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The rabbi and the priest

BERKELEY, Calif., Aug. 10 (JTA) — When Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant led the traditional Jewish call to prayer during last Friday’s Shabbat services here, not only was there a priest at his side, but a large cross hung on the wall behind him. That didn’t bother the rabbi, who has been leading interfaith services for 15 years with Father John Hester, a Catholic priest. They were first asked to do so by a group of Jewish-Christian couples in Palo Alto, Calif., whose weddings they had performed and who “didn’t feel comfortable in traditional synagogues or churches,” Familant explains. Familant, a Reform rabbi and former director of Hillel at Stanford University, began co-officiating at interfaith weddings three decades ago, when he was, by his own estimate, one of five rabbis nationwide willing to perform such a ceremony. He remembers being taken to task for it by an Orthodox colleague who accused him of “giving Hitler a posthumous victory,” a charge Familant finds so offensive he can hardly repeat the story. Rather than focusing on the link between intermarriage and assimilation, he feels Jews should be more concerned about preserving their core values of love, integrity and social justice. “If we’ve learned anything from the Holocaust, it’s that divisiveness, uncertainty and particularism can give rise to people like Hitler who exploit those differences,” he says. “People who make a fuss about the chupah, or the cross, or the Star of David, making them a test of one’s loyalty, are missing the point.” Interfaith services are not that unusual in America today. Particularly at Passover, Thanksgiving and Chanukah, churches and synagogues may worship together at carefully neutral affairs that pull together key prayers and songs, maybe a psalm or two, avoiding mention of Christ the Savior or other particularistic beliefs, focusing instead on universal themes of love and brotherhood. The Shabbat service Familant and Hester led last week at the national conference of the Dovetail Institute, a group devoted to interfaith families, followed a similar pattern. It was particularly well orchestrated, buttressed by the duo’s 15 years of experience together. The cantor, however, was less familiar with their creative liturgy. He stumbled during the Aleinu, catching himself in the middle of the line thanking God for not making Jews “like the nations of the world,” a line Familant and Hester have removed from their version. The rabbi and cantor had a quick chuckle over that gaffe, as did a few more Jewishly literate worshipers in the room. But the service moved right along, through the Mourners Kaddish and Hester’s rendition of The Lord’s Prayer performed in sign language. The evening concluded with a kiddush and breaking of the bread, performed with the appropriate Hebrew prayers and preceded by Hester’s English-language commentary. Many Jewish leaders are uncomfortable with this level of interfaith service, wondering whether it crosses the line into syncretism. “Interfaith services in and of themselves are not bad, if they’re non-denominational,” says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In keeping with mainstream Conservative practice, his own congregation tries to make non-Jews feel comfortable, he says. But services that “try to be everything to everybody” are, he feels, not the answer. “I don’t know how one can have a Judeo-Christian service. It’s hard to pray to both Jesus and the Jewish God at the same time.” Familant isn’t bothered by that criticism. “In my view, our differences are purely accidental and historical, while our commonalities are essential,” he says. “As a rabbi, I feel that if I have any purpose at all, it is to promote this notion.”