O Rabbi! My Rabbi! Rabbi Harold White, Interfaith Pioneer (1932-2015)

@stephaniewilliamsimages

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I did not expect to ever want or need a rabbi in my life again. After years of defending my Jewish identity as the child of an interfaith family, I thought I was done with Jewish institutions and clergy. I joined a community created by and for interfaith families, filled with families that spurned religious dogma, labels, and litmus tests. And I was happy.

And then, Rabbi Harold Saul White swept into my life, like some kind of mystical wind, simultaneously fresh and ancient, revealing a new way to connect back to Judaism. Here was a rabbi so radical, so confident, that he was willing to become the spiritual advisor of a community of interfaith families—and share leadership of this interfaith community with Reverend Julia Jarvis. He worked with ministers and priests, marrying generations of interfaith couples, and welcoming their babies, and helping their children come of age, and conducting their funerals.

Rabbi White helped families to see Judaism as inclusive rather than exclusive, decades before most other rabbis understood the importance of this work. This rabbi, who was already old and wise in years when I met him, but perennially young in his iconoclastic spirit, convinced me that I still needed a rabbi as a counselor and friend. He restored my confidence in the idea that a rabbi could be relevant, even essential, to interfaith families like mine.

At my son's bar mitzvah. @stephaniewilliamsimages

In his final decade, as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, Rabbi White preached most weeks at our Gatherings, lavishing on us his tremendous erudition, based on his studies with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan, and on his forty years as the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, and on his work in the Civil Rights movement. He gave brilliant sermons on the Days of Awe and Sukkoth, on Passover, on Shavuot. And he gave brilliant sermons on the Jewish roots and resonance of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter.

And now, I am left with a strange and frustrated longing to hear the Rabbi’s own inevitably brilliant thoughts on the idea that his irrepressible energy shifted into some new form at the moment of his death yesterday.

My family was blessed to have Rabbi White co-officiate with Reverend Jarvis at the interfaith bar mitzvah ceremonies of both of my children, now 21 and 18. I realize that for many people in the Jewish community, that sentence reads like shocking gibberish. But we could always count on Rabbi White to be more revolutionary, more deeply ecumenical, than any of the rest of us. As an illustration of this, when planning my son’s bar mitzvah, we had the following conversation:

Me: “So we will have the Torah portion. We want to also acknowledge the Christianity in our extended family, but I don’t know about reading from the New Testament. I think that would be beyond the pale. What do you think, rabbi?”

Rabbi White, “Ah, but I think we should include the reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is coming of age, getting quizzed by his teachers about the commandments, finding his Jewish voice, as if he’s at his own bar mitzvah. It’s a perfect reading for this occasion!”

Me: Eyes wide. Mind silently blown.

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In his last years, Rabbi White had an octogenarian exterior and the wild soul of a youth. He impressed my teenagers by wearing his black velvet opera cape on Halloween and Purim, and bragging about traveling the world, and staying up all night at parties. When my son had trouble relating to his Torah portion from Leviticus, Rabbi White completely re-framed the text for him as a compelling call to environmentalism. He was honest with young people about his own atheism in adolescence, and his longstanding contempt for most institutions. And when he retired from us last spring, we threw an ecstatic second bar mitzvah celebration for him, featuring his favorite Catholic gospel choir.

Like so many others, I cherished this singular and compassionate man. When he was laid up, I brought him matzoh ball soup and admired his beloved cats. I nominated him for the Forward’s list of Most Inspiring Rabbis. And over the past two years, as I traveled the country to speak about Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I had the privilege of appearing alongside Rabbi White, who is featured in the book, and who was happy to serve as my occasional wingman (or was I his?). At the book launch at Politics & Prose, he wore a bow tie and told stories from his life, lending his authority and experience. And when I was invited to speak to fifty rabbis on retreat–an intimidating prospect–Rabbi White went with me and we presented our work in conversation with each other.

Ceding the floor at my book launch. Classic Rabbi White hand gesture. @stephaniewilliamsimages

Politics & Prose book launch for Being Both, 2013
All photos @stephaniewilliamsimages

Through Rabbi White, I allowed the possibility of rabbis back into my life. I am radically amazed to realize that I now have a whole posse of rabbis I can call friends, advisors, and colleagues. They include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, Jewish Renewal, and post-denominational rabbis, all seeking to help interfaith families stay connected to Judaism (whether or not those families also stay connected to other religions).

I am launching my son and daughter out into a world filled with rabbis who will embrace them as they are. But my children will always carry with them the great blessing of the memory of their first rabbi, the one who paved the way for all those other rabbis, the one who can never truly be replaced: Rabbi Harold Saul White.

 

(Note: There will be two Washington DC memorial services for Rabbi Harold White on Sunday September 20th. The first will be at 10:30am Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall at 10:30 A.M. The second service, with the rabbi’s favorite gospel choir and guest soloists, will be at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, 1908 N Capital Street, Washington, D.C. at 3:00 P.M.)

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14 Replies to “O Rabbi! My Rabbi! Rabbi Harold White, Interfaith Pioneer (1932-2015)”

  1. Thank you, Sue, for this amazing appreciation of an amazing man. Rabbi came to IFFP after our child was grown and I was no longer actively involved but I could see the immeasurable gifts he brought to the organization. You knew him so well and deeply, and your loss is profound indeed. You are in my thoughts.

  2. I’m very sad about Rabbi Harold White’s passing. I got to know Rabbi White through my professional work at InterfaithFamily — but in one of those mysterious coincidences of life, Rabbi White’s brother Myer and his wife Sylvia were close personal friends of my mother and father, who were also from Hartford CT — and my father, who is 98 1/2, still remembers the White brothers very well.

    I vividly remember visiting Rabbi White at his office at Georgetown, it must have been ten years ago or more. I remember a lot of books and I think a lot of Victorian oak furniture. What I’m sure I remember is Rabbi White telling me the reason that Georgetown had a Jewish Student Union and not a Hillel (at that time). The reason was that when he started working as the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown, Hillel didn’t allow its directors to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples — and he wasn’t willing to be a Hillel director under those conditions. (Fortunately Hillel is now making major strides to welcome the college student children of interfaith families.)

    I also vividly remember learning about some of the very high profile interfaith couples at whose weddings Rabbi White officiated. I know some of those couples and the huge impact he had on them. I’m sure the participants in the Interfaith Families Project were very fortunate to have his leadership for many years.

    Thank you, Susan, for this very beautiful tribute to a wonderful man.

    1. Ed, It was Rabbi White who kept urging me to sit down with you and talk about our shared passion for helping interfaith families, each in our own way. I’m so glad we finally did that, and Rabbi found great satisfaction in making this connection, as he was a great connector. And as an expert level Jewish geographer, he loved telling me about the connections between your Connecticut families. Thank you for posting your memories of our Rabbi. Each one is precious now.

  3. I did not know Rabbi White; yet, after reading your beautiful tribute of this wonderful man I wish today that I could have met him, talked with him and told and discussed the story of the life of my artist father, Hans Friedrich Grohs, 1892 – 1981, with him. It was in Germany. I was 19 years old when WW II ended in 1945. Rabbi White would have patiently listened. All I can write today is R.I.P. Rabbi White my heartfelt sympathy and a special prayer-stone for his grave with my prayers.

  4. For me, as one of the early “interfaith kids”, born in 1970 to a Jewish Dad and a Christian Mom, meeting Rabbi White through friends from IFFP, long after I had graduated from Georgetown – and after I had finished working with IFFP, was truly a blessing. Never had I met a rabbi who so fully embraced and even celebrated families like mine, and this was a profound and deeply healing gift. We talked about many things in his office at Georgetown, and our brief time together made a lasting impression.

    Thank you, Sue, for this beautiful and moving tribute to an incredible human being. May his memory be a blessing. And may all who knew and loved him be comforted, including you and your sweet family, and all the other dear ones at IFFP who I know will miss him.

  5. Thank you, Sue, for the beautiful words describing beloved Rabbi Harold. I vow to do my part to continue to embody his magnificent, playful, intelligent spirit. Tall order.

  6. What a beautiful post about a wonderful person. Rabbi White married my husband and I in March of 2014. We felt so fortunate to have him be part of our day and to have met him. We searched D.C. for someone to marry us (I am Jewish and my husband is Catholic) and Rabbi White appealed to both our religious and theological sides. It is crazy to think that he is gone but there is no doubt that his legacy and his spirit lives on in all of those he touched and taught. We feel blessed to have had him affirm our marriage and we will miss having him be part of other milestones.

  7. Sue,
    Thanks for the beautiful tribute to Rabbi White. Your words help me remember what a pioneer he was. I’m going to miss his incredible ability to see the connections between Judaism and Christianity. He taught me we’re all more connected that we know.
    Susan

  8. Rabbi Harold was occasionally a summer dinner guest on Martha’s Vineyard, more frequently a porch sitter, and always a friend. He will be missed

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