Lessons from an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

This past Sunday, as it has for many years, my congregation participated at an interfaith Thanksgiving service, held this year in a major Catholic church here in Forest Hills.

The service had all the elements common to these types of programs- responsive readings, performances by our various church and synagogue choirs, and a careful avoidance of liturgical language and hymns that would be offensive to anyone present.

Truth to tell, it was, as it invariably is, a sweet experience. It left all those present feeling more like members of the larger spiritual community of Forest Hills than of any one house of worship. I have good and solid friendships with my Christian clergy colleagues, and I value them greatly.

Having grown up in an Orthodox shteibel and being the product of Orthodox day school education and Yeshiva University before being ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I readily admit that being in a church altogether, much less participating in a service like this, seriously stretches my comfort level (and, of course, the Halakhic parameters which might or might not make it possible).

I never set foot in a church as a child, and if anything, my education led to an unnatural fear of churches as being so “beyond the pale” of what constitutes my world that I would never even have considered it.

So why do I do it?

I do it because I’ve come to understand how important it is to stretch your spiritual comfort level sometimes. The more I contemplate my years in the pulpit rabbinate, the more it seems to me that in the Jewish community- forget the church world for the moment- we are saturated with Jews of all stripes and denominations who are so comfortable in their own settings- and so uncomfortable in other Jewish settings, for a variety of reasons- that they simply won’t go there, literally and figuratively.

And we, as a community, are much the poorer for it. How much better off we would be if we could come to appreciate- not to agree with, but just to appreciate- other Jews who may not practice their Judaism as we do, but still take it seriously, and care about it, and live their lives by it.

That interfaith service serves the same purpose for me vis-à-vis the Christian community. It reminds me that there are good and noble people in that world who are not my enemy, and genuinely wish me well and respect my religious world. I am not, in the most profound sense, them, and they are not me. But we can, when the situation warrants, give thanks together for our blessings. A very good thing, I believe…

And one more lesson learned; as I ascended the speaker’s pulpit in the cathedral to read my part in the service, I couldn’t help but notice the large clock above me, facing the speaker’s lectern. The congregation couldn’t see it, but the officiating priest could. I smiled as I realized that some lessons truly cross religious boundary lines. No one wants to be in chuch/synagogue longer than they have to. Move along!!!

Happy Thanksgiving!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.