I grew up in Succasunna, New Jersey. It is a small town in the middle of northern New Jersey. My father served as the Reform rabbi in the local synagogue. Back then, the Jewish community in Succasunna was small. Our congregants lived not just in our own town, but from a radius of 20 miles or more around us.
I was one of just a few Jewish students in my grammar school, middle school and high school. But since my involvement in my synagogue was such an important part of my life, my non-Jewish friends would often spend time at our synagogue with me and I would attend their church functions with them. It was my first introduction to “interfaith dialogue”.
We celebrated each other’s holy days, life-cycle events and milestones. We learned what was important to the other. Most importantly, we learned to respect our differences and to rejoice in what we shared in common.
When my parents both died four years ago, one of my dear friends sent me a letter, telling me that when we were in 8th grade, she went to visit my father in his office. She explained to him that even though she was raised Lutheran, she felt more closely connected to Judaism and really wanted to convert. He treated her as an adult. He listened. He encouraged her to read, to speak to her parents and to wait. He never shared with me anything about her visit. Only after his death did I learn of their discussions. She told me that he had a tremendous impact on her and that he taught her so much: about religion, about life, about patience. In the end, she did not convert. But her respect for Judaism continues to this day, because of that dialogue.
Today, I am engaged in another kind of interfaith dialogue, one that sustains and nurtures the work I do on a daily basis. Congregation B’nai Torah consists of four buildings on the shore of Lake Michigan. One of the buildings is an old mansion, which is now used for our office space and some meeting rooms.
On the top floor, is a large apartment. Many years ago, the space had been used to house Cambodian boat-refugees seeking asylum. But in recent years, the space has been used to house graduate students from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on the campus of Trinity International University. The students live on our premises rent-free while they are in school, in exchange for doing 10-15 hours of maintenance work on our large property.
The mission of Trinity International University is to offer rigorous academic programs in many disciplines (both undergraduate and graduate) that are grounded in Scripture. Their faculty are committed to teaching and research that integrate faith and life.
The students who live and work at B’nai Torah are a wonderful, diverse, talented and extremely interesting group of young men. They are all deeply committed to their faith traditions and are passionate about their “mission” and I am learning a great deal from all of them. They are very respectful of the Jewish tradition and are interested in what we do here as well. (As an aside, those who are studying for a Master’s in Divinity, also learn Hebrew and Greek. It was great when they were helping me unpack my Talmud set and other books and they could put them away in the right order because they could read the Hebrew!)
Josh T., who is now studying for his PhD in Egyptology, is a gifted and talented musician. He writes, directs and produces musicals for fun in his spare time. But he also researched all of our Jewish museum artifacts: ritual objects and ancient scrolls. He prepared a proposal documenting the best way for us to display and preserve these.
Dan is working on his Master of Divinity. He’s also a computer whiz. His brother has his PhD from our very own Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in Ancient Near East studies and his sister-in-law works at HUC’s library!
Josh W. grew up in a missionary family who travelled all over the world. He and his parents spent a number of years in the FSU and he speaks fluent Russian. He is unwavering in his commitment to social justice and serving others. Josh’s goal upon graduation is really “grass roots community organizing mission work”. He would like to build his own church community in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the most diverse urban neighborhood in the country – and he’ll start from scratch. He runs 1/2 marathons, 10Ks and does many other things for fun – but his church work is paramount in his life.
Matt is originally from Anchorage, Alaska. He has his undergraduate degree in Communications and competed in collegiate athletics in Track and Field as a 110m hurdler. He will be graduating this May with a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies and will also be starting up his own church from “scratch” and is working on getting his 501c3 now. He’ll be staying locally to do so. Matt is also a runner. Like most of the other guys who live here, Matt grew up as an Evangelical his entire life, but eventually as he grew older, his faith developed in deeper and more personal ways. He helped lead youth ministries through grade school. Today, he travels as an associate evangelist for “On the Go Ministries”, speaking with people around the world about faith in God. He works with many other ministries as well. One of the reasons he’s excited about living at B’nai Torah, for him, is that Christianity has its roots in Judaism. Matt feels that the more he learns about Judaism, the more he learns about Christianity.
Jim is from Canada (YAY – a fellow Canadian, eh?!) He recently got engaged and will be getting married in August. Together, he and Dana will move forward to a life of faith and love.
Ethan is not studying at Trinity, but his father is a pastor in an Evengelical Church. His father has experienced some difficult times due to some church “politics”. My staff and I try to be here to be supportive for Ethan and be that listening ear, as he and his family endure this trying time.
Chris is the one with whom I have spent the most time, engaged in ongoing dialogue. I listened to a sermon that he recently preached in his Church. He and I discussed our very different views about abortion and “pro-choice”. Chris was interested to learn about the Jewish approach to “sin” (since it plays a large part in his faith). So we are continuing our discussion. He reads my blog, he listens to what happens in our services, and we talk, and will continue to do so. What do our faiths share in common? What do we perceive are the most significant differences between us? (I am learning a lot about Evangelicalism). Chris is interested in learning more about how each of us believes that God calls us to relate to those outside our faith and society at large. Chris has a degree in engineering, worked for a few technology companies after graduating undergraduate school, and also did several internships at some churches. He too, is passionate about social justice and serving others. He will earn his Master’s of Divinity and would like to serve as a pastor of a church long-term.
I include these young men in my weekly staff meetings. At the beginning of each staff meeting, we do a “checking-in” to see how everyone is doing, what’s happening in their lives: joyful, sad, difficult, and so on. If we are going to work together as a successful team at our congregation, it’s important to know and understand what’s happening in everyone’s lives.
It was during these “checking in” periods that I learned about Chris’ sermon that he was going to be delivering. I learned about Ethan’s father. We learned that Matt is in the process of finishing his Master’s thesis. Josh T. shared that his grandmother was getting increasingly more frail and he was getting more worried. (We added her name to our Mi Sheberach – our healing – list). As a congregational community – as a faith community – I want my staff to know that I am interested in learning more about them, what is happening in their lives, and what is important to them.
I know that if we take the time to understand each other, and learn about each other, when they leave B’nai Torah and go out to their own ministries, it will be with a greater understanding and sense of open spirit.
As we learn from the prophet Isaiah: “My House Shall be Called a House of Prayer for All Peoples.” (Isaiah 56: 7) I look forward to continuing my dialogue!