Shulamith Reich Elster

Baltimore Hebrew University


Each Saturday evening when it is dark enough to spot three stars in the sky – the sure sign of nightfall – Jews recite Havdalah (separation) in their homes and synagogues to mark the close of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week. A formal marker in time between sacred times and the every day, Havdalah orients us to the coming week. With a full cup of wine in hand, a tower-like container of fragrant spices (b'samim) and a tall twisted candle, we chant:

Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe

who has made a distinction

between the holy and the mundane

between the light and the dark

between Israel and the other peoples of the World

between the Sabbath and the six days of the week.

Praised be Thou, O Lord,

who has set a distinction

between the holy and the mundane.

And so Jews are attuned to celebrate the extraordinary and the ordinary, to cherish the power of separation in hallowing every day. All of my life I have lived in this rhythm – festivals and fasts; private, reflective times, and communal exuberance; Shabbat and the other six days of the week. But since the Colloquium I have discovered a new dimension of distinctiveness. By encountering the "other" – Catholics – over the six sessions of the Colloquium, I have found a richness in my Jewish soul that I never anticipated. By honoring the distinctiveness of our respective communities, we made holy our differences even as we sanctified the bonds that link us as brother and sister in praise of the One God.

I even hear the Four Questions (Mah-nishtana) of the Passover seder, with new ears. Traditionally, the youngest child poses four questions to the head of the family gathered around the table. Underlying all of them is this question: "Why and how is this night different from all other nights?" Now I find myself wondering, "Why and how were the days and nights of the Colloquium different from all other educational experiences?"

The full answer eludes me, but let me weave my answer around these four questions:

What Had I Expected?

In retrospect, I realize I truly didn’t know what to expect. In applying, I wrote: "I welcome a new dimension to my education. As a student of Jewish life and as one whose life is built around the rhythms of my Tradition, I continue to search to find new meanings in my ancient and revered way of life." I thought that others would understand Judaism better through my participation, but I am not sure I was prepared to see myself differently. Like others, I felt apprehensive. Would the Catholics, I wondered, influence me in any significant way? Or would this be like the typical interreligious activities I had known? As a one who had grown up in a southern city, lived as an observant Jew in a large university, and as a rabbi's wife during subsequent decades, I had often participated in intergroup and interfaith activities. They were typically times when the well-intentioned gathered panelists to inform others: "This is what Jews do. . . this is what Judaism says. . . ."

The Colloquium, however, proved to be unlike those events. Yes, we learned about one another’s traditions. Most importantly, however, we learned with one another. By being drawn into relationship with each other through the educational process, we came to a new sense of our identity as religious persons. The "other" became a mirror in which I saw Judaism and my own life as a Jew in a more profound way. I never anticipated that these years would have me thinking as I do, and that within the sphere of my own theology and practice I would become ". . . creator, constructor, thinker with emerging ideas about the World" (Zeldin, 1994).


How did the Colloquium become such a significant adult learning experience?

We learn most powerfully through others. During the Colloquium we were both teachers and students – a wonderfully heterogeneous class. I think of the Midrash. It is said that human beings mint coins from one original image so that all coins are identical. In contrast, our Creator God patterned all human beings after Adam (and Eve) and yet no two are exactly alike. Our diversity – including the differences in denomination within Judaism, background, age and gender – provided an important stimulus for learning. We benefited from the discussions with visiting scholars and the participation of the staff from the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. I often thought that what was happening in the rooms went beyond what even our teachers had imagined. Whatever the specific theories of adult education on which they drew, I found two principles stood out: (1) each segment "must be a joint endeavor of teachers and students (Long 1983, 281); and (2) adults grow in respect and regard as they bring "something unique and valuable to the learning process" (Brookfield 1984, 16).

In addition, all learners – particularly teachers – need to be nurtured. Teachers are cultivators, and a plant must be cultivated, lest it wither. One of our greatest teachers, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, "To educate means to cultivate the soul, not only the mind. You cultivate the soul by cultivating empathy and reverence for others, by calling attention to the grandeur and mystery of all being, to the holy dimension of human existence, by teaching how to relate the common to the spiritual"(1962, 29). Ideally, teachers are scholars and interpreters, role models and communicators, spiritual models and a bridge between past and future (Tannenbaum 1989, 11-12). These specific challenges to teachers of Jewish texts are, I recognize after the Colloquium, challenges to all religious educators.

The Colloquium directors brought professional and personal attributes best defined by the Yiddish word 'mey'les' – a cluster of wonderful qualities found in the lives and behavior of the righteous and wonderful. They became our rebbes – "master" teachers and spiritual guides. We became and remain their chasidim – their faithful disciples.

The structure and organization of learning gave me what I needed to prepare and participate. Through coaching at its very best, we all felt encouraged and validated as religious educators. In this unfamiliar setting, experienced educators needed and received support, encouragement and validation. We were empowered as their partners-in-teaching through the opportunities to teach Catholics and Jews, in "table- talk" and in "faith-alike' groupings.

The Colloquium also challenged me to allow ambiguity to coexist with my convictions. My colleague Julie Collins helped us understand this when she noted in our last meeting, " The closer you get to the mystery the more speechless you become! "

Among the most important factors in our learning was the careful posing of questions. Questions, of course, are characteristic of Jewish study. I’ve always loved the story about Nobel Laureate Isidore Rabi. The great physicist credited his mother for awakening the curiosity that later resulted in such remarkable scientific achievements. Unlike most mothers who asked their children, "What did you learn in school today?" Rabi’s mother queried him daily, "So. Did you ask any good questions today?"

So, too, in the Colloquium – we were asked many good questions, both as a guide to our learning and as a framework for discussion. When the books and articles arrived with their accompanying questions, I would often stand at the front door, open envelope or box in hand, and eagerly scan the materials. I received them with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. "How will I fit this into the long list of ‘must do's?’" I wondered. "Will I understand what I read?" In retrospect, I realize that the questions we were given were not only helpful guides for the Colloquium itself. They continue to be powerful models for my own teaching. Now, as I look across at my shelf of books from the Colloquium, I see them as a road map for my journey. This journey has been in some ways like that of the Princess of Serendip who went on a journey and along the way found so very many unexpected treasures.


How did the place and time of our gatherings become sacred?

The Colloquium gave new depths of meaning to a biblical text that I recite daily as part of the Shema: "Take these instructions . . . . Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up" (Deuteronomy 6: 6,7b). We hallowed many places by our dialogue.

The gracious and quiet surroundings of the conference center made daily concerns seem far away. Those of us who checked in with offices by phone on a regular basis found it a challenge to reconnect. Commuters came to feel deprived (though often they had little choice in the matter) by missing the impromptu song fests, evening strolls and midnight conversations. The trio stranded in Boston’s Logan Airport on the way to Baltimore for our fourth meeting recalls with great fondness that long day of waiting, and credits those hours with the forging of friendships and collegiality that will last far beyond the Colloquium.

I decided to invite a Catholic participant who lived near me, Julie Collins, to join me at Sabbath services at my synagogue and then to lunch at my home with friends. It turned out to be more memorable than I had anticipated. My husband, who had fallen on the ice the day before, awoke at dawn in great pain. So off we went to the emergency room. I waited until a decent hour to call Julie, but she had already left home (as I later discovered, to go to Mass en route to the synagogue). So I phoned a young rabbi, asking him to meet Julie and guide her through the service. Then I called the friends whom I had invited for lunch, and asked them to introduce themselves to her at the synagogue. I would meet them all at my house.

But that was not be, either, as my husband required surgery. In another phone call, I asked my friends to use their key to let themselves into my house and set out the lunch. I finally made it home in time for dessert – exhausted and frazzled. But Julie’s deep appreciation of her experience in the synagogue provided me with a Shabbat shalom I’ll not forget. Would that other Jews might feel the sanctity and awe she described to me!

How did we learn to pray beyond the boundaries of our communities of faith?

At the outset we did not pray together. This may seem curious, but the reality is that we were from two religious traditions that do not usually pray with the other; prayer between Jews and Christians is a delicate matter. At the same time, many, if not all, of us were accustomed to daily prayer. For Jews prayer is connected with study, so I often begin my teaching with the bracha (blessing) for study that is found in the morning service: "Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe ,whose mitzvot (commandments) add holiness to our life and who gave us the mitzvah (commandment or mandate) to study words of Torah." So the directors’ decision not to pray together at a time specifically set aside for the study of text and for God-talk seemed strange – an overemphasis on separation. Are we not children of the same God? Do we not at least share a large body of sacred texts? So from the second meeting onward, we agreed to pray at the beginning of each study session: "May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and redeemer" (Psalm 19:4).

I had known this text in Hebrew and English all of my life. Initially, it expressed for me the aspirations we brought to the Colloquium. Many of us found we kept turning over and over again to this text. It expressed our deep regard for studying in the presence of one another. When I pray it now, I often interpolate: "May the words of my mouth – the conversations, the texts—and the meditation of my heart – the sentiments and the friendships – be acceptable to You, our God in whose presence we were together, our rock and redeemer, whose strength supported and enabled us."

Finally, nearly three year into the journey, we sat together in a circle for a "Service of Praise and Thanksgiving" at Colloquium VI. We began:

We, Jews and Christians, want to uplift our words. We desire to free our words of meanings that hurt each other, to wash away the words that have so long separated us and set us against each other. We long for a renewed language, for words that powerfully convey our need to be together, our desire to honor and esteem each other's faith. We Christians and Jews are both communities of faith, we both are children of God. We respect our differences in the ways we approach God, but we also cherish our testimonies to God (Robbins and Klenicki 1995).

We recited Psalm 8, and then voiced our deep personal appreciation for one another and for those gifts that we had received from our common experience. We held hands. Eyes filled with tears. We swayed to the music and to the rhythms of our hearts, joined in thanksgiving to the Good God who brought us each to this special moment of our lives.

Ah, yes. It was an experience different from all others. And by celebrating the distinctiveness of our time together, we returned to our everyday worlds forever changed.

Shulamith Reich Elster is Associate Professor of Jewish Education and Director of Graduate Programs in Jewish Education at Baltimore Hebrew University.


List of Works Consulted

Brookfield, Stephen. 1984. Adult learners, adult education and the community.

New York: Teachers College Press.

Eck, Diana. 1993. Encountering God: A spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon Press.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1962. The values of Jewish education. Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America 26. 83-100.

Klenicki, Leon, and Bruce Robbins. 1995. Jews and Christians: A dialogue service about prayer. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications.

Lipstadt, Deborah. 1989. Jewish learning: policy implications. In Steven Bayme, ed., Essays on contemporary Jewish life. New York: KTAV.

Long, Huey B. 1983. Adult learning: research and practice. New York and Cambridge: The Adult Education Company.

Tannenbaum, Avraham. 1989. Jewish texts, education and identity: inseparable. Jewish Education 57. 7-12.

Michael Zeldin. 1994. No safe and quiet corner: Jewish days schools and the challenge of the nineties. Manuscript.