Emory University historian who specializes in South America, said Jews, especially from the U.S., have traditionally viewed Argentina “as a particularly anti-Semitic place,” even though Argentine Jews, who number about 200,000, have been able to establish themselves in the country as leaders in education, government and other areas.

Skorka said the two men plan to see each other again in January, when Francis is scheduled to meet in Rome with Argentine Jewish leaders. And the rabbi hopes to accompany the pontiff if he travels to Israel and the Palestinian territories next year, a trip that is under consideration.

Skorka said he hopes to pray with the pope before Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and in Bethlehem, “to show the world it is possible.”