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Connecting to the 'Other,' Then Holding the Gates Wide Open

February 11, 2010 By:
Leslie Hilgeman
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Leslie Hilgeman

Growing up in an interfaith family -- Mom was Jewish and Dad wasn't -- our faiths were often seen from the outside as a source of tension and controversy. Inside the family, we were told that no one was worth any more or less due to the faith in which he or she was raised. But deep inside, I still wondered: Underneath it all, were we really the same?

Fast-forward two dozen years, and I am studying to become a rabbi. I declare myself to be a woman of the faith, and work as a chaplaincy intern in a Jewish senior residence. I wear a kipah to work, and I lead prayer services.

Yet interfaith issues have arisen for me again. Take the week Haiti was torn by earthquakes. The senior center employs at least two dozen Haitians in various staff positions. Many of these employees lost at least one family member in the earthquakes, and many didn't even know how many family members they'd lost. They were hurting. I was on duty the afternoon after the earthquake, and so I became their chaplain.

It would have been easy for this relationship to have failed. We have so many differences between us -- race, social status, language, homeland -- not to mention religion. About 80 percent of Haiti's population is Roman Catholic, with another 1 million Protestants. And many of the staff belong to churches, with pastors of their own faith. Why accept solace from a rabbinical student?

For some reason, though, as I started canvassing the building, I didn't stop to think about our differences. For this, I am glad. It might have kept me from thinking I could offer them support. It might have led me to shut down and go home at the end of my shift, instead of staying another five hours and reaching out. And I did reach out, to more than a dozen employees that evening, with the same love and energy I offer the residents.

As I sat down with these employees, mostly women, I offered my hands to hold, my arms for hugs. One by one, they offered their stories -- some jagged, brief; others that burst forth like a torrent. And then, I suggested that we pray.

The residents at the center don't always wish to pray at the end of any particular chaplaincy visit, so I was surprised that almost every employee I spoke with wanted to. But prayer would require some additional religious expression. What would I pray for? Whom would I pray to? I sensed some awkwardness. Suddenly, I noticed the differences between us, and they felt formidable.

But that feeling didn't last. I opened by invoking God. Sometimes, I added the words "Our Father," something less common in our tradition, but something familiar and comforting to Christians. And just as I would with the Jewish residents, I started praying for the urgent things: getting help for their loved ones, getting information about whether they were still alive. Validating their feelings. Helping them know they weren't alone. Acknowledging how difficult it must have been for them to come to work that day.

And then I asked if they wanted to say prayers, too. Some employees did offer their own prayers -- heart-gripping ones for their families, for relief of suffering, for healing, for homeland.

At the end, we stood holding hands silently. We raised our heads and looked into each other's eyes. Many of us cried quietly, including me.

One nurse made a statement then that transformed the evening into one I will remember for many years to come. "We are all one," she said to me, and then she repeated it. "I wasn't sure about this before, but now I know. We are all one."

Her truth became our truth. Holding each other that evening, we were one. We parted and each went back to our very different lives. Yet once that kind of connection is made, the energy of it remains. I felt it, and so did she.

I have advocated for building interfaith relationships because I believe in its political importance, but until that evening, I still had some doubts about the limits of such connectedness on a spiritual level. That evening, however, wiped out those doubts.

Leslie Hilgeman is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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