NYC developer answers a higher calling ­— seeing the Pope

Subbing for rabbi, Elie Hirschfeld and his wife fly to Rome for an interfaith event between Catholics and Jews

Elie Hirschfeld holding a book by Pope Francis titled “The Year of Mercy;” and a shot of Pope Francis taken by Hirschfeld
Elie Hirschfeld holding a book by Pope Francis titled “The Year of Mercy;” and a shot of Pope Francis taken by Hirschfeld

If Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue didn’t have a bad back, a Jewish New York developer wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fly to Rome and see the Pope.

That’s exactly the way it happened, according to Elie Hirschfeld, who runs Hirschfeld Properties, a company which develops and manages housing, commercial and retail properties across the Northeast. Rabbi Schneier was unable to travel, so he asked Hirschfeld and his wife, Sarah, who are members of his synagogue, to represent him last month, during Pope Francis’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome.

“It was short notice, but we broke all prior engagements to go,” Hirschfeld said.

Park East Synagogue and the Great Synagogue of Rome are sister synagogues. The meeting, which drew about 1,000 people, was intended to foster kinship between the Jewish and Catholic faiths and interfaith dialogue.

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Hirschfeld grew up in Great Neck, Long Island in a self-described “conserva-dox” Jewish home, where his family observed a mix of Orthodox and conservative practices. His late father, Abe Hirschfeld, led a life of color and infamy. During his lifetime, the New York parking garage tycoon produced Broadway plays, took brief control the New York Post, and made multiple unsuccessful runs for public office as “Honest Abe.” In 2000, he was indicted for trying to hire a hit man to kill his former business partner and served two years in jail.

Today, his son sits on the board of an interfaith coalition of business and religious leaders, which promotes human rights, tolerance, and ethnic conflict resolution.

On the day of the meeting, Pope Francis entered accompanied only by Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo di Segni. Although no words were exchanged, Hirschfeld said the Pope’s presence exuded a sense of calm, warmth, and graciousness. “I was a handshake away from him,” he said.

As a developer from New York, a city which derives its vigor from replacing old buildings with new ones, he was awed by Rome. “The city just breathes history and religion, pagan, Christian and Jewish,” he said.

Since returning home, Hirschfeld said he and his wife are still amazed. “We cannot get over the event,” he said.