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A Jew and a Catholic Walk Into an Islam Class...

January 12, 2012

"A Jew and a Catholic walk into an Islam class..." This is the corny but true response my boyfriend Steve and I give when asked how we met. We became friends at Harvard Divinity School, developing a deep but platonic friendship based on a sarcastic sense of humor, staunch dedication to the proper use of punctuation, and a fascination with religion. We started dating when we realized the joy in finding a fellow nerd. Our mutual interests and student lifestyle let us keep it light but we both retained strong connections to our faiths.

Our differences became more pronounced after graduation. I became a "professional Jew," working at a Jewish nonprofit to engage post-college adults in the Jewish community. Steve became a "professional Catholic" when he began teaching theology at a Catholic high school.

Steve attends mass every weekend, and his faith is a large part of his life. And — crazy as it sounds for a Jew — I too now attend mass. He has no hope of my converting but we enjoy starting Sundays together. Steve's comparable act of love isn't attending synagogue, though he comes when I attend; instead he accompanies me as I celebrate Judaism through Shabbat dinners, Jewish lectures, and Passover seders.

With our immersion in each other's faiths and acknowledgement of deep differences, conflicts are inevitable. They range from silly, like our views on cursing — I'm convinced cursing is part of Jewish culture, but Steve dislikes my colorful language — to deeper issues like how our theologies inform our values. A weekly conflict happens at mass when it's time for communion. When I stay seated in the pew, I'm convinced everyone is staring at me like I have some glowing Star of David halo above my head. Steve assures me no one cares and points out others also sitting out communion, but I always feel uncomfortable.

After a while our conflicts happened more frequently. One Saturday we attended a Jewish holiday celebration, Simchat Torah, where Jews dance with a Torah scroll and sing in the streets. I was frustrated Steve wouldn't dance. "I go to mass every weekend; can't you just do this one Jewish thing with me?" I whined. He explained that it felt like a sacred celebratory experience (it was) and he wasn't comfortable participating. He compared it to my sitting out of communion, but I wouldn't listen. Instead of enjoying a fun night out, we spent it arguing about whether we're each supportive enough. It was clear we needed outside help.

This led us to the Union of Reform Judaism's class for interfaith couples called "Yours, Mine & Ours." Funding for the class, one of many, comes from Combined Jewish Philanthropies as part of a larger effort to expand interfaith programming in Greater Boston.

We took it in 2010 with 6 Jewish-Christian couples. It was an intense experience, running from 9-5 on Saturday and Sunday. Our teacher, Joyce, explained what the class was and wasn't: it wasn't group therapy and it wasn't a conversion class. Instead she emphasized genuine communication and compromise. She described the "gifts" we could give to our partners, referring to decisions we could make as interfaith couples and parents.

Joyce asked couples to share what we do for fun when we aren't talking about religion. Steve and I laughed, shared our joke about how we met, and sheepishly explained that our conversations regularly involve religion. The green and red elephant in the room — Christmas — surfaced often as a central conflict for many couples. Driving home after class, Steve explained that his concerns about our relationship didn't center on holidays. We lived our differences out every day at work in our faith communities. How should Steve reconcile having a Jewish partner with his dedication to helping his young students understand the importance of theology in their day to day lives, encouraging them to become honest and moral Catholic men? How should I respond to Jews I met through work who viewed my personal life as an indicator of my commitment to the Jewish community?

It's been two years since the class and I have seen how it greatly helped our communication. I now work at an interreligious center at Harvard where my relationship is an asset in my new role, proof I'm dedicated to the cause. Steve still teaches, and we're still sorting through what our relationship means for his work. Conflicts still emerge, but we're able to sidestep them more, keeping cool where before we may have become angry. We don't know how we'll reconcile these concerns, but for now I'm happy that I have a supportive partner who gets my nerdy jokes.

Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
Alexis Gewertz

Alexis Gewertz received her Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School and now works at the school's Center for the Study of World Religions as the Coordinator of Educational Programming. Despite having lived in Somerville for 5 years, she still considers the South Side of Chicago her hometown.

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