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  Road Signs

A 21st-Century Pilgrimage

By Rabbi Norman M. Cohen ’72

Rabbi Cohen '72

Passover is one of the Jewish people’s pilgrimage festivals, so named because, in the days when the ancient temple stood on Mount Moriah, Jews would travel from near and far to bring their sacrifices to the priests—who, in those days, were the overseers of the Jerusalem Temple cult.

Judaism has evolved since that time, and today, we no longer have a practicing priesthood, or centralized Temple—nor a sacrificial cult! Although those institutions are gone, we still have the basic human need to give thanks and to recall our history and what it teaches us about life in the contemporary world. This is why we have Passover Seders, when Jewish families gather around the dinner table, recounting the story of the Exodus as if it were the pilgrimage we ourselves made in the desert thousands of years ago. It was.

So I considered it my good fortune to make a different kind of pilgrimage this year, a 10-day chaplaincy residency at my alma mater on Mount Pakachoag, in response to the gracious invitation extended to me by Kim McElaney, director of the Office of the College Chaplains.

My visit, designed to involve me in the lives of Holy Cross students, faculty and administration in a variety of ways, actually made me so very aware of the many blessings that are mine personally because of my pilgrimage to Holy Cross in the fall of 1968 for the beginning of my undergraduate years on Mount St. James—blessings that are all of ours because we had the privilege of spending time learning the lessons that are part of the heart and soul of the College of the Holy Cross.

Some things at the College are still very much the same. When I first arrived on campus in September 1968, I drove up Linden Lane, awed by the natural beauty of the trees and flowers and the impressive, seemingly ancient spires of O’Kane and Fenwick. I found Beaven Hall, then a freshman dorm, and made my way to room 211, where from the window was a beautiful view of that treelined entrance to the campus.

Today, Beaven is a classroom and an office building. During my recent visit, I was scheduled to have lunch with Professor Suzanne Kirschner in the psychology department. As I walked down the winter wooden steps of the Dinand Library and headed around the corner to Beaven once again, it all seemed so familiar, as if no time had passed in four decades. The building looked the same, the classrooms occupying that first floor—which was not considered the first floor in the old days—and the old dorm rooms with their swinging doors on the three floors above. We always had to walk down the middle of the hallway so as not to be struck by a sudden opening of someone’s door. The doors are now more conventional, as is the numbering of the floors. The second level is no longer Beaven I. So, as I ascended the steps, I realized that the room I was headed for on the third floor of this building was actually on my old residence floor, Beaven II. Lo and behold, they had changed the numbers completely and, when I arrived at Professor Kirschner’s office, I recognized my old dorm room! Looking out the window in which I had lit Chanukah candles that first winter holiday away from home was an eerie but comforting experience. My dorm room is still a place where Jews dwell on the Holy Cross campus! In fact, the psychology department has nearly enough Jews—Professors Bitran, Freeman, Futterman, Weiss and Wolfson, in addition to Kirschner—to form a minyan, the group of 10 required for “official” worship.

I was the only Jewish student in 1968, and there were one or two Jewish professors. Today there are about half a dozen self-identifying Jewish students and nearly two-dozen Jewish professors and administrators. Two of the school’s class deans, Esther Levine and Mark Freeman, and the faculty spokesperson, Patricia Bizzell, are Jews. Holy Cross continues to strive for religious diversity, as it did in 1967 when a recruiter from the Admissions Office showed up at my high school in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. There was a deliberate attempt to diversify the College population that was made up primarily of Irish and Italian Catholics. This was similar to the efforts of Brandeis University to recruit non-Jews—the goal presumably to teach people about the “other” and how respect and dignity for God’s creation can be found in every human being.

During my recent chaplaincy visit, a prospective Jewish student and his family visited the campus. They met with Fr. Brooks in his office, talked to several of the Jewish students and the chaplains—and attended my lecture on Jewish and Christian misconceptions of the other. That Friday ended with a beautiful Shabbat dinner in Campion Hall, prepared by a senior headed off to the Culinary Institute in New York next fall. This family would not have had such a rich Jewish experience had they spent the day at Brandeis! They came with the understandable concerns of a Jewish family contemplating an immersion into this Jesuit environment, and they left excited about pursuing the application process. In addition to the myriad duties and responsibilities he has exercised throughout his tenure, Fr. Brooks has been an ambassador of outreach and welcome to so many people connected to the College who bring diversity.

As a Jew, there are some things that are potential stumbling blocks to feeling comfortable. Rooting for the “Crusaders,” while arguably only a mascot, conjures up images of the medieval warriors who not only led a quest for Christ, but spilled much infidel blood—Muslim and Jewish—along the way. The name of the school, Holy Cross, more than any other Catholic school—including Notre Dame, Loyola, Marquette, Georgetown and Boston College—is an instantaneous red flag to non-Catholics searching for a school of higher learning.

Yet, the atmosphere on campus, religious as it is, can be a catalyst for finding one’s own particular identity. That is surely what happened to me during my undergraduate years and continues to do so for the growing number of Jews who are part of the student body, faculty and administration today. At one of our Shabbat dinners, a friend of a Jewish student joined us. He was also a non-Catholic, a Protestant, and conveyed to us that he sometimes felt the “otherness” that he imagined we felt in such an environment.

I had meals and coffee breaks with Jewish professors who nonetheless expressed to me over and over how comfortable, how easy it has been to be Jewish here. They spoke of how they are supported and respected for who they are—even when that “otherness” defines them in different ways than the rest of the faculty and administration.

The Jewish students who have found their way to Holy Cross are wrestling with their identities in an environment that encourages us to be like Jacob who wrestled all night long with the angel. I know that I began that wrestling as a student here and continue that productive process today. My recent visit reinforced my presence in the ring for the next round.

During my recent stay, I had the privilege of residing in Ciampi Hall, among the Jesuits, two of whom—Jim Hayes and Ed Vodokolys—are classmates, and all of whom exemplified the character and style of Abraham and Sarah at their Biblical tent—practicing hachnasat orchim—the value of welcoming the strangers.

Holy Cross is blessed with a rector, Fr. Jim Hayes, who makes time for everybody, is passionate about human pain, is an empathetic pastor, and who, over the years, has reached out with love and support to all members of the Holy Cross community. Many of the Jewish professors shared with me the fact that they were touched by Jim at times of pain and loss.

I had the opportunity to visit a variety of classes. During one session on medical ethics, an end-of-life discussion, the professor, Fr. Bill Stempsey—a Jesuit with both a Ph.D. in philosophy and a medical degree—invited me to add a Rabbinic perspective on a critical issue on which Jews and Catholics both face very compelling arguments. While our tradition’s conclusions may differ, we share the very human struggle.

My very strong interest in the New Testament led me to a couple of class sessions with Fr. Bill Reiser, who thoughtfully taught about the historical Pharisees while teaching passages from Christian Scripture that—without his explanation and commentary—would suggest a more sinister role for the Jewish leaders in those days. The students left that day with an enlightened understanding of the bias of Biblical writers in a historical context that influenced the depiction of ancient adversaries in an exaggerated way.

At one Mass conducted in Ciampi among the priests, a reading from the Gospel according to John prompted Fr. Reiser to include in his personal comments his mixed feelings about these texts. Some of his colleagues there agreed. It was moving and inspiring. The texts are what they are. We can’t change them. Yet, how we share them with others and what we say to put them into context make all the difference in how we see and treat each other today, 2000 years later. The growth of respect and mutual acknowledgment of the “other’s” covenant with the same God that we worship has progressed more since Pope John XXIII than in the nearly two millennia before his bold actions that opened up so many doors of dialogue.

In Ciampi, we talked about many things over meals and in late afternoon discussions: Interfaith relations; the state of Israel and the Arab world; the Holocaust and the role of the church in general and the Jesuits specifically; the meaning of our holidays; and the role of the priest, rabbi and minister in people’s lives. The interchanges were open and honest in a very comfortable setting. We talked about our aging parents and the universal human condition, no matter what our religious faith.

My visit was an opportunity to bring other rabbis to campus for visits and to create connections that will serve as resources for the campus in the months and years ahead. Besides three of the local rabbis, my good friends Seth Bernstein, Paula Feldstein and Jordan Milstein, another good friend and mentee, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, who directs the Genesis program at Brandeis University, and Tamar Grimm, a former congregant who grew up at our Temple in Minnesota and is now a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Brookline, all made their way to campus. My hope is that our Chaplains Office will call upon them for programs and resources.

For me, a highlight of my pilgrimage was the kind invitation from Bill Shea, the director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture, to deliver a public lecture—my third in six years at my alma mater—about stereotypes and misconceptions, many of them theological, stemming from ancient misunderstandings and polemics, the residuals of which remain as stumbling blocks to healthy interfaith dialogue and respect.
The lecture came at the end of a weeklong pilgrimage to an important font of my learning and growth in my own personal development. Here I witnessed some significant events, small they may seem but quite profound and important in personal interaction. These are remarkable incidents. These are the best things that a liberal arts education in a Jesuit environment can offer toward repairing the world, by beginning to recognize the humanity of the “other.”

In that talk, I spent a good deal of time exploring the matching misconceptions and erroneous images that Christians and Jews have of each other—and, indeed, we all have a long way to go. But it is reassuring and a source of personal pride to know that at our alma mater these acts of repair, what we Jews call tikkun olam, are taking place. I see a generation of the finest students in the country are being nurtured and taught that it is our personal responsibility to seek out the “other” and find ways of establishing pilgrimages that we can walk together—even as our own particular paths are different, as they need to be, in a world in which God has created among other things, diversity.

Passover is commemorated today, not by offering sacrifices in the Holy Temple after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That Temple no longer exists. For the last two thousand years we have been commemorating Passover with a Seder meal in our homes, the conclusion of which is to say to each other, “Next Year in Jerusalem”—a wish that someday soon the world will be like Yerushalayim, the idealized city of Peace.

I was proud to be a student here nearly four decades ago. I am even prouder to return as an alumnus who shares many of this place’s goals and values. The College is doing its job!


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