Interfaith Pioneer: Rabbi Joseph Rauch

adathisraelbulletin

Yesterday, I drove my father to the house where he was born, for our annual Thanksgiving gathering. I woke early this morning and started sifting through old photos and letters. I kept returning to one yellowed pamphlet: the November 1952 bulletin from Temple Adath Israel in Louisville, Kentucky. The bulletin provides a snapshot of the community led by Rabbi Joseph Rauch, who was my great-uncle, and a pioneer in interfaith relations. Reading through this bulletin from a Thanksgiving season 64 years ago, I began to understand how extraordinary his work was, even by the standards of today. And right about now, in this very dark season in America, seems a good time to study how he went about weaving the social fabric.

But first, a little Jewish geography. My grandmother, Aimee Helen Rosenfelder, was born in Louisville, the youngest daughter of Rabbi Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder. Her sister Corinne married the brilliant young Rabbi Joseph Rauch, but she died very young. Uncle Joe (as my father called him) then married my grandmother’s other sister, Etta. So Uncle Joe married two of my grandmother’s sisters. He never had children, but my father–his nephew–spent the spring or summer of each year in Louisville, living in a great house with his many aunts and uncles, including Uncle Joe and Aunt Etta.

Joseph Rauch was a luminary in the progressive Jewish world. He was on the executive committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, president of the Hebrew Union College Alumni Association, and a founder of the World Union of Liberal Judaism. But beyond the Jewish world, he used his pulpit to advocate broadly for social justice and interfaith education. He took the unusual step of obtaining a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is credited with helping to desegregate the Louisville library system, and he was an original panelist, alongside Christian clergy, on “The Moral Side of the News,’ which remains one of the longest-running public affairs programs in broadcast history.

 

rabbijosephrauch
Rabbi Joseph Rauch

The November 1952 temple bulletin I happened to find today in a shoebox is a testament to his interfaith work, and contains the following rather remarkable items:

  • A report that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth services at Adath Israel aired on Louisville television stations.
  • A thank you letter from the local Methodist church for welcoming over 100 church members to a Sukkoth celebration at the temple.
  • A proposal by Dr. Rauch (as he was known to his congregation) and one Sister Clara Frances to rename an alley that passes behind the temple, Nazareth College, First Unitarian Church, and Calvary Episcopal Church. The name they proposed: Interfaith Lane.
  • An invitation to join Dr. Rauch for a weekly adult education series in November including the following topics: “Introduction to the Religions of the World,” “Your and My Religion,” “How Much of it do we Share with Christians,” and “How Much of it do we Share with Mohammedans.”
  • An address by a University of Louisville exchange student from India, Naresh Shah.
  • Dr. Rauch’s recent addresses at four different Protestant churches.
  • Regular sermon topics, including “Religion in the public schools,” and “We need a world Thanksgiving.”
  • A detailed curriculum for the children’s religious education program at the temple, including an entire course on “Comparative Religion.”

In the midst of the current season of interfaith Thanksgiving services, this little bulletin speaks of a deeper level of interfaith engagement, a level we urgently need now. We need entire congregations welcoming each other, not just once a year, but on a regular basis. We need more interfaith education for all adults, and for all our children. We need to work together, to protect this vision of intellectual engagement and mutual support across religious lines.

josephrauchplaque

Twelve Hours in New York with Books and Interfaith Reflections

Book bubble free library, West 4th Street, NYC

This week, I found myself in Greenwich Village, in the soaring spaces of Hebrew Union College, explaining my book, Being Both, to a Jewish audience. On entering the doors of the Reform Jewish seminary, I thought of my great-grandfather, an early Reform rabbi who plied his trade up and down the Mississippi River.  And I thought of my great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Rauch, a pioneering Reform rabbi who dedicated much of his life to interfaith dialogue and community service. He was ordained at Hebrew Union, got a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was a founding member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In their memory, and because of my love for this religion, the religion my interfaith parents chose for me, I educated my children in Judaism.

Mingling with hundreds of other Jewish authors and book-lovers at Hebrew Union, I was struck, once again, by the support of the Jewish community for literature. At a moment when print media and books on paper seem to be receding and evaporating into a shrinking sea of concentrated nostalgia, I found lower Manhattan still standing in a deep and refreshing literary culture.

Strolling back up to Penn Station to catch my train home, the city kept tempting me with books. I passed Shakespeare and Co., the Strand, and freelance second-hand booksellers arranging classic hardbacks on sidewalk folding tables. Magically, a “free library” of whimsical clear plastic bubbles filled with books-for-the-taking sprouted on a public terrace.

As I approached East 10th Street and Broadway, the Gothic revival masterpiece that is Grace Church, a landmark Episcopal church dedicated in 1846, rose up from an oasis of green gardens. It was as if my wandering through the city had led me straight from my Jewish yin to my Episcopalian yang.

 Grace Church, Episcopal, 1847

My children have a great-great-grandfather who was an Episcopal bishop of Newark. They have a great-uncle who is an Episcopal priest, and an uncle in the process of ordination. This branch of the family has included journalists, authors, and an English professor. They, too, are people of the book. To ensure that my children would understand the significance of this family history, and the practices and beliefs they represent, I chose to educate my children in Christianity, as well as Judaism. How does that work? In short, I wrote my book to answer that question.

Recently, John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop and the author of many groundbreaking books (including the forthcoming The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic), wrote about Being Both: “A moving, personal story that opens new dimensions of life in general and religious life in particular that rise out of an interfaith family…Its insights moved me deeply.” I am so grateful for these words.

Arriving home in Washington this week, disembarking from the train at Union Station, I averted my eyes from a temporary wall covered with ads for an international clothing store chain, coming soon. The wall sealed off a dead space that had housed a bookstore, only a few weeks before. At least this time, I refused to let the loss of another bookstore bring me down. I was still floating in my swirling, iridescent bubble of books. And I plan to stay there.

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