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How I Found Judaism in the Episcopal Church of America

By Lorne Opler

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  "What is a nice Jewish boy like me doing in a place like this?" I asked myself. It was my first day at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. As a graduate student looking for novel ways to support myself through school, I contacted the seminary to inquire whether they might need a tutor to assist those students taking the school's Biblical Hebrew course. As it turned out, the professor of the course was taking sabbatical during the spring semester, and a substitute instructor was required. My tutoring idea was now elevated to a full-blown teaching position.

Finding myself in an environment where my faith set me apart from everyone else was an odd and different experience. As someone who grew up ensconced in a Jewish neighborhood, I was always in environments where being Jewish was never an issue. Indeed, the Jewish socialization process I went through seldom if ever encouraged me to foray outside the community. This insular experience of my youth never forced me to consider the reality of life amongst other religions. Now, being Jewish became an issue. Thus, it was with some trepidation and concern that I accepted this appointment.

Immersing my Jewishness in a totally Christian environment meant confronting issues and feelings that were part of my Jewish conscience ever since I was a child. In school, years of studying Jewish history made me keenly aware of Christianity's relationship with the Jews throughout the last millennium. Needless to say, I was not a fan of the Church's treatment toward us. Recalling incidents such as the massacre at York (England), the Spanish Inquisition, and the Church's reticence during the Holocaust forced me to examine my own prejudices and attitude toward an institution of which I was now becoming part.

I was skeptical -- unsure how a group of Christians would receive me and equally unsure how I would perceive them. My appointment triggered the memory of an earlier conversation I had with a born-again Christian who was emphatic in his opinion that I, as a Jew, was not yet a complete person, not worthy and entitled to a place in the world to come. This insult to my integrity and character, not to mention the stinging insult to my faith, jarred and angered me. It reminded me why it is often difficult for Jews to become friends with Christians. If this is how they think of us, how can I possibly teach at the seminary? These doubts simply served to rekindle the admonitions of my youth not stray beyond the fold.

But I had to admit I was excited about teaching there; excited to teach much more than just the alphabet, speech, and reading skills. I wanted to share with them the culture, the rituals and history of my faith. Because few of them had Jewish friends who would have exposed them to my roots, I saw this opportunity as one to not only expand their interfaith knowledge, but to erase the stereotypes and ignorance that has poisoned Judeo-Christian relations throughout the ages.

And what inevitably transpired over the next three months was gratifying in ways I could not originally foresee. The semester was about more than just my students mastering the ancient Hebrew language. It was about introducing them to Friday night synagogue services. It was about preparing and sharing Passover seder with 16 of them. It was about me learning of their faith, their history, their beliefs too. And contrary to my fears, I became acquainted with people who highly respected me as a Jew, who were highly respectful of my religion, and who warmly welcomed me into their community without pressures, agendas, or expectations.

Ironic how I began this odyssey believing I shared nothing in common with those whom I would be teaching. But today, I realize that I unconsciously chose to accept the position because of how much I shared in common with these Episcopal seminarians.

Despite (or maybe because of) my extensive and intensive Jewish upbringing, I have spent the last 10 years estranged from my faith -- unhappy with the way I had expressed myself Jewishly, frustrated by the lack of creativity and diversity I surrounded myself with. Yet for all the miles I logged distancing myself from my faith, my spiritual needs never died. They always needed, but never received, the expression and attention they deserved.

For 10 years, I channeled my energies into other disciplines, creative pursuits, physical pursuits, sexual pursuits -- seldom ever acknowledging the need to deeply touch my spirituality.

But Austin's Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest was a portal back to the spirituality I needed. It was the first station along my route of Jewish renewal. It was a comfortable place for me to be in. It posed no threat to the past negative memories of my faith I still harbored. Yet it shared with me a common origin -- a belief in the same G-d and a code of ethics based on the same Bible. By being in a similar but not identical spiritual space to what I was used to, the seminary allowed me to safely re-examine my connection to Judaism, and consider a return home, when the time was right.

This was a learning experience for me in more than just the obvious way. Once upon a time, I believed that the G-d I prayed to was the G-d of the Jews, and only of the Jews. In fact, I felt that Christians co-opted my G-d for their use too. But that can't be true. Because my "Jewish" G-d placed me in a very non-Jewish space in order for me to find the way back. Is this not a sign that G-d truly belongs and lives everywhere? I think it is.

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