073: One Woman’s Interfaith Journey

    Today’s story is a memoir from a woman who you’ve already met in the pages of ReadTheSpirit. She’s Gail Katz, a widely respected educator who develops programs that celebrate diversity. Some weeks ago, Gail sent out a request through ReadTheSpirit for books about religious diversity that are appropriate for middle-school-aged readers. And, you immediately responded with waves of emails to our Home Office, suggesting great books. Then, we checked out the best suggestions, printed a number of your responses — and Gail says she has adopted your recommendations into her reading list.
   So, thank you! That’s exactly the way we want our ReadTheSpirit community to work. AND, because of that past interaction with Gail,  you’re familiar with her already. She’s a friend.
    Beyond that, Gail is a co-founder of WISDOM, a network of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women who work together on projects that help strengthen communities. Plus, Gail is deeply involved in the annual observance of the World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation, each January.

    Here’s what we asked Gail to write about: Many of you have emailed us, in recent months, encouraging the ReadTheSpirit project, sharing ideas and, along the way, many of you have said that you’d really like to meet people from other religious traditions — but you don’t know where to start.
    We asked Gail to write about  “One Woman’s Interfaith Journey” — and she did.

    CLICK on the link below to read her memoir and see photos of some of Gail’s colorful programs.
    (NOTE: That delightful photograph at the top of today’s story was taken last year at the main World Sabbath observance in Michigan. The photo shows the annual children’s procession that Gail organizes each year for the Sabbath. The smiles and energy of the children in that photograph are proof of the effectiveness of Gail’s vision. CLICK on the link below to read her full story …)

My Interfaith Journey by Gail Katz

s an interfaith activist, I’m often asked why I spend so much of my time and energy devoted to so many of these initiatives. So when David Crumm asked me to mull this over for ReadTheSpirit, I tried to trace the journey that I have traveled from the time I was a small girl growing up in a post-war secular Jewish family until the present.

I spent my early childhood and my elementary school years in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a rather non-Jewish neighborhood. I was one of a few Jewish children in my school. The memories that have stuck with me are ones of feeling different from my neighbors and my classmates. I started each morning bowing my head and saying the Lord’s prayer in my public school classrooms, and even in my sleep today I can recite “Our Father who art in Heaven hallowed be thy name …” But I knew deep inside me that this was really not my prayer. At Christmas time, we had Christmas plays and sang songs like “Silent Night,” “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.” Although I sang along, I knew that they were not my songs.

Every year I had to bring in my family menorah and explain the meaning of Chanukah, and for an extremely shy child, this was absolute torture — singled out in front of the class as different. I begged my mother to buy us Glass Wax, made by Gold Seal, so that my brother and I could participate in the traditions of my classmates and make snowflake stencils on the windows, since we were not allowed to put up a Christmas tree.

My Judaism mostly revolved around holidays. We would go to the synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and we had the family over for Passover and Chanukah. I had no idea about any of the other Jewish holidays, and when I was taken to our synagogue in Montgomery County, Maryland, my memories were again about feeling different and uncomfortable, because my family only sent my brother to Hebrew school to prepare for his bar-mitzvah. Girls were not expected in the 1950’s to get any real Jewish education.

As a child I felt conspicuous for not knowing how to read or recite the Hebrew prayers, and I would sit next to my father, playing with the tsitsit (the fringes) on his tallit (prayer shawl), waiting impatiently to go home. There was always this sense of anger inside me that I didn’t fit in at school or in my Jewish community.

At age 12 my father got a job with Ford Motor Company and we moved to Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit. In 1960 Oak Park had a sizable Jewish population, and my junior high school was about 85-percent Jewish. My junior high school years were difficult ones for me. I still felt different, even though I was now in classes with many Jewish students. I was a target for bullying as the new kid, the quiet kid and the “all-A” student. My sense of outrage at not being given respect for being different from the “cool” kids laid much of the foundation for my later passion for working with students in diversity clubs.

At the same time my mother’s father came from Far Rockaway, NY, to live with us. My Grandpa Aron was very religious, spoke mostly Yiddish, and reminisced with my mother about the old country. His world was the old Russia, which was taken over by Poland by the time my mother was born, and is today part of Belarus. I loved him dearly. Although we had a hard time communicating with words, we did just fine with kisses and embraces, and I have to admit that I picked up quite a bit of Yiddish along the way.

I learned from my grandfather about his world of Eastern European Jewry, his love for the Torah, his need to keep kosher, his davening (praying) and his Jewish custom of putting on Tefillin (Phylacteries) every morning in his bedroom. Our Passover seders became very traditional, and even today, we sing out my grandfather’s Eastern European Jewish prayers from the Haggadah (Passover prayer book) every year. I grew up with Holocaust stories, as my mother’s cousins, aunts and uncles perished in the concentration camps, and I knew that my mother was alive only because my grandfather had the foresight to get his family out of Poland in the late 1920’s.

My mother and father made their children keenly aware of “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) that Judaism commands of each of us. There were Russian Jewish immigrants at our Passover seders (dinners) every year. My mother and I marched together in Washington DC to highlight the urgency of bringing persecuted Jews from the former USSR to the United States. During my senior year in high school my family housed a foreign exchange student from Brazil and there was lots of conversation about civil rights causes and championing the rights of African Americans in the South.

Because of my grandfather’s and my mother’s immigrant family background, I was drawn toward a career of teaching English to immigrants. From the time I graduated college, I spent my time teaching English as a Second Language to adults, and then finally teaching children in the public school sector in the Berkley School District. I saw how these students felt ostracized because of their struggle with the English language, their different cultures and religions, and their different economic status. 

I formed a diversity club called STARS (Students Taking a Right Stand) to help address these problems, among others.  We addressed all of our differences, celebrated our diversity, and learned how to stand up and speak out against bullying. We ran Family Heritage Fairs, displayed Portraits of Holocaust survivors, sponsored No Name Calling Week and Mix-It-Up at Lunch Day, and put together an Ellis Island simulation for the entire school to highlight everyone’s cultural heritage.   

It was during my teaching career in the Berkley School District that I noticed an article in the Jewish News about a grant that the Jewish Community Relations Council received to sponsor a Religious Diversity Initiative. It didn’t take long for me to get on the committee, then chair the committee, and finally become the coordinator of the program entitled the Religious Diversity Journeys for Seventh Graders, which is now run by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. 2008 will be the fifth year of this wonderful program for seventh graders in six school districts in Oakland County just north of Detroit to promote greater understanding, awareness and knowledge concerning the many religions prevalent in metro Detroit and prepare students for life in our increasingly diverse society. 

In the program, 25 students from each of the six school districts participate in five school-day field trips between January and May to focus on the differences and similarities among some of the major religions found in our community, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. This year we plan to visit Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park to learn about Judaism, the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills to learn about Islam, the Bharatiya Temple in Troy to learn about Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, and the Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church in Southfield to learn about the Chaldean culture and some of the different denominations of Christianity.

How can I describe the pleasure that I get watching the faces of 150 seventh graders, their parents and their teachers, as we come together as a diverse learning community to interact with a rabbi, an imam, a priest, among other clergy to expand horizons of respect and understanding?

I was fortunate at this same time to participate in the World Views Seminar at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, which fed my passion for learning about the role of religion in American life and the diversity of religions in Metropolitan Detroit. Because of this academic interfaith experience, I was drawn to the annual World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation Service held each January at Christ Church Cranbrook, and once again I became the chairperson of the event. 

Originally, this interfaith event tended to focus on prayers for world peace, given by the clergy of different religious institutions in our community, but we have moved our focus toward youth –- children of the various faith traditions, leading the prayers for peace, entertaining us with dance and music, and creating peace banners to be woven into the Children of Peace Quilt to be displayed at various religious institutions in Metro Detroit in 2008.

Please plan to join us this year on January 27th, Sunday, at 4:00 PM at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills for a heightening of interfaith spirituality that will stay with you for a long time!!

In March of 2006 I met my spiritual soul mates: Trish, a Christian, and Shahina, a Muslim, at Brenda Rosenberg’s Reuniting the Children of Abraham event at Kirk in the Hills church, and my interfaith journey was strengthened. I became one of the co-founders of WISDOM –- Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit –- a non-profit group designed to give women opportunities to listen to each other, respect each other’s differences, and take action towards change. 

Our recently formed board of directors, made up of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Baha’i, Sikh and Hindu women, now work to provide community service projects to help repair the world, while offering a venue for dialogue among women of different faiths who don’t have that opportunity in their usual sheltered circles of friends and family.  Check out our website www.interfaithwisdom.org and sign up to get our newsletters!

In my own intellectual quest to learn about diverse religious beliefs, I have discovered a growing passion for awareness of my own religion, Judaism.

In my journey to encounter, respect and champion “the Other,” I have reconnected with that childhood yearning to know more about my own faith. I have come full circle, from the days of feeling “left out” as a youngster, to conquering that feeling by enrolling in a Torah study class and attending retreats that focus on the Jewish holidays. I am awed by the enrichment that my interfaith journey has afforded me within my own tradition.

There’s spiritual enrichment in simply moving out of your own religious comfort zone. Expanding your own world view and widening your religious horizons are blessings. 

I have strengthened my capacity to learn about the religions of others with an empathy and energy that build friendships. For all of us to celebrate Metro Detroit’s religious diversity serves to expand and intensify our knowledge about each other and to dispel myths, stereotypes, prejudices, and fear that predominate everywhere. 

When I think about a mosque in Dearborn and an Assyrian church in Warren that recently were defaced with disgusting graffiti, I can only wish those ignorant narrow-minded people who performed such acts of evil, could observe WISDOM women hugging each other with tears of compassion in their eyes as they champion their common efforts to make the world a better place. 

We can all help turn hostility into hospitality by reaching out to people of diverse religious faiths, visiting their holy places of worship, participating in their religious festivals, and bonding with each other as human beings with similar needs, wants, and emotions. I have truly been enriched by stepping outside my circle of Jewish family, Jewish friends, and synagogue life, in order to explore this diverse interfaith journey.

And so my journey continues.

Wherever you live as you are reading this, think about starting a journey of your own. Like me, you’re likely to find your own tradition enriched even as you reach out to explore the larger world with others.

PLEASE TELL US the story of your spiritual pilgrimage to this point in life. Even if you would prefer that we not share your comments directly in our ReadTheSpirit coverage, we’re always interested in hearing from readers. CLICK on the Comment link at the bottom of our online story to leave a Comment for all of our readers. Or, Click Here to email me, ReadTheSpirit Founding Editor David Crumm.

AND — THINK ABOUT FORMING a ReadTheSpirit discussion circle in the new year! Click Here to read our earlier “how-to-form-a-circle” story.

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