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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Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages
Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Two rabbis, two cantors, a minister, a Catholic priest, a gospel choir, a klezmer band, and an interfaith families community walk into a synagogue to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I’m not joking here. Last Saturday afternoon, my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Harold Saul White, a civil rights and interfaith family rights pioneer, in his eighties and on the verge of retirement, became a man. Again!

Rabbi White lives life to the fullest. He is always seeking to experience what his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement. Or to put it another way, he likes to pray what writer Anne Lamott calls the one-word “Wow!” prayer.  So with the Rabbi retiring this year as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, we knew we wanted to honor him in a way that would go well beyond a typical sheet-cake-and-paperweight kind of retirement party.

Rabbi White came up with the idea of celebrating his second bar mitzvah with us. The relatively recent custom of a second bar mitzvah is based on the idea in Psalm 90 that “three score years and ten” (70) is a full lifetime, and thus we start over with a new life at age 70. That makes age 83 (70 plus 13) the time to mark a new coming-of-age. (Although many have noted that you become a bar mitzvah at 13, obligated to follow the commandments, whether or not you chant from the Torah or have a celebration. So even if you chant your portion again at age 83, calling it a bar mitzvah could be considered a misnomer).

Rabbi White’s actual bar mitzvah in 1945 was a more solemn affair. Neither of his older brothers could be there: one was fighting in the Pacific, the other on a destroyer in the Atlantic. And on that very day, April 15, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was being laid to rest in Hyde Park. Rabbi White recalls that his haftorah portion was interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a 15 minute period of silence for mourning, and the congregation wept. It was a meaningful day for the young Harold, but, as he recalled on Saturday, “I didn’t get to choose the music!” And so here’s the wonderful thing about a bar mitzvah that occurs after 40 years as a chaplain at Georgetown, after leading congregations everywhere from Ireland to the Eastern Shore, after teaching and traveling with Muslims and Christians and Jews of all stripes, after officiating at thousands of lifecycle ceremonies. After all that, you have earned the right to choose all the music!

And so on Saturday we celebrated the Rabbi’s long and lively life with an unprecedented outpouring of interfaith harmony. The songs included many traditional Shabbat songs, but also Let it Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from the musical Carousel), The Prayer of St. Francis, and many more. Two rabbis read from the Torah, and two cantors chanted the Shabbat prayers. The service was led by Reverend Julia Jarvis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, who was given the title “rabbi for a day” by Rabbi White. The Call to Worship was led by Father Michael Kelley, who estimated that he and Rabbi White have co-officiated at some 500 Catholic and Jewish interfaith weddings together, not to mention all of the baby-welcoming ceremonies and funerals on which they have collaborated.

Rabbi White likes to stop into Father Kelley’s church, Saint Martin of Tours in downtown DC, to hear their soulful Gospel Choir, with cantor Thomascena Nelson. So he invited the Gospel Choir to sing at his bar mitzvah, and they arrived with drums, bass, piano and a transcendent cornet player. Noted gospel singer Karen Somerville, the Rabbi’s dear friend from the Eastern Shore, also arrived to sing Precious Lord. At one of the many musical high points, a Jewish cantor traded choruses with the gospel choir on the traditional Shabbat hymn, Adon Olam. The house, packed with interfaith families, clapped along (on the beat or off) and made a joyful noise.

In the program for the service, Rabbi White mused about his path of “willful noncomformity.” I share that path, as someone born into an interfaith family who insisted on interfaith education for my children. And so I experienced an extraordinary sense of spiritual integration, witnessing Rabbi White up on the bimah, singing All Praise Unto God along with the gospel choir. And I felt it again, when a klezmer band began a hora tune, and the gospel choir kicked off their shoes and joined hands in the whirling circle of old and young, black and white, Jews and Christians, insisting on celebrating our wise and visionary elder and friend, together.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Easter as Metaphor: The Rabbi Explains

Spring daffodils by Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I find myself trying to explain how a nice Jewish girl can relate to Easter. Today, the spring sunshine is illuminating the daffodils, as you can see in this photo from my garden. I had an entirely crazy week, including an appearance on the Today Show, gathering in Boston with my Jewish and Catholic and Protestant family at the start of Passover, and then arriving back home just in time for our interfaith families community Easter service. But I had such a lovely Easter, I feel I need to describe once again how being in a room filled with hundreds of interfaith families, in a service led by a minister and a rabbi working closely together, can be a transcendent experience.

Years ago, before the Interfaith Families Project began holding Easter services, my husband and I went to various churches during Holy Week. He was glad to hear familiar hymns. I was vaguely uncomfortable with gospel readings that did not acknowledge the Jewishness of Jesus or put the role of “the Jews” in this traumatic story into any kind of historical perspective. In general, this can be the hardest week for Jews to accompany their Christian spouses or other family members to church.

Instead, this morning, we entered a space filled with couples holding hands, and babies, and toddlers in Easter finery, and visiting grandparents: all families raising interfaith children with interfaith education. As it turned out, every song we sang had interfaith connections, whether or not the community was aware of it. We sang “Morning Has Broken” (a hymn adapted by Cat Stevens, who later became a Muslim) and “Prepare Ye” from Godspell (a show with lyrics adapted by the Jewish Stephen Schwartz, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and “Let My People Go” (an Exodus text beloved by Jews and adapted by African-American Christians). We told the story of Holy Week in part through singing verses of “Lord of the Dance,” a Shaker tune adapted by British poet Sydney Carter to tell the story of Jesus: “They buried my body and they thought I was gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.” Carter admitted that his lyrics were inspired in part by a statue of Shiva, the dancing Hindu god, he kept on his desk. And in Carter’s obituary, the Telegraph noted that the hymn contains “a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” Well, so, yes, that is me, and many of the people in my interfaith families community. But I would also note that the hymn is used widely in Christian churches and communities (many of them filled, to be honest, with people with ambiguous religious beliefs themselves).

The point here is not that we do or do not subscribe to a particular Christian creed or dogma. The point is that many of us are spiritually inspired, and often deeply moved, by the religious interconnections that led to the creation of these songs, and to the opportunity to sing them together with other interfaith families in a room filled with people from many races, cultures, religions, and worldviews.

Meanwhile, I sit facing my beloved rabbi, Harold White, on the eve of his retirement. And I see him, arm and arm with Reverend Julia Jarvis, his partner as spiritual leaders of our community. He is singing along with gusto, celebrating both the Kumbaya songs (for really, must we always mock the lovely spiritual that is Kumbaya?) and the more specific Christology of the iconic Protestant hymn, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today.” Sitting next to me, my husband gets the chance to boom out the harmonies in his rich baritone, harmonies learned in his youth as an acolyte.

But the rabbi? How can a rabbi sing “Death in vain forbids Christ rise”? So, here is how our rabbi helped us, a community of Jews and Christians and atheists and Buddhists, to understand the symbolism of Easter, this year. He told a parable of a King who sends his son, a Prince, to live with peasants to understand the reality of suffering in the world. When he calls the Prince back to the palace, the peasants are sad and do not want to let him go. Obviously this sounds like God sending Jesus to earth, and then calling him back. But the rabbi’s point was that the Prince represents the soul, and that every soul must be embodied in order to experience the reality of life. But ultimately this life is a temporary condition, and at death the soul rises, or if you will, from a more secular perspective, the energy of life is transformed and merges back into the energy of the rest of the universe. Every religion has some way of explaining this transformation from life into death, and the idea that the soul or energy is somehow conserved or cyclical in nature. The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is one version of this universal story.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

“…Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, Will Be Able to Join Hands…”

January Snow

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr‘s birthday this year, I found myself standing with hundreds of other interfaith family members, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Leading us in song, their arms wrapped around each other, stood a trio of extraordinary spiritual leaders: a rabbi who met Dr. King and has spent a lifetime devoted to interfaith dialogue and social justice, a white minister born into a Southern Baptist family who now practices mindfulness and serves interfaith families, and an African-American woman who is a powerful Catholic gospel song leader.

Rabbi Harold White, Reverend Julia Jarvis, and Catholic cantor Thomascena Nelson lead our celebration this year. And the good news is that communities across America now create such interfaith gatherings to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King. This year, the synagogue I was born into, Temple Israel in Boston, formally invited a local imam to speak for the first time in its history, and I felt a surge of hope.

But for interfaith families, the words of Dr. King speak to us on a whole different level–an intimate level. My community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, includes over 100 families who not only hold hands once a year, but have married across religious boundaries and live an interfaith reality. Many of us also married across the traditional lines of race, culture, class, nationality, or sexual orientation. In our diversity we represent truly radical unity, a unity we experience day in and day out, throughout the year.

Singing with my interfaith family, I look out and see a dad raised Jewish and a dad raised Christian holding hands with their biracial daughter, who knows all the words to both the Christian and Jewish blessings. I see children adopted from Latin America and Asia, as well as intercultural interfaith families with parents rooted in those regions. I see an African-American Christian dad and a white Jewish mom lead an interfaith responsive reading, holding their squirming toddler.

I see a dream made real. Together, we form a community in which no individual is a guest, everyone can partake, nobody is excluded, and no parent must give up or minimize their own beliefs or practices or culture in order to join us. We are Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Humanists and Buddhists holding hands, forming families, and celebrating together. We have reached a time and place when we can be who we are as families, together in joy.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Where do My Interfaith Teens Fit In? As Activists!

Rev. Brian Merritt, Rabbi Harold White, Rev. Julia Jarvis

Every religion, every denomination, bemoans the fact that it can be hard to keep teenagers engaged in thinking about religion. They’re busy thinking about, well, other stuff. But yesterday was different. Yesterday, my two teens had a transformative educational, political, spiritual experience at Occupy DC, through the lens of their interfaithness.

Today, the police will start enforcing a “no camping” rule, prohibiting the activists at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square from sleeping in the Occupy tents. So yesterday was a tense and busy day at Occupy DC. Nevertheless, our intrepid spiritual leaders, the rabbi and the minister who guide our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis and Rabbi Harold White, took a group of our teens down to McPherson Square to meet Reverend Brian Merritt of Occupy Faith DC, to learn more about the role that clergy and religious communities are playing in the Occupy Movement.

At Occupy DC, they were able to witness a General Assembly, explore the library filled with political and spiritual books, drop off some pumpkin muffins at the kitchen, and bring home copies of The Occupied Washington Times. Now, our interfaith kids want to return to sleep there. We’ll see if that is even feasible, after today.

So why does this post belong on a blog about interfaith families? I find it moving and inspiring that my teens were able to have this experience with both their minister and their rabbi (a rabbi who was deeply engaged alongside Christian clergy in the civil rights movement in the 1960s). As interfaith families, our microcosm of respect and engagement and learning has to be a helpful model for non-violent interfaith interaction in the larger world. And while my kids understand that there are differences between their two family religions, between any two religions, they also know that the thirst for social justice is something that Jews and Christians shared in the civil rights movement, and that they share now in the quest for more equitable taxation, and for voting rights for DC.

This Thursday, my radically-inclusive rabbi and my radically-inclusive minister will go together to the People’s Prayer Breakfast, a progressive alternative to the National Prayer Breakfast, organized by Occupy Faith DC. All are invited. In fact, I am tempted to pull my kids out of school to attend.

Autumn Return: Interfaith Families and the Annual Search for High Holy Days

With shorter days, cooler nights and the last moments of summer, many interfaith families feel a strong annual longing, a sort of homing instinct, driving them to search for cultural, religious or spiritual membership. For those of us who grew up in a religious community, the fall reminds us that belonging brings all sorts of benefits (not least of which may be access to tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services). Some Jewish/Christian interfaith families find a welcoming Jewish community, some choose Christianity, some join ethical culture or secular humanist groups, some explore Buddhism, some find a home in Unitarian-Universalism, some manage to maintain affiliation with more than one religious community. My family chose an independent interfaith community celebrating both religions.

In recent weeks, the idea that an increasing number of interfaith families are choosing communities that teach both Judaism and Christianity received rare, cautious coverage in the Jewish press. Both Tablet Magazine and interfaithfamily.com (a Jewish outreach website) took note of the “Being Interfaith” project posted by two journalism students, a project I wrote about last April. These tentative, somewhat skeptical acknowledgments of  “doing both” signal a welcome evolution: a growing realization by Jewish institutions that raising children with both religions is not a phenomenon that is going to evaporate any time soon, and that it thus deserves analysis. Each pathway for interfaith families has benefits and drawbacks, and the benefits of raising children with both religions are strong enough to continue to attract new families each fall. In fact, Reform Judaism has shifted in recent years to emphasizing the importance of converting non-Jewish spouses, possibly driving more interfaith couples to seek out communities that do not exert any pressure (however subtle) for adults to change religious identity.

I have listed some options for independent interfaith communities in major cities in the Resource links in the right-hand column of this blog. In Chicago, Jewish/Catholic families have at least two options: the interwoven Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group and the Chicago Interfaith Family School (downtown), and The Interfaith Union (in the suburbs). In New York, the venerable Interfaith Community has its flagship program (in Manhattan), as well as suburban offshoots (in Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut), and a group in Boston. My own community in Washington DC, the Interfaith Families Project, now has a branch in Philadelphia.

Each of these groups has grown organically, with varying degrees of support from local clergy, and each interfaith community takes a slightly different approach to meeting the needs of interfaith families for welcoming and accessible, yet authentic, High Holy Day services. At the Interfaith Families Project in DC, we now have full Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the first time this year, led by Rabbi Harold White, with mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden-Campbell as cantor. In New York City, the Interfaith Community has a long tradition of High Holy Day services created and led by the interfaith families themselves. In Boston, families from the Interfaith Community will attend services together at a synagogue. In Chicago, the Interfaith Union refers families to five different local Reform, Renewal, humanist and independent Jewish communities.

For anyone with a Jewish background, the call of the shofar signals a moment to pause, take stock of the past year and contemplate the future. Too often, the Jewish partner in an interfaith family goes off alone to High Holy Day services. In my opinion, the experience is far more resonant in a community, whether it is a welcoming Jewish community or an independent interfaith community, in which the entire family feels comfortable sitting together, allowing for a meaningful glance or quiet squeeze of hands at key moments of repentance and resolve.

Interfaith Families Project: 15 Years and Thriving

Fifteen years ago, four friends–two of them Jewish (Stacey Katz, Laura Steinberg), two of them Christian (Mary Joel Holin, Irene Landsman)–got together and dreamed of educating their interfaith children in both family religions. The idea seemed so obvious, so natural, that they wrongly assumed at first that such a program must already exist in the Washington DC area. This was before the age of the internet, so they began working the phones, calling any telephone book listing with “interfaith” in the title. Irene Landsman recalls that they were told either, “Some of our best friends are Jewish” (by the churches) or, “You have already made a big mistake, but we’ll help you raise your kids Jewish” (by the synagogues).

The idea of an interfaith Sunday School was new to DC, but already percolating in a few other cities. Stacey Katz read Lee Gruzen’s seminal book describing the first interaith religious education program for interfaith kids in New York. Then she found Dovetail, a national network for interfaith families, and talked to the creator of an interfaith Sunday School in New Haven. Encouraged, the four “founding mothers” in Washington created the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). This week, we celebrated the 15th birthday of IFFP with them, and with some of the “founding children,” now college graduates.

In the first year, the four families simply celebrated holidays together in their own homes. Next, they networked, going through school directories and  cold-calling families with promising name combinations like “Kelly/Rabinowitz” or “Levine/Degrassi.” A dozen families signed on for the first one-room interfaith Sunday School. By 1998, the year my family joined, IFFP had grown to 30 families and hired a Sunday School director, the very progressive and visionary Reverend Julia Jarvis. Five years later, there were 90 families and IFFP could afford to balance the minister with a staff rabbi, the very progressive and visionary Rabbi Harold White. Today, there are 120 families in the community, and more than 140 children in the Sunday School.

On Sunday, the founding mothers and children, and founding father Ron Landsman, seemed overwhelmed by the two cakes, the balloons, and the fuss, but mostly by the sea of hundreds of young couples, parents, toddlers, teens, and grandparents who turn out most Sundays to sing and reflect and discuss Judaism and Christianity and the joys and challenges of being an interfaith family.

In front of this vast and grateful community, the founding families explained their creation process, and what the group means to them. “I was in deep denial about my daughter’s religious education,” recalls Ron Landsman, remembering the period before IFFP. His spouse, Irene, explains it this way: “Ron said he didn’t care, but the day our babysitter took our daughter to mass, he realized he did care.” Looking back now, Irene concludes, “IFFP brought peace to our home…it was a healing force.”

The guiding principle of balance, of equal weight for both religions, was important from the outset. “We’re a very balanced set,” Stacey Katz noted of the four founding mothers. “In the early years, we had a very strong rule that the Board had to be a balance of Christians and Jews, because we realized people reallly did have hot-button issues.”

When asked about the choice of the word “Project” rather than a more official or permanent-sounding identity, founding mother Laura Steinberg spoke out strongly in favor of the do-it-yourself  nature of IFFP. Even with hired staff, dues, and a full program of activities, the group continues to run on volunteer power, with parents teaching in the classrooms, and members brainstorming new events and forging new directions each year.  Says Steinberg, “In the beginning, IFFP was an idea. I hope it always remains an idea–something growing, dynamic, without boundaries.”