I never met a Jewish person until I attended Boston College in the mid-1980s. Rural Connecticut where I grew up was pretty homogenized, various protestant churches outnumbering our Catholic parish four to one. And all I knew of interfaith differences was that my mom’s family wouldn’t attend her wedding to an Episcopalian.
I know it’s ironic that this then-young Catholic met her first Jewish friend in a dormitory at a Jesuit university. Certainly, I didn’t foresee, when I was daydreaming about my big wedding at St. Ignatius Church, that I would marry a Jew and raise two Jewish children. Nor that I would be the one to insist everyone touch the Mezuzah before leaving on a trip, that charoset on matzo would be a highlight of my Passover holiday, that my parents would attend their first seder at my table, and lighting the Sabbath candles on Friday night would become a peaceful ritual.
And, for certain, I never thought I’d utter the phrase “my rabbi.”
But I have one. A rabbi. Rabbi David Meyer. Our temple community, Temple Emanu-El, has been engaged in the “Big Goodbye” for months now as Meyer retires. He will lead his last Shabbat service at the temple at the end of this month.
Consider this my “small goodbye.” Not to my friend, as I know we will continue our personal friendship. But a goodbye to a part of my own life’s journey, wrestling with what I thought was the fundamental question: How could I raise two children in a faith I knew nothing of?
That question transformed to an even more fundamental one as painful challenges unfolded. Could I find spiritual solace, even hope, in a faith tradition that was not my own? Rabbi Meyer, my rabbi, helped answer that question, even though I never could articulate it. The question came from my soul, not my mind.
The first meeting we had in the rabbi’s study was to talk about our soon-to-be-born son’s baby naming. I was nervous, perhaps a little defensive. My husband and I had made the decision to raise our children in the Jewish faith after many talks and self-reflection.
The reality, though, that my extended family would be gathering at my house to witness and celebrate a rite they were wholly unfamiliar with — as was I — filled me with anxiety. I thought naively, like the wedding ceremony I crafted under a chuppah in front of a judge, with the Christian tradition of lighting a unity candle, that this moment of blessing could blend our traditions.
Directly and with kindness, Rabbi Meyer said there couldn’t be “any christological” references. The ceremony, days later, in our small dining room, featured Rabbi Meyer’s trademark welcoming demeanor, and as he invoked the baby’s Hebrew name and explained the significance of the tradition, which itself was a remove from a bris, or circumcision ceremony. I felt my shoulders relax. What was strange seemed suddenly familiar. And deeply spiritual.
I’ve had that same sensation in the many years since that we’ve belonged to Temple Emanu-El, though I never converted, and never felt any pressure to. Not only were many interfaith families part of the congregation, there was a feel — no, that’s not strong enough — there was an explicit recognition from the rabbi that we not only belonged but should be celebrated.
I’m paraphrasing, but I remember one sermon where Rabbi Meyer said that the survival of the Jewish people also relied on people of other faiths choosing to raise their children in his. I felt proud. And cherished.
My celebration of faith revolved around music — my mother was the soloist in our church. The songs of, in particular, the monks of the Weston Priory in Vermont, popular in the ’70s and ’80s, were a prayerful language that for me felt like speaking directly to God.
As the rabbi filled the sanctuary with music, he filled me with a sense of being home not much different than I felt sitting in the small, pretty chapel on BC’s Newton campus.
Our kids became a bar and bat mitzvah. And every Christmas, we decorated our tree and shared the traditions of my family. There was no conflict, a fact underscored when the rabbi shared a story about his own parents putting up a Christmas tree to help children they were caring for feel more comfortable in their home.
There’s a moment in the seder where those gathered sing a song called “Dayenu,” which roughly translates to “it would have been enough.” And, indeed, the rabbi’s welcoming of me into the temple family and gratitude for our choices would have been enough.
Then, 12 years apart, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon brought our community and the world to its knees, some in prayer, most in fear.
My faith was deeply shaken. Yet, in services, the rabbi led us in tears and song and prayer, including one that I hold on to to this day. It is a version of a Jewish prayer for healing written by Debbie Friedman. It reads in part, “May the source of strength that blessed the ones before us help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”
Rabbi Meyer has sung that prayer many times over the years. Each time I hear it, my eyes fill with tears. The words stir an unmistakable feeling of hope that such healing is possible — that I, too, am capable of finding the courage to make my life a blessing.
Would I have heard or understood the prayer were I not welcomed to his congregation? If I remained defensive or felt judged or not enough? Those words could only enter my heart because Rabbi Meyer led Temple Emanu-El with an open heart. What a gift.
Thank you, my rabbi.
Virginia Buckingham is the president of the Current’s board of directors. Her column appears weekly.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”