Spiritual director of Interfaith Families Project speaks at Congregation B'nai Abraham

April 21, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Rabbi Harold S. White was the guest speaker at Congregation B'nai Abraham Sunday. He spoke about the survival of a small congregation in rural America "The Legacy of the Abrahamic Faith Traditions."
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Rabbi Harold White started off his speech to about 60 people at Congregation B’nai Abraham’s synagogue on Sunday by taking a poll.

Among his questions were how many people were natives of Hagerstown (about two), how many lived outside Hagerstown and traveled to the city to attend synagogue (about a dozen), and how many people were part of an interfaith marriage (about 10).

White said he wasn’t surprised by most of the answers, nor should attendees have been surprised about being asked questions after congregation member Rachel Nichols said White was known for his curiosity.

In the 1970s, Nichols’ mother, Pearl Kruger, was program director for the American University Hillel and brought White into their lives, Nichols said. Many of the Nichols’ family discussions were based on topics Kruger raised after talking to White, Nichols said.

It was Nichols who invited White to be the speaker at the local congregation’s 120th anniversary brunch on Sunday.

White has led congregations from Maryland to Ireland, was the first Jewish chaplain at a Catholic University — Georgetown University — and is now spiritual director of the Interfaith Families Project of the Greater Washington, D.C., Area, according to Nichols and White’s biographical profile.

“If you have a chance to ever have a conversation with Rabbi White, you’ll notice that about half of his side of the conversation is questions,” Nichols told attendees. “He’s as curious as curious can be, and that’s how he knows so much.”

White, 80, said he was impressed the local congregation still existed.

“If you go down south, where there were once thriving congregations, they’re dead. ... They just don’t exist anymore,” White said.

“You’ll have beautiful synagogues, but those synagogues are now museums,” White said.

White said he also was impressed that the congregation maintained its synagogue in the city.

Several congregations have abandoned their synagogues to move into the suburbs and into more modern buildings, he said.

White talked about Judaism not just as a religion, but as an “evolving religious civilization,” a definition he attributed to the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who founded the reconstructionist movement.

“Judaism accepts change,” White said. “In fact, we encourage change. We have evolved. And, how have we actually accepted change? We’ve accepted change in many ways — our idea of who God is, our idea of who is a Jew.”

Later, White said the Jewish people have a serious problem — they have the lowest birthrate of any religious ethnic group in the world.

In 1950, sociologists predicted that if the Jewish people continued at their present rate of growth, they would become extinct by the end of the 21st century, White said.

As a result of the Holocaust, the Jewish people lost half of their population, he said.

So the Jewish people’s real problem is not how to maintain the Jewish religion, but “how do we continue to maintain Jewish people?” White said.

Leiba Cohen, the local congregation’s president, said White “captivated the audience.”

“He answered questions, and he proposed questions for us as a community that’s been here 120 years and wants to be here 120 years more,” Cohen said.

Rabbi Fred Raskind said White’s speech, which lasted more than an hour, was “excellent.”

“We have issues with identity. We are evolving,” Raskind said.

Like all Americans, including Christians and Muslims, the Jewish people are dealing with changing sociological, economic and technological realities, Raskind said.

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