reading texts together

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

these are a few of my favorite things

Leaving D.C. wouldn’t be complete without waxing nostalgic, so following is a list of my favorite memories from my almost seven years in the District. It was hard to rank them, so don’t read too much into the order.

7. Riding in Bike DC. I just participated in this event last weekend, and it was especially meaningful because of my upcoming departure. On that beautiful Sunday, I traversed the 25-mile route with the constant mental refrain of “I love this city so much.” We got to ride almost the whole time without competing with cars, and I especially enjoyed Rock Creek Parkway, K Street, and the George Washington Parkway — the latter of which was a unique, and not to-be-duplicated, experience. It was amazing to head up the Potomac along that scenic road.

home page of The Washington Post on September 19, 2009

6. Shouting at Elena Kagan. In July 2010, I went for a run on Capitol Hill in the middle of the day. As I passed the Supreme Court (just east of the Capitol building), I recognized the diminutive woman walking along the opposite side of the street, whose image had dominated the news in the months leading up to her Senate confirmation. It took a few moments for this to register in my brain — and of course I was still running as I was thinking, “That’s Elena Kagan!” — so by the time I decided to “say” something, I had to yell.

cars on o st nw, just south of logan circle; photo by salem pearce

“Congratulations on your nomination to the court!” I shouted back at her. She turned around, smiled, waved, and shouted back, “Thanks!”

5. Surviving Snowpocalypse. I’m including this one in part because of where I’m headed next: soon several feet of snow will be a regular occurrence. On December 20, 2009, a historic storm dumped almost two feet of snow onto the greater-D.C. area. Everyone panicked: store shelves were emptied of milk (for some reason snow requires an increase in lactose consumption), and the entire city shut down. The storm made local blog Capital Weather Gang the must-read it’s become. This Texas girl had never seen so much snow at once, and my personal record held until the advent of Snowmageddon two months later.

with dan gordon at the new nationals park; photo by dara oliphant

4. Attending opening day at Nationals Park. For the past five years, I’ve shared Nationals season tickets with a group of friends, so we managed to get three tickets to the first regular season game, on March 30, 2008, at the new ballpark along the Anacostia. It was so cold that evening that I had to buy a red Nationals hoodie to stay warm. Then-President Bush threw out the first pitch — and was booed, much to my pleasure — I ate a hot dog from the kosher cart near our seats, and, best of all, Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer to lift his team over the Braves, 3-2.

chuppah at sixth & i; photo by matt goldenberg

3. Getting married at Sixth & I Synagogue. (I should note that I am here talking about my wedding — as opposed to my much more important marriage and relationship with my husband, lest my readers get the wrong idea.) The building is beautiful, and as I’ve documented well on this blog, Sixth & I has been the center of my Jewish life in D.C. On October 25, 2009, we stood under the chuppah, under the lofty dome, and made a commitment to each other. Sometimes I still can’t believe that we were able to have our wedding in such a meaningful place.

2. Having my photograph in the Washington Post — twice. Oddly enough, both were because of Sixth & I. The first time was September 18, 2009, right after my conversion. I had volunteered at an Erica Brown Rosh Hashanah event at the synagogue a few days earlier, and there I fell into a conversation with a Post religion reporter, who called me the next day to ask if a staff photographer could take my picture for the story. The photographer and I met at Sixth & I — and the resulting photo (above) was taken in its balcony. It appeared on the Post homepage as well as on the front page of the print edition.

enjoying the first fruits of sixth & i’s kosher food truck

The next time was May 22, 2011, the day after Sixth & I’s kosher food truck, Sixth & Rye, debuted. I dragged my then-intern along with me to wait in the hour-long line, and it was worth every second. Again, I just struck up a conversation with the Post photographer who was covering the event. The resulting photo (left) appeared inside the A-section of the print edition; my hands also appeared on the front page of the website and on the iPhone app.

1. Meeting Michelle Obama. On January 21, 2009, the day after the president’s inauguration, my husband and I got to go to the White House; I had entered and won the lottery that the administration held for 200 District residents to meet their newest neighbors. After a bit of a wait, in a line that snaked around the public rooms of the presidential residence, we made it into the room where the first lady stood. (Apparently we missed the president by just minutes!) First of all, Mrs. Obama is tall (and she was wearing flats on this occasion). Second of all, she has that quality that is the hallmark of all great politicians: the ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the room. I shook her hand and told her it was an honor to meet her. Third of all, she is a funny and charming lady. The man in front of us told her he was a Tuskegee airman and then shared a short anecdote. She punched him lightly on the shoulder and said, “Get out of here!”

And that is when I fell in love with Michelle Obama, way before all the rest of y’all.

first person

Yesterday I heard a Holocaust survivor speak in-person for the first time in my life. A few weeks ago, after finishing Refuge in Hell, with its many survivor interviews, I realized that I hadn’t ever heard a survivor speak about his/her experience firsthand, save the film that runs at the end of the permanent exhibit “The Holocaust” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I went to the museum for the first time in the spring of 1995, right after it opened, and I haven’t been back since (except for a quick visit to the gift shop — for classroom supplies with my mom — last July). But I’ve been thinking about the site a lot recently since Stephen Johns was murdered one year ago today.

On June 10, 2009, a man dressed in a confederate coat walked up to the museum’s entrance. Johns, a security guard at the museum, saw him and moved to open the door for the 88-year-old man, who then opened fire on the museum with the rifle hidden in his coat. Johns died at GWU Hospital, where my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, as the Director of Spiritual Care, was called to minister to the Johns family — a job which later played a role in the hospital’s firing her in July. I’ve been working for Rabbi Miller for the past six months, helping her to build her new private practice in the wake of her dismissal.

This is how I found myself, a little before 1:00 p.m., making my way to the museum to hear Inge Katzenstein (née Berg) as part of its “First Person” series.

I was already thinking about senseless loss of life as I walked up to the building. And my sadness only increased as I navigated to the Rubenstein auditorium. The architecture of the museum is purposefully inescapable. Imposing. You can’t pretend that you’re anywhere except a memorial to the genocide of 6 million people, even if you just want to hear a nice Jewish lady tell about her family’s escape from Germany to Kenya, and then to the United States.

After a brief introduction by (the rather unfortunately named) Bill Benson — an introduction which included several pictures of the Berg family, including the one above of Inge, her sister, and her cousin — Inge sat down with Bill for an informal interview.

A member of an observant Jewish family, Inge lived in a small village outside of Cologne. Kristallnacht was the breaking point for her parents, who had been trying to leave Germany since 1933, but had been denied entry to the United States. (Inge recalled that they had a quota number, but it was so high, she quipped, “I doubt it would have even come up by today.”) Her father illegally left Germany for Holland right after Kristallnacht, and through a cousin who was a lawyer in the then British colony, 17 of her family members obtained visas for entry into Kenya.

Inge’s mother was left alone to manage the clean-up of the family’s house — which had been ransacked, and all items within damaged or destroyed, during Kristallnacht — as well as the orchestration of the family’s move to Africa. In May 1939, Inge, her mother, and her sister left Cologne for good; they made their way first to Switzerland and later to Genoa, Italy, where they caught a German boat to Mombasa. (At that point, the Germans were apparently happy to help Jews leave Europe.) And the boat even provided kosher meals!

Inge, her mother, and her sister lived in Nairobi while her father, his parents, and an uncle and a cousin ran the farm in the highlands. Eventually though, the political climate in Kenya became uncomfortable for the Bergs, who were considered to be Germans by the British and by the Kenyans, and in 1947, they immigrated to the United States.

I especially loved hearing all of the little details in Inge’s story. Her observant family managed to keep kosher even after such customs were outlawed in Germany through a cousin who had been a kosher butcher; after the Nuremburg Laws were passed, his business continued to slaughter animals but fired a shot afterwards, so that anyone listening wouldn’t suspect a ritual killing.

Inge recalled being driven with her grandparents out of her village to the relative safety of the countryside after the day after Kristallnacht. Her grandmother’s leg was in a cast, and Inga related how her grandmother used the cast to keep her on the floor of the car, so she and her sister couldn’t see what had happened to the village.

My favorite story was one that illustrated Inge’s self-described “rebellious” nature. A boy called her “a dirty Jew,” and Inge, tired of such insults, gave him a bloody nose. “And then I ran,” she grinned.

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